Losses leave 49ers inexperienced on offense

Terrell Owens' departure has reduced the noise at 49ers camp, but also has the franchise lacking star appeal.

Updated: August 13, 2004, 2:46 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Welcome to Camp Calm. The code word here is "Quiet." Despite the hitting and pounding heard from the 49ers practice field, observers don't hear the voices of the past.

The 49ers complex is located a huge parking lot away from Great America Theme Park where every few minutes you can hear the faint screams of rollercoaster riders. Over the past couple of years, the screams from the practice field would drown the park yells. Gone is Terrell Owens, who became the wildest rollercoaster ride in the NFL for his coaches and teammates.

The 49ers have taken a T.O. (timeout) from T.O. The 49ers have had a camp without controversy. There have been no practice fights since camp opened. Management and players alike chuckle at controversies coming out of Philadelphia involving Owens' interview with Playboy and quotes about Jeff Garcia.

Kevan Barlow
RB Kevan Barlow is the most proven skill player on the 49ers offense.
"That is what's so positive," wide receiver Brandon Lloyd said. "We can finally play football now. We can finally be a team. That's how you win in the NFL. You play as a team."

Owens' trade to Philadelphia -- after a deal to Baltimore was rescinded -- and Garcia's release that eventually led to his signing in Cleveland opened a new era for the 49ers. Since the early 1980s, there has always been a touch of Hollywood involving this franchise. Bill Walsh turned the 49ers into a glamour franchise. Players such as Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice and Steve Young added to the star system.

Almost overnight, the 49ers have become the league's most anonymous team. Salary cap problems forced out many of the top, aging stars and virtually all of their name players. Throughout camp, several Bay Area columnists have written about how unrecognizable this group of 49ers is. Quickly, name three or four 49ers who would be recognized in public settings.

Subsequently, the environment is conducive to getting a lot of work down. Dennis Erickson works this young group of 49ers hard. Practices aren't ridiculously long, but they are efficient. What's long is the injury list, which at one point swelled to 19 players unable to practice. Though no injury is considered long term, the 49ers have the bumps and bruises evident from a pretty tough training camp.

And the sounds of practices are so different without Owens.

"It's a little bit quieter," cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "You don't hear that boisterous voice."

On the flip side, missing is that imposing presence. Owens was a big, physical receiver who took the hits and made the catches. Replacing him won't be easy. But replacing Jerry Rice wasn't easy either. Owens didn't make 49ers fans forget about Rice, but he kept the receiving corps at a playoff level.

General manager Terry Donahue exhausted a four-year run since the last salary cap purge. During that time, the 49ers drafted well on defense and stayed toward the top of the offensive categories thanks to Garcia, Owens, Garrison Hearst and others.

Those days are over. The 49ers are in a two-year period of cap recovery. They invested heavily on young players -- halfback Kevan Barlow and cornerback Plummer. They want to get a long-term deal with linebacker Julian Peterson, but he's holding out with demands for $30 million in signing bonus money. His agents say he's the quarterback of the defense and needs to be paid like a quarterback.

The cap situation barely allowed them to scrape by with the young quarterbacks they have. Tim Rattay, despite a spring littered with injuries, will enter the season as the starter. Ken Dorsey, almost 40 pounds heavier than his days at the University of Miami, will be the backup.

The interesting slant to the 49ers preseason opener against Oakland is the Raiders have two quarterbacks who started Super Bowl games. The 49ers have two quarterbacks with three combined starts.

Rattay won't play against the Raiders because he's nursing some tendinitis problems in his right forearm. He made an incredibly fast recovery from groin surgery this spring. Rattay healed so quickly he was available for seven-on-seven drills during the first day of camp.

His forearm started aching after a couple of practices and he had to shut it down for more than a week because the pain worsened. Rattay thinks he might have made some adjustment in his throwing motion because of the groin injury that might have caused a problem.

Though Erickson is concerned about the missed time, he's not going back on the plans to start him in the opener. The original plan was for Rattay to skip the first preseason game and be ready for next week's game against the Bears. That schedule is still a go.

"The arm has been bothering him, but he threw some Thursday," Erickson said. "He'll be ready to go. In the meantime, we get to see more of Ken Dorsey. He's got some intangibles. His arm is stronger. He's tall. He really does make some great decisions throwing the ball."

The theme in San Francisco is "We're better than you think." Those are the players' opinions.

"This is a very disciplined group," Rattay said. "If the route is supposed to be run 15 yards, they run it at 15. There is not a lot of guessing. I'm excited."

Of course, it was the unpredictability that made the outgoing group of 49ers so successful. Garcia did his best work scrambling out of the pocket. Owens made more amazing catches than occasional drops and remained one of the most dangerous receivers in football.

The first of the young receivers to look as though he's ready to break out is Lloyd. He's skinny, but has put on weight since last year. He added 10 pounds of muscle to his frame and checked into camp at 195 pounds. Lloyd plays split end, but he has the speed and athletic ability to be the big-play threat.

"I drank a lot of protein shakes and worked out a lot," Lloyd said. "I think we have a lot of upside in this offense. We have capable receivers. We have a tight end in Eric Johnson, who is back after missing the year with injuries. We have a Pro Bowl fullback (Fred Beasley). We have a 1,000-yard rusher (Kevan Barlow). Our potential is there."

That is what's so positive. We can finally play football now. We can finally be a team. That's how you win in the NFL. You play as a team.
WR Brandon Lloyd

It will take the whole season to sort out the receiver position. Lloyd is the only given. At some point, Woods will press Cedrick Wilson for playing time at the flanker position and eventually take over as a starter. Curtis Conway was signed for veteran stability as the third receiver. Then there's an interesting prospect in third-round choice Derrick Hamilton. In all, the 49ers are expected to keep six receivers on the roster.

To make it easier for the young quarterbacks, the 49ers plan to let Barlow carry the offense on the ground. Barlow had 1,024 yards even though he didn't get his only four starts of the season until December. His style is powerful, much like Fred Taylor in Jacksonville. He lost 10 pounds to help his quickness, but checked in at a sturdy 230 pounds.

"I'm ready to light it up," Barlow said. "They had a lot of confidence in me this year by giving me the big contract. That's what I've been looking for. Now, I've got to deliver."

Retired 49ers halfback Roger Craig, the team's all-time leading rusher, stopped by the facility a week ago and said Barlow would eventually end up as the franchise's leading rusher.

"Coming from a guy in that stature is flattering," Barlow said. "He's the guy who set the standard here. My goal is to get 1,500 yards."

The 49ers won seven games last year with Garcia, Owens and company. They fought through controversy and adversity. The big names are gone. The setting is quiet. What this anonymous group has to prove is whether they are better than people expect.

Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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