49ers following more patient approach
No, the tremor that reverberated through the Bay Area last weekend wasn't "The Big One," although rabid San Francisco 49ers fans might suggest otherwise.
But the groin injury sustained by new starting quarterback Tim Rattay, and subsequent surgery that will sideline the three-year veteran for three or four months and threaten his availability for the regular-season opener, clearly was a rumble with ominous resonance.
After all, the 49ers are coming off a 7-9 season, and a third-place divisional finish. The team jettisoned three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia over money issues. Tailback Garrison Hearst, for years the conscience of the locker room, was dumped. Both of the coordinators from 2003 departed. There have been no free agency acquisitions of note and, as usual, you can't slip even a piece of parchment between the 49ers' current salary cap status and the league ceiling for spending.
And amid all the babble, what personnel response has been enacted by general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson? Uh, absolutely none, zip, zero. No sense of urgency. No panicked phone calls to agents of the aforementioned veteran quarterbacks. No invitations for open casting calls. No visits planned. No nothing.
To which we say: Good move. Or, more accurately, good non-movement on the part of the 49ers' new football brain trust, which, at least for now, has enthusiastically espoused the concept of total inertia.
Nope, we're not buying into all the blue-sky babble about Rattay being fully recovered for the opener. Heck, there isn't a man worth his testosterone who can even discuss the kind of severe groin injury Rattay suffered without crossing his legs and clenching his teeth. It is, to be sure (and, more important, to be less than graphic), a tear right through the heart of the 49ers' rebuilding plans. Nor do we buy into the considerable happy talk suggesting that Ken Dorsey, a seventh-round afterthought only a year ago, has suddenly morphed into the second coming of Joe Montana. Heck, we're not even sure the money the 49ers spent this offseason to re-up enigmatic tailback Kevan Barlow was a sage investment.
But the cap-strapped and talent-challenged 49ers went into this offseason embracing a new blueprint. Donahue and Erickson were ready to swallow hard then, to take some hits that would eventually enable San Francisco to emerge from years of fiscal irresponsibility and dubious management decisions, and the injury to Rattay shouldn't budge their tonsils.
Time may demonstrate that Rattay, who compiled a 2-1 record as a starter in 2003, is not the answer. But to import a high-profile veteran at this point, especially when you would only be bidding against yourself for the services of some, would only raise questions about Rattay's viability. The likelihood is, even under the direst scenario, that Rattay will return sometime in the first month of the season. Bring in a veteran, have him play well for a month, and all it does is muddy the waters. And throw a roadblock in front of Rattay's ascent to the top of the depth chart.
With the condition of the San Francisco offensive line, Rattay is apt to be playing with his head on a swivel, once he does return. No sense inviting whiplash by having him attempt to perform while looking over his shoulder at someone like Collins or Warner or Couch to come off the bench and rescue him. The more appropriate move, should San Francisco officials decide they need a quarterback to get them through Rattay's absence, would be to sign a less-threatening veteran, like Damon Huard or Shane Matthews. As of Friday morning, though, the team hadn't even contacted players of that ilk.
There is no guarantee, of course, that Rattay will prove starter-worthy. Nor is it a given that the 49ers' grand scheme -- to finally escape the salary cap penitentiary in which they have been detainees for too many years, largely by building through the draft (translation: with cheaper, cost-fixed players) -- will succeed. But in this era, you still can't purchase a Vince Lombardi Trophy at the unrestricted free agency pawnshop, and the draft remains the best opportunity for long-term respectability.
Bill Walsh is gone. There is nary a trace of his influence, other than perhaps a partial print, left behind on the training manual he authored for Donahue that educated the new general manager on how to trade back in the draft and stockpile extra picks. For the first time since Walsh arrived as head coach in 1979, the 49ers will operate out of something other than the West Coast offense. The defense, also a source of continuity, will tinker with a 3-4 look on occasion. Personnel guru John McVay, a brilliant behind-the-scenes architect for many years, is out the door, too.
And so, while it might require a step in reverse before San Francisco moves forward once again, the new blueprint deserves a chance. If the times are a-changin' in the Bay Area, well, it might be about time for some revisions, at least if the 49ers franchise is to achieve a dose of lasting health, cap-wise and in other ways.
Consider this: By our unofficial count, the 49ers are currently burdened by $25.3 million in so-called "dead money" -- cap room allocated to players no longer on the roster. That means more than 30 percent of the San Francisco salary cap for 2004 is frittered away to former employees. The departed Garcia is costing San Francisco $10.339 million, among the NFL's highest cap charges. By comparison, the Cleveland Browns, his new team, has a cap charge of only $1.78 million.
There are five other former 49ers players costing the team more than $2 million each in '04 cap charges: wide receiver Terrell Owens ($4.8 million), defensive tackle Junior Bryant ($2.3 million), wide receiver J.J. Stokes ($2.27 million), offensive tackle Derrick Deese ($2.13 million) and Hearst ($2 million).
Little wonder the 49ers are hamstrung, with less than $900,000 in current cap room, and unable to add contributing veterans. The only way out of the mess is to use younger and cheaper players, and Donahue's plan is to bring in 20 new faces through the 2004 and the 2005 drafts. This year appears to represent a good start. The San Francisco draft class, on balance, looks like one of those bounties that will appear even better the more removed from it you get. No one should be surprised if nine of the 10 prospects make the roster. A similar haul next year and the 49ers will be cap friendly, significantly greener, and on a far more solid foundation.
To alter course now, to jump on the panic button in the face of Rattay's injury, would be to concede the long-term plan is flawed. Only a few months into enacting the blueprint, it would be both foolish and hasty to acknowledge some misjudgments, especially since the injury to Rattay was such a freak occurrence. Make a rash move now and all it does is validate the naysayers who have predicted such a bleak future for the 49ers.
Down the road a month or so, once team doctors have had ample time to re-evaluate and assess the condition of Rattay's surgically repaired torn groin, there will still be a veteran quarterback or two holding a tin cup. If the pace of Rattay's recovery at that point dictates a roster move, so be it.
For now, San Francisco's brass is much better served treating last weekend's setback as a temblor, and not a cataclysmic event that transforms Nevada into oceanfront property.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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