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Plugging The Leaks Bill Walsh is counting on Charles Haley to help the 49ers' thin defensive front

Steve Mariucci is as relentlessly peppy as a coach can be. But
mention the trio of punishing NFC West running backs who stand
between Mariucci's 49ers and their quest to regain division
supremacy, and the third-year coach becomes gloomier than a
Garth Brooks ballad.

"All the flashy stuff sells tickets, makes headlines and lights
up the scoreboard, but the bottom line is, if you want to have
any chance of controlling a football game, you have to stop the
run," Mariucci said last week, following a minicamp practice for
rookies and selected veterans. "We're well aware of what we're
up against--the best backs in the league, as a division--and
that's one reason we drafted two defensive linemen early on."

It's bad enough that the 49ers must play six games against the
NFC West's Big Three: the Falcons' Jamal Anderson, who last year
rushed for 336 yards in three games against San Francisco; the
Rams' Marshall Faulk, who with the Colts in '98 was the league's
most productive all-purpose back; and the Saints' prized rookie,
Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. Throw in games this season
against Fred Taylor (Jaguars), Eddie George (Titans), Robert
Smith (Vikings), Jerome Bettis (Steelers), Corey Dillon
(Bengals) and Dorsey Levens (Packers), and there could be a lot
of cleat marks in San Francisco's immediate future.

The 49ers, who were second in the league in rushing defense in
1997, slipped to ninth last year (19th in average yards per
carry)--and things could get worse. Defensive line candidates
include a tackle coming back from a serious leg injury (All-Pro
Bryant Young), an end who missed part of the '98 season with a
bad leg of his own (Gabe Wilkins), a pair of rookies
(first-round draft pick Reggie McGrew, a 300-pound tackle from
Florida, and third-rounder Chike Okeafor, a pass-rush specialist
from Purdue), an undersized fifth-year tackle coming off a
career year (Junior Bryant) and a longtime locker room menace
with a bad back who has not made a sack since 1996 (Charles

But Haley, whose series of grotesque off-field antics inspired
the team to trade him to the Cowboys in 1992, has defied
expectations many times before. He won three more Super Bowls
after leaving San Francisco--he's the only NFL player with
five--and wrote a book, All the Rage, that trashed some of his
former Niners coaches and teammates. After Haley, who had
retired following the '96 season, returned to his old romping
grounds and put forth a pair of fairly impressive postseason
performances, Niners general manager Bill Walsh decided to
extend Haley's bizarre tenure for a full season. "It might've
been a desperation move to bring him in last year," Walsh says,
"but this isn't, because we saw what he could still do."

The 49ers will take all the help they can get. Walsh says Haley,
35, who is expected to sign a one-year contract soon, would
likely be used for only 20 to 30 plays a game and may need a
week off from time to time. (Young has recovered well from the
broken right fibula and tibia he suffered last November, but his
right knee is bothersome, and he probably won't return to
full-time duty until the second half of the season--at the
earliest.) The decision on Haley was made somewhat easier by the
fact that Walsh, who picked him in the fourth round of the '86
draft, is among the people Haley didn't rip in his book. "[His
past] is a consideration, but my relationship with him has been
excellent," Walsh says. "Besides, there's a maturity factor. I
think he can be a positive force in the locker room."

Scary thought.

--Michael Silver

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARIS Okeafor, a rookie, will be pressed into service.