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Inside The NFL


The 49ers may have solved their problems at offensive tackle

Two weeks before the 49ers open one of the final seasons of the
Steve Young-Jerry Rice era, you would think San Francisco would
be kicking itself for not having devoted enough high draft picks
or free-agent money to shore up an aging and depleted offensive
line. You would think the Niners would be fatally flawed after
failing to plan for the retirement of their most reliable
blocker, right tackle Kirk Scrafford, and adding head-case
tackle Jamie Brown, in a trade with the Broncos.

But what happened in the Niners' first three preseason games,
particularly in Vancouver last Saturday night, showed that San
Francisco's line may be in fine shape after all. In bolting to a
21-0 second-quarter lead over the Seahawks, the 49ers got
flawless play from the lowest-paid pair of starting tackles in
the NFL, Dave Fiore (1998 salary: $204,000) and Derrick Deese
($360,000), against a Seattle front seven featuring five players
who have multimilllion-dollar contracts. In particular Fiore,
who has never started a regular-season NFL game, played
superbly. On four series encompassing 14 pass plays, the man
Fiore was responsible for blocking--variously, linemen Cortez
Kennedy and Phillip Daniels and linebackers Chad Brown and
Darrin Smith--never got a sniff of Young or backup quarterback
Ty Detmer. The Niners are getting used to this. In their
preseason opener Fiore never allowed Willie McGinest, the
Patriots' $5 million-a-year pass rusher, to get a hand on the
quarterback. Ditto for the Chargers' $3.3 million man, Marco
Coleman, in week two. Fiore appears to have quick enough feet
and the arm strength to be a competent, if not outstanding,

The 36-year-old Young hasn't been thrilled about San Francisco's
neglect of the line in recent years. Now, with premier outside
pass rushers like the Redskins' Ken Harvey and the Bills' Bruce
Smith lining up against the Niners in the first five weeks of
the season, Young must rely on a pair of tackles who were free
agents coming out of college. Still, he's starting to believe in
the Fiore-Deese tandem. "I'm not a Pollyanna about it," Young
said after the 24-21 win over Seattle. "I'm a little concerned
about the experience factor. But in football not enough is made
of playing with passion. These are two guys who love playing,
and I don't know how many guys in this league you can say that
about. We're going to win with these guys."

After Scrafford retired in April because of a neck injury, the
Niners dealt a second-round 1999 draft pick for Brown. In three
seasons he had played unspectacularly in Denver under relentless
line coach Alex Gibbs, but no one has taken on that babysitting
role with the 49ers. Longtime line coach Bobb McKittrick
believes it is the players' responsibility to get motivated.
Brown was slowed by a hamstring injury early in camp, and he was
ostracized by teammates when he didn't attend the exhibition
opener against the Patriots. In an unusual move the Niners then
excused Brown from camp so he could rest the hamstring and
soothe his fragile psyche. Brown was expected to return to the
team this week in a reserve role.

Enter Fiore. Recommended to San Francisco as a rookie free agent
in 1996 by New Jersey workout buddy and former Niner Jim Burt
after a nondescript career as a nonscholarship player at
Hofstra, Fiore spent the first half of his rookie season with
the Niners before being released and picked up by the Jets. He
hurt his left knee during training camp in '97, reached an
injury settlement with the Jets and after re-signing with the
Niners, spent the season on injured reserve. He entered camp
this year as a 288-pound insurance policy.

However, winning the starting left-tackle job this summer
wouldn't be the biggest upset of Fiore's career. Just getting to
the NFL was. A high school quarterback and tight end from
Waldwick, N.J., Fiore worked his way through Hofstra; he played
football as a sideline. "I worked security at a bar," he says.
"I was a bartender. I was an R.A. [resident assistant] in a
dorm. I took out loans that I'm still paying back."

No wonder Fiore plays every snap as if it's his last. On pass
plays, after the ball is out of the quarterback's hand, he
sprints upfield like a Frisbee dog, looking for someone to
block. On Saturday night, he tangled with Brown, the prize of
the 1997 free-agent crop. "What a great player," Fiore said of
Brown. "Lightning quick. But those are the guys I have to stop.
I just have to."

To the surprise of everyone but himself, Fiore is doing just
that. "The only expectations I've exceeded are everyone else's,"
Fiore says. Welcome, perhaps, to the underdog story of 1998.

Denver's Defense

When coach Mike Shanahan considered what would put the Broncos
in position to repeat as Super Bowl champions, he thought three
things were vital: keeping his coaching staff intact, improving
his players' work ethic and getting John Elway back.

For the first time since 1990, a defending NFL champ didn't lose
an assistant. In 1997 eight Broncos had perfect attendance in
Denver's 10-week off-season workout program; this year, 36 did.
Elway stayed. Mission accomplished.

Shanahan is a nut about keeping a staff together. It can take
weeks to familiarize new assistants with a system, and that cuts
into the time Shanahan likes to spend each off-season plotting
new plays and schemes. In preparation for 1998 each assistant,
depending on his job, studied the top six offenses, defenses or
special teams in the league and then submitted ideas to
Shanahan, who then tinkered with the playbook.

"One of the most important things in this game is keeping an
open mind," Shanahan says. "If I'm Number 10 in some business, I
better be looking at the nine companies ahead of me and learning
something. And if I'm Number 1, I've got to look at my
competition constantly. If you're not, then you're arrogant. And
it won't be long before you're Number 6."


It's a virtual certainty that the Patriots, thwarted time and
again by the Massachusetts legislature in their attempt to build
a stadium near Boston, will strike a deal elsewhere in New
England. The contenders, in order: Hartford, which is already
planning to build a stadium that UConn could use if the Huskies
upgrade their program to Division I-A; Providence; and long-shot
Nashua, N.H.... The Rams aren't backing down to weighty fullback
Craig (Ironhead) Heyward; they've refused to allow him to
practice until he gets below 260 pounds. Heyward hasn't reported
to camp, and the team fears he's way over 260. "Maybe somebody
else will put up with it," says St. Louis coach Dick Vermeil.
"Not me."... The Steelers soon will open negotiations aimed at
keeping invaluable defensive back Carnell Lake in a Pittsburgh
uniform for the rest of his career.... Niners coach Steve
Mariucci said on Saturday what most, if not all, coaches feel
about exhibition games: "Five times in the preseason, three
hours a day, my heart is in my mouth, and I'm praying nobody
gets hurt."

COLOR PHOTO: OTTO GREULE/ALLSPORT Block party Fiore was up to the task against Daniels and the Seahawks' pricey front seven. [Dave Fiore facing Phillip Daniels in game]