He will express some or all of the following emotions: shock,
sympathy, outrage. But upon learning that a teammate has been
cut, what an NFL player really thinks is, Better him than me. If
you are an undrafted, overachieving survivor and the guy who
just got the ax is a former high draft pick who happened to play
your position, you might feel a quick blast of vindication as
"They cut Russell?" The news, delivered to San Francisco 49ers
running back Derek Loville as he walked off the practice field
one day last week, caught the man known as D-Love by surprise.
It was true: Russell White, the pudgy, former Cal tailback and
1993 third-round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams, who
reported to camp looking like the Nutty Professor, had been
waived that morning. "I didn't know," said Loville, searching
for, but not quite finding, an appropriately mournful tone. "No
one told me."
It was a measure of the Niners' desperation to find backfield
help that the rotund White, who had been signed on July 26,
stuck on the roster for as long as he did. Don't be surprised if
San Francisco president Carmen Policy puts out an all-points
bulletin for Roger Craig. To decrease the predictability of its
offense and increase the life expectancy of its All-Pro
quarterback, Steve Young, the 49ers' brain trust went into this
off-season with an urgent mission: to revive a running game that
by the end of 1995 had been given up for dead. That the Niners
will go into 1996 with Loville as their top running threat is
testament that their mission remains unaccomplished. With
fullback William Floyd out until at least midseason with a
severe knee injury and free-agent pickup Johnny Johnson on the
shelf with a bad back, D-Love, by default, is San Francisco's
featured back for a second straight season.
By default is also how these 49ers have been thrust into the
role of Super Bowl favorites in the eyes of many observers. With
last year's NFL champs--those lap-dance aficionados from the
Lone Star State--reeling from a series of self-inflicted wounds,
the Niners appear to be as good a bet as any other team to
represent the NFC next January in New Orleans.
Whether Jeff Wilkins will be San Francisco's kicker next January
faded into the realm of uncertainty last Saturday night in
wind-whipped 3Com Park. Before booting the 43-yard field goal
that gave the 49ers a 16-13 preseason overtime win over the San
Diego Chargers, Wilkins could not have kicked the ball into the
ocean from the end of a pier. He flubbed three field goal tries,
from 33, 27 and 33 yards, and, with no time left in regulation,
botched an extra point attempt that would have put a merciful
end to this ragged exhibition.
When Wilkins, at long last, converted a field goal as overtime
expired, his teammates surged to congratulate him. Well, most of
them. Johnson, who eats many of his meals at the 49ers' Rocklin,
Calif., training camp in solitude, made a beeline for the locker
room. "This is a real bad time for me," he said, brushing off a
reporter. On his way out of the stadium, the sculpted, enigmatic
loner again declined to answer questions, saying, "Not now."
But Johnny, if not now, when? You didn't suit up against the
Chargers and hadn't even practiced since July 18. If your back
doesn't heal in a hurry, the Niners are likely to cut their
losses by cutting you, thus saving $500,000 against the salary
cap. After Saturday's game, Policy sounded like a man whose
patience was ebbing. "If Johnny's not going to be able to play
by the early part of the season," he said, "we've got to
consider other options."
The 49ers' backfield headaches are a hangover from March 1995,
when the club decided not to match a three-year, $6.9 million
offer sheet the Philadelphia Eagles had tendered to Ricky
Watters. It was a defensible decision. Watters, though
tremendously talented, was a me guy and a locker room
distraction. But it was a decision that began the demise of the
Niners' rushing attack, which reached its nadir last January in
San Francisco's 27-17 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Young's numbers--an NFL-postseason record 65 passes attempted
and a team-leading 77 yards rushing--underlined the sorry state
of the 49ers' ground game.
Suffice it to say that the debacle against the Packers was not
first-year offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's finest hour.
Two weeks later, former 49ers coach Bill Walsh rejoined the
Niners as a so-called administrative assistant to the coaching
staff. The Genius's return traumatized the staff--Trestman
offered Policy his resignation; Policy told him to "have faith
in the organization"--and had about it a whiff of desperation.
Although it is too early to judge the success of this unorthodox
arrangement, it has created some strain. Recently one assistant
rolled his eyes when Walsh nearly tripped over himself getting
to an NFL Films crew that was arriving at a practice.
San Francisco's front office didn't cover itself in glory in its
off-season pursuit of free agents. It struck out with its offer
sheet to Rodney Hampton, underestimating the New York Giants'
determination to retain him. In search of an
elephant--Niners-speak for a pass-rushing end--the 49ers wooed
the Chargers' Leslie O'Neal. When O'Neal's price tag proved too
high, San Francisco backed off, figuring his price would
eventually drop. It didn't. O'Neal signed with the NFC West
rival St. Louis Rams.
For their elephant, the Niners settled on Chris Doleman, who had
nine sacks last season for the Atlanta Falcons and is having a
terrific preseason. But let's check back on Doleman in December.
He turns 35 on Oct. 16, and he faded badly down the stretch last
season, collecting a meager 2 1/2 sacks in his last 11 games.
None of the Niners' free-agent signings was a bigger gamble than
that of Johnson, whose history of erratic behavior dates to his
days at San Jose State, where he was thrown off the team during
his senior season. After the New York Jets released him a year
ago, Johnson sat out the 1995 season. Twice last fall the 49ers
invited him to work out--Johnson lives in Santa Cruz, 30 miles
from the team's Santa Clara complex--and twice he declined,
prompting Policy to speculate that Johnson had lost his desire
Similar talk can be heard these days in Rocklin, where Johnson
has practiced exactly once. After passing a physical and
participating in a June minicamp, he went through one 90-minute
noncontact practice and has been sidelined since.
Floyd is running, even if it isn't out of the 49ers' backfield.
He's running between cones and dummies. He's running in the pool
at Rocklin's Sierra College. He's running while attached to a
kind of elastic rope that is tied, alternately, to a goalpost
and to Jerry Attaway, the team's resident rehab sadist. While
Johnson was getting ultrasound last Thursday, Floyd was on a far
field, dragging Attaway around on what Floyd calls "the leash."
Remarkably, Floyd is expected to be practicing within the month.
If his projection of a midseason comeback is on target, he will
return to action on Oct. 27--364 days after a freak collision
with tackle Steve Wallace dislocated Floyd's right knee and
sheared all three of its ligaments. An exciting, high-stepping
runner, Floyd is also among the NFL's best blocking backs and
pass-receiving fullbacks. At the time of his injury, he was on a
pace to catch 94 balls. Says Trestman, "He was redefining the
Loville is remarkable less for his talent than for his
resilience. A free agent from Oregon who played two seasons for
the Seattle Seahawks but was out of football in 1992 and '93, he
is quick to point out that "nothing has ever been given to me in
this league." He is neither exceptionally big, at 205 pounds,
nor fast nor elusive, but he remains the 49ers' workhorse by
virtue of his ability to stay healthy. Which is not to say he is
not slightly chipped: D-Love carries a chip on each shoulder. He
is tired of hearing he didn't get the job done in '95. As coach
George Seifert points out, "There were times when we didn't give
Derek much help."
Indeed, Floyd went down in the eighth game and was never
adequately replaced. His injury was the major spur behind
Policy's off-season signing of fullback Tommy Vardell, a former
Stanford star who scored four TDs in an upset of Notre Dame and
carried the nickname Touchdown Tommy when he was selected in the
first round of the 1992 draft by the Cleveland Browns. In his
four years with the Browns, Touchdown Tommy rushed for three TDs.
Meanwhile, 49ers offensive linemen last year dropped like
Netscape stock. The result: When he got the ball, Loville saw
about as much daylight as Lestat. Still, he rushed for 723 yards
and caught 87 passes. The Niners thanked Loville by intensively
wooing Hampton and then Johnson. "Sure it pisses you off," says
Loville. "It's just human nature to feel a sense of rejection."
Loville and Trestman, his frequent commiserating partner, have
formed a kind of Underappreciated Club. "We sit around and tell
each other, 'Hey, don't worry about it,'" says Loville. "Come
the end of the season, we can sit back, have a cigar and tell
everybody how wrong they were."
Will the Niners be lighting up fat victory stogies in the Big
Easy? To some extent that depends on how quickly Johnson heals.
To a far greater extent it depends on whether William Floyd
feels like the William Floyd of old when he unleashes himself
upon the league.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Fifth-year fullback Vardell ran for 40 yards last Saturday but again was not Touchdown Tommy. [San Diego Chargers players tackling Tommy Vardell]
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The sight of the Chargers tripping up the indispensable Young was a far too familiar one for the 49ers. [San Diego Chargers player tackling Steve Young]