It was by all accounts one of the most unusual sights of the
49ers' training camp. During an afternoon workout, new coach
Steve Mariucci had his quarterbacks take snaps, drop into the
pocket and then practice running for their lives. With Mariucci
providing the defensive pressure, the players rehearsed, one by
one, sprinting for the safety of the sidelines or simply
throwing the ball away. Once, as he closed in on starter Steve
Young, Mariucci hollered for him to get rid of the ball, and
when Young obliged, the coach clapped his hands
enthusiastically. "There," Mariucci shouted, "now we've got you
for another week."
While the drill was designed to help all the quarterbacks, it
was largely meant for Young--who in July became the league's
highest-paid player ($45 million over six years). He must remain
healthy if San Francisco is to return to the Super Bowl for the
first time since '94.
That has proved to be much easier said than done. Since the
35-year-old Young was named MVP of the NFL and the Super Bowl
three years ago, he has missed all or parts of 18 games. During
that time the 49ers lost their stranglehold on the NFC West, a
division they had won nine of the past 10 years heading into
'96. The upstart Panthers have not only beaten the 49ers in
three of the team's first four meetings, but they also won the
division last season. Meanwhile, Young endured his most trying
year as a starter in San Francisco, sustaining two concussions
as well as injuries to his ribs and groin. Consequently, Jerry
Rice averaged a career-low 11.6 yards per catch. "We can't get
done what we need to get done on this team without Steve Young,"
says 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr.
That being the case, the club would have been wise to take some
of the money it gave Young (not to mention some of the $24
million that went to extend defensive tackle Bryant Young's
contract) and use it to upgrade a line that was shaky at best in
'96. In language that the real estate tycoon DeBartolo would
understand, San Francisco purchased a $45 million home and is
protecting it with a toy poodle.
Left tackle Harris Barton, who sat out three games last year,
will miss the first four to six weeks of this season with a
sprained left knee. He'll be replaced by third-year veteran Tim
Hanshaw, who was released twice by the 49ers last year and whose
NFL experience amounts to one kneel-down play at the end of a
game last season. The right tackle will be Kirk Scrafford, who
was limited to one start last year because of a foot injury.
Twelve-year veteran Ray Brown returns at left guard, and San
Francisco signed free agent Kevin Gogan, 32, formerly of the
Raiders, to play right guard. Center Chris Dalman will miss at
least the first three weeks after spraining his left knee. To
replace him the team re-signed Jesse Sapolu, a 15-year veteran
who had surgery to repair a valve in his heart in the off-season
and was released by the club in February.
"The line truly is key to the team," says Young, who not
surprisingly is being encouraged to take more three- and
five-step drops. "I was hoping the line would be a real cohesive
group, and now we're having to fill holes because of injuries."
Lacking a marquee back since the departure of Ricky Watters
after the '94 season, San Francisco signed free agent Garrison
Hearst, who ran for 847 yards last year with the Bengals. "This
may be sacrilegious, but Hearst may be the best back we've ever
had here," says offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick, who has
been with the team since '79.
That's good news for Young, who could use a little help.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Young, who turns 36 in October, had better run for cover more often if he wants to stay healthy enough to take the 49ers back to the Super Bowl. [Steve Young and others in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
1996 Record: 12-4 (second in NFC West)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 115.4 (10) 228.7 (7) 344.1 (6)
DEFENSE 93.6 (5) 197.8 (11) 291.3 (7)
The Ones Who Got Away
Five 49ers made it to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl in February. But
San Francisco had more former players selected to last season's
all-star game (six) than any other team. (Miami and Philadelphia
were second, with four apiece.) That is not so much an
indictment of the 49ers' front office as it is evidence of how
difficult free agency and the salary cap have made it for teams
to retain star players.
Former 49ers Selected to the 1997 Pro Bowl
Player Position Year(s) Mode of departure 1996 team
Eric Davis CB 1990-95 Free agency (unrestricted) Panthers
Bill Romanowski LB 1988-93 Trade Broncos
Deion Sanders CB 1994 Free agency (unrestricted) Cowboys
Wesley Walls TE 1989-93 Free agency (unrestricted) Panthers
Ricky Watters RB 1991-94 Free agency (restricted) Eagles
Alfred Williams DE 1995 Free agency (unrestricted) Broncos
The first eight games are against teams that were a combined
42-86 in 1996. The only winning team that San Francisco faces in
that span is Carolina, in a Monday-nighter on Sept. 29 in
Charlotte. If the 49ers can beat the Panthers for the first time
in four meetings, they could be undefeated when they host the
Cowboys on Nov. 2.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
NFL rank: 28 (tie) Opponents' 1996 winning percentage: .469
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Lineup With 1996 Statistics
Coach: Steve Mariucci
QB Steve Young 16 att. 214 comp. 67.7% 2,410 yds.
14 TDs 6 int. 97.2 rtg.
RB Garrison Hearst[*] 225 att. 847 yds. 3.8 avg. 12 rec.
131 yds. 10.9 avg. 1 TD
FB William Floyd 47 att. 186 yds. 4.0 avg. 26 rec.
197 yds. 7.6 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Jerry Rice 108 rec. 1,254 yds. 9 TDs
WR Terrell Owens 35 rec. 520 yds. 4 TDs
WR J.J. Stokes 18 rec. 249 yds. 0 TDs
TE Brent Jones 33 rec. 428 yds. 1 TD
PK Gary Anderson[*] 40/40 PATs 25/29 FGs 115 pts.
KR Iheanyi Uwaezuoke 1 ret. 21.0 avg. 0 TDs
PR Iheanyi Uwaezuoke 0 ret. 0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Harris Barton 6'4" 286 lbs. 13 game 13 starts
LG Ray Brown 6'5" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Chris Dalman 6'3" 285 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Kevin Gogan[*] 6'7" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Kirk Scrafford 6'6" 275 lbs. 6 games 1 start
LE Roy Barker 32 tackles 12 1/2 sacks
LT Bryant Young 76 tackles 11 1/2 sacks
RT Dana Stubblefield 33 tackles 1 sack
RE Chris Doleman 53 tackles 11 sacks
OLB Lee Woodall 55 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
MLB Ken Norton 127 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Kevin Mitchell 16 tackles 0 int.
CB Rod Woodson[*] 67 tackles 6 int.
SS Tim McDonald 98 tackles 2 int.
FS Merton Hanks 63 tackles 4 int.
CB Marquez Pope 67 tackles 6 int.
P Tommy Thompson 73 punts 44.1 avg.
[*] New acquisition