NFC West: Dennis Erickson

A veteran NFL official mistook Vinny Testaverde's green-annd-white New York Jets helmet for the football crossing the goal-line plane back in 1998.

The gifted touchdown lifted the Jets to a 32-31 victory, dropping the Seattle Seahawks' record to 6-7 while severely damaging Dennis Erickson's chances for returning as head coach.

"Jet's win just plane crazy: Zzzebras call TD even though Vin can't crack goal," the New York Post proclaimed.

"Vinny falls short on Jets' final chance, but refs say it's ... CLOSE ENOUGH," the New York Daily News wrote.

Seven years later, officiating played a role in the Seahawks' Super Bowl XL defeat to an extent great enough for the referee, Bill Leavy, to issue a public apology years later.

Those two events frame reactions such as the one I received via Facebook from a Seahawks fan unmoved by suggestions officials handed a cheap victory to Seattle against Green Bay during the Monday night game at CenturyLink Field.

"In a time like this, Sando, we need a voice like yours to speak up for the alienated nation which is Seattle and tell the national media that we don't feel one ounce of regret and refuse to apologize to a league whose officials have cost us a playoff game (Vinny Testeverde's helmet TD) and a Super Bowl," Seahawks fan Floyd wrote. "This karma has been a long time coming."

First off, the defeat to the Jets was not, by itself, enough to keep Seattle from the playoffs that year. It put a damper on the season and might have played a role in the team finishing 8-8 instead of 9-7, but that is impossible to know.

What I'd like to do here is promote a better understanding for why fans feel the way they're feeling following what happened Monday night.

Floyd went first. Now, let's dive into the NFC West mailbag.

Ken from Yakima, Wash., disliked the way Seattle won but thought there were too many bad calls and non-calls to say for sure which team should have won the game.

Sando: I felt like the Packers did enough in the second half to win the game. They were the team trending in the right direction as the game progressed.

The frustrating part, from players' perspectives, was trying to figure out how officials were going to administer certain calls. Michael Robinson, the Seahawks' veteran fullback, said holding was one such penalty. He said the regular officials granted some leeway as long as offensive players kept their hands inside the frames of the players they were blocking. The officials working the game Monday night applied what Robinson thought were inconsistent and unreasonable standards.

Gary from La Conner, Wash., thinks Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is being disingenuous when he defends the call favoring Tate.

"Carroll knows the score," Gary writes. "Rather than manning up and saying, 'Yeah, we caught a break but will take it,' he defends what cannot be defended. Anyone who is remotely objective who watches the video of that play knows Jennings came down with the ball, clutched to his chest, on the ground, game over. The best Tate ever had was one arm on the ball and that was after the players were on the ground. That is obviously clear from the video. Any other coach in the league would have manned up. But not him. Yuck!"

Sando: I've heard quite a few people say it's not Carroll's job to apologize for what happened. I don't have a huge problem with Carroll's take on the matter. I do think Tate's repeated proclamations regarding his obvious push-off -- "I don't know what you're talking about," he said -- comes off as flippant and immature. The broader response from the Seahawks' locker room was less abrasive.

Joe from Anchorage, Alaska asks rhetorically how much preconceived notions about which team should have won affected the general reaction to bad calls.

"I know you were covering the Seahawks during Superbowl XL, so you could see how Seattle fans felt about the officiating in that game," Joe writes. "Here was a clear case of poor officiating affecting the outcome of a game, in the biggest game of the year; the official even apologized years later. There was nowhere near the coverage in one entire offseason that there has been regarding last night's play. I also don't recall any Seahawks players saying the Steelers needed to 'man up' and give the win to the Seahawks. What are your thoughts on the reason this particular play has incited so much controversy?"

Sando: The Packers' standing in the league affects the reaction, sure. Having the New York Giants, New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers victimized would have resonated as well. When a lower-profile team beats a higher-profile team, the story often becomes about the higher-profile team losing, not the lower-profile one winning.

That wasn't what was primarily at work Monday night. The reaction to the Packers-Seahawks ending hinged on a single play changing the outcome with no time on the clock. When I covered Super Bowl XL from Ford Field, I left the pressbox for the postgame locker room without knowing officiating would be a big issue. The TV analysts had been talking about it. Seahawks fans were sensitive to it. I wasn't aware of their concerns and did not, on my own, see officiating as decisive in that game. I just wasn't conditioned to think that way. That situation was different in that fans were upset by a series of calls over the course of the game, not a singular, decisive call at the end.

ESPN's analytics team determined that the play Monday night carried the largest change in win probability for any play since the 2008 season, which is as far back as our win probability models go. The Super Bowl had no comparable plays.

Matthew from Bremerton, Wash., wants my thoughts on this statement: "Had the refs not called a phantom pass-interference penalty against Kam Chancellor on third down during the Packers' touchdown drive, which even the analysts said was a bad call, Green Bay never would have scored. Thus, the 'bad call' would have been a moot point. Both teams were screwed by the refs, so it's really unfortunate that they are making a big deal of the one play, and not even speaking of the other."

Sando: I've heard this one quite a bit, but it's ultimately unpersuasive. We could go back and replay the game a hundred times based on one play here or there. What about the ridiculous interference penalty against Sam Shields when Sidney Rice was clearly the one interfering? What about the roughing penalty against the Packers to nullify what would have been a killer interception by Seattle's Russell Wilson?

Brian from Seattle says he understands why the final play is getting so much attention.

"But why is it that with our defense playing as one of the best in the league, the Seahawks still don't get any love from the national media?" he asks.

Sando: Well, the Seahawks moved into the top 10 of our power rankings this week. Would people rather watch analysis regarding this highly controversial play or a show breaking down some of the better defenses in the NFL?

Hugh from Moss Landing, Calif., compares the Tate-Jennings replays to the Zapruder footage. He thinks Tate established possession first.

"When the two were in the air, Jennings touched it first, was the first to have both hands on it, then Tate managed to put both hands on it," Hugh writes. "Tate was the first to have both feet on the ground, at which point he did have both hands on, though not as securely.

"Then Jennings came down, and Tate let go with his hand to reposition it. Simultaneous catch. The question should be whether the rules should be changed. Should a replay allow the detection of a penalty? The league allowed that there was interference, which should be the disputed issue, I think."

Sando: I don't think we want officials watching replays to look for pass interference, holding or other more subjective penalties. I do wonder if there should be some allowances made on the final plays of games. Clearer language regarding simultaneous catches could be helpful. The interference from Tate was so blatant, however, that any official monitoring the situation should have seen it.

John from Bakersfield, Calif., agrees with my contention that the NFL had a clear disincentive against finding fault with how their replacement officials ruled on the question of a simultaneous catch.

"This season has turned very ugly, very quickly," he writes. "From the Saints fiasco and the unbelievably harsh penalties that ensued over supposed player safety, to watching unqualified officials make a mockery of the game and endanger all players, it seems the league is begging for the government/courts to step in and get a little fairness back into the game.

"The owners and their chosen man seem to think they can do what they want with impunity in all matters. It seems they are turning the game into a political statement, and I don't think they understand all the anger the 99 percent or the 47 percent or any other high percentage of average working people feel toward the ruling class these days. The nation could go Wisconsin in a heartbeat over this folly to break a small union."

Sando: You're onto something here, John. NFL owners won big during the labor negotiations, in my view. I think the commissioner has felt empowered. Owners are feeling empowered.

Also, the battles became personal during the lockout. The tenor of the league changed. The commissioner has sent messages to players through fines and bounty suspensions. He has sent messages to the officials by remaining unflinching amid officiating disarray. The league and its teams have sent messages to their own employees through reduced benefits, temporary pay freezes and staff reductions. The common theme through those messages: The NFL does what it does because it can. No one can really hold the league accountable.

Conventional wisdom says quarterback Alex Smith held back the San Francisco 49ers' offense last season. It's also possible coach Jim Harbaugh held back Smith simply because Harbaugh prefers to run an offense that way.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee makes that case in responding to Ron Jaworski's recent analysis of Smith. Barrows: "Harbaugh did virtually the same thing at Stanford with Andrew Luck, whom the NFL deemed the top quarterback in the draft this year. That is, the approach is more Harbaugh-related than it is Smith-related. Only one team -- the Tim Tebow-led Broncos -- threw the ball less than San Francisco in 2011. Only two teams -- the Broncos and Texans -- ran the ball more. That run-pass ratio may change slightly in 2012 with the addition of high-profile wideouts Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins. But with Harbaugh, a lover of power-based offenses at the helm, it's very unlikely to change dramatically." Noted: Agreed.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers should forget about forcing the restoration of $30 million in stadium funds.

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' receivers have impressed this offseason.

Clare Farnsworth of says undrafted free-agent guard Rishaw Johnson caught the coaching staff's attention this offseason. Johnson went undrafted after his alleged involvement in credit-card fraud precipitated his dismissal from the Mississippi football team. Johnson: "Going into the combine, I thought I was going in the second or third round,. But all my off-field stuff kind of caught up with me."

Darren Urban of says the team has more in common with the Pittsburgh Steelers than coach roots linking Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, Ray Horton and others to the Steel City. A sponsorship with Hyundai is the latest commonality. Urban: "The team announced Tuesday a multi-year partnership with car manufacturer Hyundai, a deal that includes Hyundai as presenter of training camp. It will also mean Cardinals players will wear a Hyundai logo patch on practice jerseys throughout the season, a first for the team."

Kelsey Vaughan of checks in with rookies participating in a charity bowling event. Defensive tackle Michael Brockers: "I’m losing to a 3-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 6-year-old."

Chase Stuart of Football Perspective lists former Rams and Seahawks coach Chuck Knox high on a chart showing coaches with the best won-lost records in close games. Knox was right between Vince Lombardi and Marv Levy, both Hall of Fame coaches. Ray Malavasi and Dennis Erickson ranked toward the bottom.

The Mike Nolan era in San Francisco produced more heartache than the 49ers would care to revisit, but the long-term legacy isn't so bad.

Eleven draft choices, including eight current starters and five Pro Bowl selections, remain on the 49ers' roster from the Nolan era.

The other NFC West teams have a combined eight of their own draft choices from the same 2005-2008 window. That includes six starters and no Pro Bowl selections for the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams.

Improved coaching and ownership have helped San Francisco get more from its talent. The current personnel department has also fared well in continuing to build, adding high-impact draft choices such as Aldon Smith and NaVorro Bowman.

Overall, the 49ers have a division-high 38 of their own draft choices. The Seahawks are closest behind with 34, including 26 drafted since Pete Carroll became head coach in 2010.

In St. Louis, new coach Jeff Fisher inherits a young franchise quarterback in Sam Bradford, but he has only one Rams draft choice from 2005-2008: defensive end Chris Long. Consider this one more way to define first-year expectations for St. Louis relative to the expectations when Jim Harbaugh took over in San Francisco. Fisher inherits so much less.

Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Tarell Brown, Delanie Walker, Patrick Willis, Larry Grant, Joe Staley, Vernon Davis, Ray McDonald, Parys Haralson and Dashon Goldson remain with the 49ers from their 2005-2008 drafts. Gore, Willis, Staley, Davis and Goldson have achieved Pro Bowl status. Those five and Alex Smith, Brown, McDonald, Haralson and (sometimes) Walker started for the 49ers last season.

Leroy Hill, Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane and Ben Obomanu remain with Seattle from that era. The Cardinals still have Calais Campbell, Early Doucet and Levi Brown.

The chart breaks down NFC West draft choices by how many remain with their original teams and by the head coaches who welcomed those players into the league.

The 49ers have two players from the Dennis Erickson era (punter Andy Lee, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga) and one from the Steve Mariucci era (snapper Brian Jennings). They are the only team in the division with a draft choice remaining from five head coaches ago (Jennings). The Rams have one player, Steven Jackson, remaining from the Mike Martz era (four coaches ago).

Update: I reduced by one the total for the Rams under Fisher to reflect the fact that Cortland Finnegan was a Fisher draft choice in Tennessee, not St. Louis.

The San Francisco 49ers twice lost close games against New Orleans in the Superdome when the Saints were allegedly eavesdropping on visiting coaches from 2002-2004.

Coincidence? Evidence of malfeasance?

"There’s something missing here," said Bill Polian, the ESPN analyst and former longtime NFL executive. "I don’t know what kind of competitive advantage you can get."

The report by "Outside the Lines" cites people familiar with the Saints' game-day operations as saying Mickey Loomis, the Saints' general manager, had the ability to monitor opposing coaches from his private box during home games.

NFC West teams played three games at the Superdome during the period in question.

The 49ers suffered a 35-27 defeat at New Orleans in 2002 after the Saints outscored them 22-3 in the fourth quarter. They also suffered a 30-27 defeat there in 2004 after Aaron Brooks found Donte Stallworth for a 16-yard touchdown with 1:01 remaining. Also in 2004, the Seattle Seahawks claimed a 21-7 victory at New Orleans.

The NFL has already suspended Loomis, a former longtime Seahawks executive, for the first eight games of the 2012 season as punishment for his handling of the Saints' bounty situation.

The allegations against Loomis are damaging whether or not the Saints realized any in-game advantages.

"Mickey would have to know the verbiage of every other opposing team in order to translate it, and then he would have to do it instantly and find some way to communicate with his coaching staff and get it down to the field in time for it to be useful," Polian said. "That would be very difficult to do, in my opinion."

The Saints have strongly denied the allegations.

Steve Mariucci (2002) and Dennis Erickson (2004) were the 49ers' head coaches for the NFC West defeats in question. Erickson and Loomis worked together in Seattle years earlier.

Another NFC West alum, Jim Haslett, was the Saints' head coach at the time.

Greg from Seattle thought Victor Cruz's first-quarter non-fumble in the Super Bowl, rendered irrelevant by a penalty for 12 men on the field, resembled the forward-progress call involving Ahmad Bradshaw that hurt San Francisco during the 49ers' game against the Giants two weeks ago.

"The only discernible difference I saw was that there were two men involved on Bradshaw's fumble two weeks ago," Greg wrote. "If this week's play had been ruled a fumble while the Niners were not permitted even to challenge, I would have been outraged. Curious to hear your perspective."

Mike Sando: I had the exact same thought, but it was a fleeting one because of the penalty. The 49ers weren't necessarily victimized by a horrible call, in my view. It seemed like one of those unlucky ones, along the lines of the chop-block call against Frank Gore in Baltimore. I disagreed with the call against Gore and thought the 49ers caught a bad break on the Bradshaw ruling. The Cruz play looked similar when watching the game live. (Update: Gore chop block was obviously at Baltimore; I mistakenly wrote Philadelphia originally).

Former NFL officiating boss Mike Pereira, now a Fox analyst, offered this take: "Without this penalty, fans would have been left wondering why the play in San Francisco was ruled forward progress and this one wasn’t. In my opinion, both plays should have been ruled forward progress and not fumbles."

I dislike the forward-progress ruling when it's close. Rules require players making receptions to hold onto the ball through the conclusion of the play. Why not enforce the same standard for players running with the ball? If officials think forward progress has been stopped, then they should blow the whistle. Had the whistle blown when Bradshaw lost the ball? How about when Cruz lost the ball? If not, the play was live, right?

I'm open-minded on this, but that's how it looks from this angle.

Bruce from Port Angeles, Wash., was among several writing to express satisfaction after seeing Cortez Kennedy become the second longtime Seattle Seahawks player enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He appreciated whatever work was done in presenting Kennedy's credentials to the selectors.

Mike Sando: The Mount Rushmore of Seahawks history would include Steve Largent, Kenny Easley, Kennedy and Walter Jones, in my view. Shaun Alexander deserves consideration as well, but I think those other guys were the elite of the elite in the pure ability to dominate their opponents.

Easley, Kennedy and Jones played extremely physical positions, too, so their dominance was a cut above simply by the nature of their jobs. I tend to favor candidates who flat-out dominated even when two or three opponents at a time matched up against them. Kennedy fit that criteria.

Kennedy's candidacy suffered some from the Seahawks' struggles during the 1990s. The team kept hiring offensive-minded head coaches in an effort to fix that side of the ball, going from Chuck Knox to Tom Flores to Dennis Erickson to Mike Holmgren during Kennedy's tenure.

Holmgren's arrival in 1999 led to an 8-2 start and playoff appearance that season. Kennedy had 6.5 sacks and two interceptions that year, with three of those sacks during Holmgren's return to Green Bay on the Monday night stage. Overall, Kennedy appeared in prime time only five times during his career. For that reason, many of the selectors rarely saw him play.

One key to Kennedy's enshrinement was making sure the selectors had the relevant facts and testimonials before them. Presenting Kennedy was straightforward. His credentials made it so.

Ted from San Carlos thought Wes Welker was taking far too much criticism for the pass he failed to catch with four minutes remaining in Super Bowl XLVI. He questioned whether I had even watched the game. "How could you blame Welker for that 'drop' when the pass was terrible? Brady had a wide-open Welker and made a bad pass. It would have been a GREAT catch had he caught it. This is on Brady."

Mike Sando: Welker blamed Welker. He is a credible source on the subject. The ball hit both of his hands.

Suzy from Dallas says Welker "manned up" and took the blame for missing what would have been a "miracle" catch. "When you review the tape," she wrote, "please retract your entire story (like a man)."

Mike Sando: David Tyree made a miracle catch in Super Bowl XLII. Welker has a clear opportunity to make this catch. He is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Many sources, including the Boston Globe, have described this pass for what it was, a bit behind Welker, but catchable. If Welker had made that catch, people would not be talking about it in the vein they discuss Tyree's catch. Not even close.

Andy from Syracuse was among several fans asking whether the 49ers' move to Santa Clara on game days will result in a name change.

Mike Sando: They will still be the San Francisco 49ers. Their headquarters have been in Santa Clara for years. The team's history and heritage is very important to team persident Jed York. Santa Clara is not that far away.

Darren from Vacaville, Calif., did not like reading in our recent Super Bowl losers story the word "outclassed" to describe the Los Angeles Rams during their Super Bowl defeat to Pittsburgh following the 1979 season. "This team had the feared Steelers on the ropes," he wrote.

Mike Sando: I'm going to grant you this one. I actually did not write that part of the item. Jamison Hensley and I worked on that together. He wrote the part on the Rams. I saw it and did not disagree strongly enough to talk to him about adjusting it. It was a reasonable take given the Rams' status that season as a 9-7 team without its starting quarterback, Pat Haden.

Sorry, no Arizona Cardinals questions this time. There weren't any fresh ones atop the mailbag. My flight is making its way across the country. Figured I'd better file this while the laptop battery was strong, the wireless was working, etc.

Ronnie Lott witnessed one of the greatest coaching jobs in NFL history during the Bill Walsh years in San Francisco three decades ago.

The Hall of Famer thinks the 49ers' current coach, Jim Harbaugh, might be doing something more spectacular in leading the team to an 8-1 record against all expectations.

"This might be the greatest coaching that I've ever seen in the history of the game of professional football," Lott told Sirius NFL Radio recently. "It's his first [season as an NFL head coach] and not only is he hitting it out of the park but, man, he's hitting all the notes. Everything that you can think of, he's done."

Lott pointed to the 49ers' ability to play well and win under a first-time NFL head coach following a lockout-shortened offseason. The turnaround from eight consecutive non-winning seasons has been striking. Kenton Wong of ESPN Stats & Information put together a Harbaugh-related packet with the following key points:
  • Stanford went from 1-11 the year before Harbaugh arrived as head coach to 4-8, 5-7, 8-5 and 12-1 over his four seasons at the university.
  • The 49ers brought back most key players, notably Alex Smith, from a team that went 6-10 last season. Their eight victories this season match the rest of the NFC West combined. The 49ers have a .889 winning percentage, compared to .296 for the rest of the division. They are plus-95 in points. The rest of the NFC West is minus-198. The 49ers have one more road win (four) than the rest of the division combined.
  • Smith is on pace for career bests in yards per attempt (7.2) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.7).
  • Harbaugh's seven-game winning streak is tied for second longest by a rookie head coach since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Ted Marchibroda's Colts won nine in a row in 1975. Bobby Ross' Chargers won seven straight in 1992. Chuck Knox's Rams (1973) and Nick Saban's Dolphins (2005) each enjoyed six-game streaks. Corrected info from Elias: Steve Mariucci won 11 in a row during the 1997 season, his first with the 49ers. And Jim Caldwell went 14-0 with the Colts in his first season. Those are the two longest streaks.

This is the best start for a rookie NFC West coach since Mariucci's 49ers opened the 1997 season with an 11-1 record. They finished 13-3.

Mike Martz's St. Louis Rams went 8-2 to open the 2000 season. Mike Holmgren's Seahawks opened the 1999 season with an 8-2 record.

I've put together a chart showing NFC West head coaches' first-year records since 1997, excluding interim coaches.

Sammy Batten of the Fayetteville Observer checks in with Seahawks offensive lineman Sean Locklear. Locklear: "Anywhere I go, whether that's Seattle or somewhere else, I hope to go to a team that wants to win," Locklear said. "I love Seattle. I've been there my whole career. It's the only team I know. I want to be there. But that decision is not up to me now. It's up to the guys in the front office, or another team. Where ever I go, I'm hoping to help them win." Locklear has extensive starting experience and should have value on the market. However, he appears less likely to return after Seattle chopped off the final year of his contract and used a first-round draft choice on his replacement. Locklear will be eligible for free agency once the signing period opens.

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks hope rookie Malcolm Smith can make an impact right away. Coach Pete Carroll: "He’s not built like a linebacker, he’s built like a skilled athlete,” Carroll said. “So, in nickel situations, he’ll be able to match up with anybody that we see. Hopefully, we’ll be able to develop him more. He’s played in our system, so we know that he can do those things, and that’s why to us he is maybe more valuable than he is to anybody else."

Clare Farnsworth of revisits the impact Joey Galloway made with Seattle during a relatively short stay with the team. I do not recall covering a faster NFL player. Farnsworth: "As a rookie, he broke an 86-yard touchdown run on a reverse off of a reverse; added a 59-yard TD catch; and capped it all with an 89-yard punt return for a TD. Galloway also became only the 10th rookie in NFL history (at the time) to surpass 1,000 receiving yards (1,039), and the first since 1986. He also set club rookie records for receptions (67), yards and 100-yard games (three). Before Galloway called it a Seahawks career, he had added punt returns for touchdowns of 88 and 74 yards; TD catches of 81, 70, 65 and 53 yards; and also broke non-scoring runs of 51 and 44 yards."

Also from Farnsworth: a look at Dennis Erickson's first season as Seahawks coach. The team immediately improved to 8-8, but would get no better during Erickson's tenure. Erickson, like successor Mike Holmgren, had a 31-33 record after four seasons with the team. Erickson, unlike Holmgren, did not have the clout to keep his job at that point.

Len Pasquarelli of the Sports Xchange thinks Texans running back Steve Slaton could provide value for a team such as the Rams. Pasquarelli: "Slaton is only 25 years old, doesn't have a lot of tread rubbed off the tires yet, and is a good receiver, so he could be an attractive No. 2 back for some team seeking to bolster the position. Rumors have linked him to St. Louis, where the Rams could use a reliable back capable of getting 6-8 touches per game, to reduce the workload for Steven Jackson, but the talk has been unsubstantiated. Slaton is under contract for 2011 at the league-minimum base salary, then would be eligible for free agency next spring. For the right price, though, he would provide a solid, experienced back for a year."

Bill Vilona of says the Rams' defensive linemen are training in Florida. George Selvie: "I haven't seen these guys in four months, so it's just great seeing everybody again. It makes it more of ... this is what we're supposed to be doing."

Matt Maiocco of sees Mike Singletary's departure from the 49ers having no adverse effect on linebacker Patrick Willis. Maiocco: "Singletary seemed to emphasize focus and getting in the right frame of mind. I have no doubt that Willis benefited from being around a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame on a regular basis. ... Willis is at the stage of his career that he knows what it takes to be successful in the NFL. He's a highly motivated player, and Singletary -- with his long daily post-practice talks -- was all about providing motivation to his players. ... Now, it's more of a matter of how defensive coordinator Vic Fangio decides to utilize Willis' immense skills."

Also from Maiocco: The 49ers have been ready for free agency since March, so a sudden opening for business would not catch anyone off-guard.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sizes up the 49ers' situation at receiver with special attention toward Kevin Jurovich and Kyle Williams. San Francisco opened last season with five wide receivers on its 53-man roster, down from six in 2009.

Also from Barrows: Some rookies will miss the 49ers' player-organized practices this week.

The 49ers' website catches up with Roger Craig, a finalist for induction into the team's Hall of Fame. Craig: "We have the best fans on the planet. They’ve always been supportive, through good and through bad. They’re faithful and I feel they deserve to get back in the playoffs, do some damage and win some more Super Bowls. I would love to see that happen very soon, because the fans were cheering us when we played and were a big part of the dynasty. The 49ers have the tools to make that happen with Jim Harbaugh now as their head coach. He reminds me of Bill Walsh and I think it’s in his DNA to make this happen because of his background. He’s seasoned and knows what it takes to take a team to the next level."

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider looks at Harbaugh's involvement in the offense at Stanford.

Darren Urban of notes, per ESPN's John Clayton, that cap space will not be a problem for the Cardinals once the free-agent signing period opens. Urban: "It’s impossible to know what is 'aggressive' and how the plan will play out (and part of that includes the moving parts once everything is able to begin; for instance, a trade for a quarterback complicates/affects things more than a straight free-agent signing of a QB would)."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick is nearly all the way back from the leg surgery he underwent earlier this offseason. Barrows: "The 49ers quarterback revealed today that he ran two miles at Stanford Hospital as part of his rehabilitation from a surgical procedure on his left leg. He's also been throwing regularly at the recent workout sessions at San Jose State. Kaepernick had the operation in early May and has been mum on the details." Kaepernick: "I'm a little anxious for the doctors to really cut me loose and say, go ahead. I'm kind of on their time. They're just trying to take every precaution. I feel like I might be able to do more than they think."

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says Kaepernick's injury did not affect him much at Nevada. Branch: "He played through the injury in his final four games of his senior year at Nevada and averaged 11.5 rushes and 64.3 yards a game. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds at the NFL Combine in late February, the second-fastest time among the 17 quarterbacks who ran at the event."

Matt Maiocco of says San Jose State is happy to give the 49ers' players a place to work out. Maiocco: "San Jose State has a history of being gracious hosts to NFL visitors. In recent seasons, the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys have trained at San Jose State while on West Coast trips. The Patriots are scheduled to return this season. The 49ers' involvement with San Jose State began several years ago when linebacker Jeff Ulbrich would work out regularly during the summer. Bryant Young also forged a bond with the athletic department during the final years of his playing career."

Andrew Astleford of Fox Sports Midwest says Rams fans need to make sure their team doesn't leave for Los Angeles. He quotes Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, this way: "The thing about an NFL team is that it doesn't matter what socioeconomic background you're from, it doesn't matter what race you are, it doesn't matter what your ethnicity is, it doesn't matter what your religious affiliation is, it doesn't matter about anything that generally divides us. The things about teams in general -- particularly teams in your city -- is that they are this great unifier." quotes Rams executive Kevin Demoff and others regarding the team's contract extension with 101ESPN St. Louis. Demoff: "We are thrilled to be continuing our partnership with 101 ESPN. Together we have been able to grow our brands and become the home for sports listeners in St. Louis."

VanRam of Turf Show Times says stats from Pro Football Focus suggest the Rams' tight ends aren't very good in pass protection. I thought Mike Hoomanawanui showed pretty good ability in that area at times, although injuries kept him off the field too much.

Clare Farnsworth of catches up with former cornerback Shawn Springs, the nickel corner on the team's 35th anniversary squad. Farnsworth: "Springs left the Seahawks after the 2003 season, signing with the Washington Redskins on the first day of the free-agency period in 2004. After five seasons with the Redskins, he played for the New England Patriots in 2009. In a 2008 game at Qwest Field, Springs intercepted a Matt Hasselbeck pass at the Seahawks’ 44-yard line with 80 seconds left to ice the Redskins’ 20-17 victory. Springs' tenure with the Seahawks bridged what never quiet was and what was to come. He played his first two seasons under Dennis Erickson, when the team finished 8-8 twice. He played the next five under Holmgren, when the Seahawks won the AFC West title in 1999 before going 6-10, 9-7, 7-9 and, finally, 10-6."

Also from Farnsworth: Springs and former teammate Bobby Engram, now a 49ers assistant coach, trade jabs.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle passes along John Clayton's thoughts regarding Nnamdi Asomugha and Seattle. Clayton: "I just get the feeling that they [the Seahawks] wouldn't pay the $12-13 million a year but that could be wrong. They can pay [that much]. I think the one concern would be this team wants to get younger and wants to get younger as fast as possible, and bringing in a [30]-year-old corner is not going to get the team younger. It will make it better, because now what it does is it sets up a great three-cornerback set [with Asomugha, Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond]."

Darren Urban of links to a Larry Fitzgerald video from the receiver's days at Pitt. He also posts a photo from Fitzgerald's recent workouts with Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton, noting that it has nothing to do with which veteran quarterback Arizona will pursue in the market this offseason. Urban: "Orton apparently has known Fitz for a long time and besides, this happens all the time (Greg Jennings has long been a regular with Fitz in Minny; why doesn’t anyone peg Jennings as a future Card?). It’s probably not a coincidence that Orton’s Broncos teammate and one-time University of Minnesota Gopher, receiver Eric Decker, is also in the picture having worked out. Maybe that’s the real Orton connection?" Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck recently indicated he had an invite to work out with Fitzgerald. That also would have nothing to do with any moves the Cardinals might make once the signing period opens.

Steve Wyche of says the Rams will hold workouts in Arizona beginning this week, with James Laurinaitis and Ron Bartell among those taking the lead. Wyche: "Not all of the work will be on field either. Bartell, Laurinaitis and other players have video of previous years' games, and players will get the chance to break down film during the minicamp. Laurinaitis stressed the importance of getting as much film and class work done now so players will be ready when the lockout ends. Laurinaitis added that quarterback Sam Bradford has plays from new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' playbook but without being coached how McDaniels wants the plays to be run, there is only so much to be gained."

Bill Coats of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Rams coaches and staffers spent Tuesday building a playground for a school serving autistic children. Players generally would have participated in large numbers, but with the lockout, this year was different. Coats: "Other than second-year linebacker Josh Hull, who is rehabbing a knee injury, none of the players was on hand because of the lockout, although the NFL had granted a waiver for players and coaches to mix. Many were assembling in Phoenix, where a five-day session of player-organized workouts is to get under way."

Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis offers thoughts on the Rams' playground-building efforts.

Mindi Bach of says veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes is not attending the 49ers' player-organized workouts because he's not sure whether he'll return to the team. Bach: "Spikes turns 35 in December and is preparing just as hard as he always has for an upcoming season. In another text message Spikes told me he is currently in his hometown of Atlanta working out daily with a group of 15 players which includes OT Wayne Gandy, T Osi Umenyiora, DE Charles Grant and WR Hines Ward. Spikes’ work ethic and leadership have never been questioned. Those who know him know he puts in the work. He runs the miles. He studies the film. He teaches that young player how to reach the next level. He carries himself in the same manner off the field. It takes just moments for anyone who meets Spikes to recognize those traits."

Matt Maiocco of offers updates from the 49ers' latest player-organized practice.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says left tackle Joe Staley has reduced his weight to 304 pounds in an effort to regain lost mobility. Durability is also key for Staley, who has missed 14 games over the past two seasons.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree rested sore feet while teammates practiced Tuesday. Branch: "Fellow wideout Josh Morgan, who has worked with Crabtree during the offseason, said the third-year wide receiver had aching feet after wearing new cleats during Monday's minicamp-opening practice on San Jose State's field turf. Morgan said Crabtree sat out as a precaution. He wasn't sure whether Crabtree would return to practice today."

Also from Branch: "Given Crabtree’s history, it would be easy to automatically add today’s absence to his diva files. On the flip side, though, he did attend the classroom session and, if his feet hurt, why should he push himself during a lockout minicamp in early June? Let the debate continue and, of course, stay tuned for tomorrow’s edition of the Curious Case of Michael Crabtree."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News provides a transcript from Morgan's post-practice interview.

Vittorio Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle credits 49ers defensive players for attending the player-organized practices despite not having a playbook.

The 49ers have announced a partnership with Stanford University, facilitated by former player Riki Ellison.

Clare Farnsworth of profiles various classes of players by the years they joined the team.

Also from Farnsworth: a look back at the Seahawks' 1998 season. Farnsworth: "The conventional thought at the time was that a one-point loss to the New York Jets in Week 14 -- when referee Phil Luckett mistook the white helmet of quarterback Vinny Testaverde for the ball in awarding the Jets a game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left in the game -- had cost Dennis Erickson his job. The reality was that (team president) Bob Whitsitt had decided to move in another direction before that game was ever played. Whitsitt explained that he has reached the point where the Everett-born Erickson would either be fired with one year remaining on his contract, or have his contract extended."

Doug Farrar of Sportspress Northwest says quarterback Matt Hasselbeck appeared to be in full command during the team's player-organized practice Friday.

Jim Trotter of Sports Illustrated offers details from the Seahawks' and Cardinals' player-organized workouts in pointing out challenges players faces during the lockout. Trotter: "As well intentioned as those sessions are, they lack the NFL's full-service element. For instance, when Larry Fitzgerald and roughly 30 other players finished an on-field workout on a sunny morning in Tempe, they had to get in their cars and drive down the street to lift weights at Arizona State. Film study was done on personal laptops or in the theater room in Fitzgerald's Paradise Valley home."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic offers observations from the Cardinals' practice Tuesday. Second-year receiver Andre Roberts is looking good. Somers: "Roberts, I thought, looked very quick and confident. He has come a long way since being drafted a year ago. He didn't start catching the ball consistently until the season was well underway. Stephen Williams also looked good. No question he has the skills and we've seen them on display in the preseason. But can he show them in games that count? Roberts and Williams, by the way, were particularly impressive in one drill where players had to hop over a serious of hurdles. Roberts' feet were hardly ever on the ground, and Williams, well, I'd choose him in a pickup hoops game. He could rebound my missed three-pointers."

Darren Urban of looks back at Boomer Esiason's 522-yard passing performance for the Cardinals.

Also from Urban: a look at the Cardinals' cornerback situation.

Three of Football Outsiders' 10 most disappointing teams of the last quarter-century call the NFC West home today.

None ranks lower than seventh on the list, which is available to Insider subscribers.

The 2002 St. Louis Rams (second), 1999 San Francisco 49ers (third) and 2006 Seattle Seahawks (seventh) made the cut. The piece details what went wrong for each team, from Kurt Warner's injury problems to Steve Young's career-ending concussion to Steve Hutchinson's departure as a transition player.

Three more teams I'd nominate for consideration:

  • 2010 Arizona Cardinals. Expectations fell off when Warner decided he would rather forfeit millions than return for a shot at a third consecutive NFC West title. At that point, however, few could have imagined how far the Cardinals would fall. They went 5-11 and shuttled through no-name quarterbacks despite facing what should have been a breeze of a schedule.

  • 1990 Los Angeles Rams. They were coming off an 11-5 season in 1989 and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game, only to finish 5-11. The team traded workhorse running back Greg Bell, who had complained about his salary following two highly productive seasons. Bell never did much with the crosstown Raiders, but his prediction that his new team would enjoy a stronger season came true. While the Raiders were on their way to a 12-4 record in 1990, the Rams' five victories were their fewest in a non-strike season since 1965.

  • 1992 Seahawks. This wasn't supposed to be a playoff-caliber team, but neither was it fathomable to think Seattle would score only 140 points all season, down from 276 the previous year. Think the Seahawks could have used Dave Krieg? Krieg left Seattle following the 1991 season, then went 10-6 as a starter for Kansas City in 1992. Krieg had a losing record as a starter only twice in 12 seasons with the Seahawks, and one of those was 0-2 during the 1982 strike year.

Any other seasons qualify for inclusion? The 49ers' 2-14 season under Dennis Erickson was one that came to mind.

The inclusion of the 1999 49ers on the Football Outsiders lists affirms that Young's career-ending concussion should have appeared on the multiple-choice Flash Points ballot, probably at the expense of R.C. Owens' alley-oop reception against Detroit in 1957.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with former longtime Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt, who claims coach Steve Spagnuolo fired him for no good reason. Hewitt: "He is a hard person to deal with. He's just very hands-on. Controlling. It's an everything-has-to-go-through-him kind of deal." Spagnuolo declined comment, but this move looks like yet another example of the Rams' leadership replacing the old guard with its own people. Was the move justified? That is difficult to know without hearing from the Rams. Disgruntled former employees generally aren't going to tell the full story. On the surface, however, Hewitt was a longtime employee who loved his job and seemed to be well-liked. Thomas: "The day he was fired, Hewitt said offensive guard Jacob Bell and linebackers James Laurinaitis and David Vobora asked him to come to Mexico with them on a trip -- they'd pick up the tab. Hewitt was grateful but declined the offer. He has heard from all kinds of players -- past and present -- from Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, to Roman Gabriel and Jack Youngblood, to Jackson and Chris Long, since he was fired."

Matt Maiocco of addresses whether Kevin Kolb or Carson Palmer is more likely to be under center for the 49ers next season. Maiocco: "There is a better chance that Kolb, rather than Palmer, will be the 49ers' quarterback in 2011. After all, Philadelphia is entertaining offers for Kolb, while stubborn Bengals president Mike Brown appears unlikely to cave into Palmer's trade demand. How the organization addresses the quarterback position during the draft will determine the team's approach to adding a veteran to the mix when there is a new collective bargaining agreement." The 49ers would not give up their first-round choice for Kolb, in my view.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at the 49ers' best late-round draft choices since 2000. On Eric Johnson: "Johnson played in just 71 games over seven seasons due to a variety of injuries, but he was productive when upright. In 2004, he led the Niners with 82 catches, the most by a tight end in franchise history. Of the 13 tight ends selected in the 2001 draft, Johnson (240 catches, 2,178 yards) ranks third in career catches and yards behind the first two taken -- first-rounder Todd Heap and second-rounder Alge Crumpler. By the way, the next two tight ends drafted after Heap and Crumpler were third-rounders Sean Brewer and Shad Meier. Or is it Sean Meier and Shad Brewer?"

Also from Branch: the second part of his installment on the 49ers' best late-round choices since 2000. On Eric Heitmann: "The reliable and consistent Heitmann became the first 49ers rookie offensive lineman to start a game in 15 years when he debuted in 2002 and has since become a three-time winner of the Bobb McKittrick Award, the top honor given to a Niners offensive lineman. His future appears uncertain after a broken leg and neck injury wiped out his 2010 season, but he’s already logged 114 starts. That’s a nice investment on the 239th player selected in a draft."

Clare Farnsworth of checks in with Cortez Kennedy for his latest piece on the 35th anniversary team. Farnsworth explains how Kennedy came to be known as "Big Dawg" among teammates. As former teammate Jeff Bryant put it: "When you go hunting, you want to take the big dog. That’s Tez. He’s our ‘Big Dawg.’"

Also from Farnsworth: Dennis Erickson and others speak to Kennedy's dominance. Erickson: "Cortez might’ve been as dominant a defensive tackle that’s ever played. He was dominant when I had him in Seattle in the four years I was there, and he was dominant before I got there. I don’t know if you can see a defensive tackle who dominated a game like he did when he was with the Seahawks."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt left Wednesday to attend workouts at Clemson and North Carolina. That explains why Whisenhunt wasn't in attendance at Jake Locker's pro day.

Darren Urban of says Buffalo could be the key team in determining whether the Cardinals get a crack at Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller. Urban: "Buffalo could use a QB, but Chan Gailey seems to want defense, so Miller has been a popular possibility for a team that uses the 3-4 and needs a pass rush. If the Cards want Miller, it seems the Bills will be the key. The Bengals figure to go offense, whether a QB or WR. The Cards, who have hinted many times they aren’t necessarily looking QB early, still don’t seem to make sense with a pick like that. Here’s the question, assuming Miller is gone: Could you make Da'Quan Bowers work in your defense? Is Patrick Peterson good enough?"

Also from Urban: a chat transcript in which he sizes up veteran quarterbacks Marc Bulger and Kyle Orton as possibilities for Arizona. Urban: "I think Bulger does fit this offense, and he wouldn't cost a draft pick like Orton would. I don't know exactly how they feel about Orton, although I am sure that possibility has been considered."

What happened to the flagship 49ers

February, 3, 2011

STEVE YOUNGUS PresswireThe 49ers haven't won the Super Bowl since Steve Young held the Lombardi Trophy on Jan. 29, 1995.
DALLAS -- Sixteen years have passed since Steve Young defined his legacy while leading the San Francisco 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl championship.

The 49ers haven't been back to a Super Bowl since and they haven't even sniffed the playoffs since 2002. That was four head coaches and one interim coach ago.

Ten quarterbacks have started games for the 49ers since 2000; the number was 12 for the previous 19 seasons, and two of those guys are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The losing and instability stand in stark contrast to the standards two other proud franchises, Green Bay and Pittsburgh, have set in reaching this Super Bowl. The Packers and Steelers have weathered downturns and gotten stronger.

What happened to the 49ers? Who deserves the blame? Why? What will it take to restore the 49ers' status? Those were the questions I asked on the blog Wednesday. There was no shortage of material in the comments section, but one of the shortest answers summarized most of the feelings.

"Bad ownership picking bad leadership picking bad coaches picking bad talent," Claatuop wrote.

Total system failure, in other words.

It's the ownership

Green Bay and Pittsburgh feature arguably the strongest, most stable ownership situations in the NFL.

The Packers have had the same basic philosophy toward personnel since Ron Wolf became their general manager in 1991. Wolf has long since retired, but the Packers' current GM, Ted Thompson, learned under him. Green Bay has likewise run a version of the West Coast offense since Mike Holmgren became their coach in 1992.

The Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969.

The 49ers enjoyed stable ownership until legal troubles forced Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to give up control of the team in 2000. The team posted winning records under coach Steve Mariucci in 2001 and 2002, but Mariucci was out after that season and the team hasn't had a winning record in any season since.

"For the 49ers, it all comes down to ownership," caseytb4949 wrote. "After the Eddie DeBartolo fiasco, ownership of the team transitioned to his sister, Denise, who had little interest in the 49ers. Her husband, who exerted practical control of the team, was and is not a football guy. What's worse, his ego was such that it precluded him from hiring sound football minds. He hired an inexperienced GM, Terry Donahue, and forced out a winning coach in Steve Mariucci. His GM then went on to completely gut the team's talent."

Harsh words, but the evidence supports the general idea, minus the ego part. Quite a few comments suggested the 49ers have put business before football since DeBartolo's departure.

"It was 'Eddie D' leaving and the departure from the Bill Walsh coaching/personnel tree," kingjames988 wrote. "When you move away from what made you great, you almost always end up with less success."

John York and Denise DeBartolo York have handed control of the team to their son, Jed. Jed York, as team president, has shown he values the 49ers' past and the values that made the organization great, but there's little evidence to this point he knows how to return the team to its previous standing.

Its' the leadership

The 49ers have bounced from one leadership team and front-office model to another.

They've handed over total control to a head coach (Mike Nolan). They've had a GM (Scot McCloughan) work with a head coach (Mike Singletary) who had final say over the 53-man roster. They've gone without a GM (after McCloughan left the team abruptly last year).

The current setup is more traditional, with new coach Jim Harbaugh working under new general manager Trent Baalke.

Frequently shifting leadership has made it tougher for the team to develop players and maintain a consistent philosophy. Bad luck has compounded matters, as when offensive coordinators Mike McCarthy and Norv Turner took head coaching jobs.

The 49ers sustained Walsh's philosophy on offense and overall, at least to an extent, into the last decade. But Walsh's influence was eroding all the while. And when Donahue took over as general manager in 2001, Walsh was available only as a consultant. He was out of the organization by 2005 and died in 2007.

"Going from Walsh to Donahue was a complete swing-and-miss, and he fired Steve Mariucci after a year where the Niners went 10-6 and won one of the most epic playoff games of all time," Joey Barrows wrote. " 'Mooch' was perfect for the Niners and bad management messed that up."

What started as a reasoned explanation turned into a more emotional rant mentioning Dennis Erickson, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, the York family's ownership, Turner and Mike Nolan. It concluded with, "And don't get me started on Mike Singletary. Dear Lord."

It's the coach

Walsh set the standard. George Seifert sustained the legacy. Mariucci maintained offensive continuity. They all won.

The 49ers haven't had a winning season since Mariucci lost an internal power struggle.

Singletary projected strong leadership, but he had never been even a coordinator, let alone a head coach. Nolan had never been a head coach, either. In retrospect, the 49ers could have benefited from more seasoned leadership on the sideline, particularly without more experienced leadership in the front office.

"It seems that every department performed poorly after Mariucci left," catterbu wrote. "There is also a certain chicken-egg sort of scenario that has taken place. Instability with coaching leads to poor development of players since the same coaches are not there for very long, which leads to poor performance and firing of the coaches. It's the cycle that must be broken. I think that many of us 49ers fans still love the team, but have almost grown numb to the pain."

Harbaugh has succeeded as a head coach at the college level. He has expertise on offense, something the 49ers haven't had in a head coach since Dennis Erickson replaced Mariucci. The 49ers ranked fifth in yards and ninth in points under Erickson while going 7-9 in 2003, but they parted with quarterback Jeff Garcia after the season.

Which leads to the next problem area.

It's the quarterback

[+] EnlargeJerry Rice
Justin Kase Conder/US PresswireFormer 49ers receiver Jerry Rice says the team's instability at quarterback has been a major reason for it's lack of success in recent seasons.
One of the greatest 49ers, retired receiver Jerry Rice, offered his thoughts Thursday morning between appearances on ESPN. He pointed to management problems and the 49ers' decision to draft Alex Smith over Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the first overall choice in 2005.

"I mean, there are certain draft choices that you make or you don't make and it's going to cost you," Rice said. "This guy (Rodgers) was right there at Cal. He wanted to be a 49er. But we decided to pass on him and go with Alex Smith. This is not all his fault, but Alex Smith at Utah was more of just a shotgun passer. That is a whole different scenario there. Then with him having so many offensive coordinators and stuff like that, it was major."

The 49ers won at least 10 games in every non-strike season between 1981 and 1998. Young played only three games in 1999 before retiring.

Joe Montana and/or Young were the quarterbacks during that brilliant run from 1981-1998. The 49ers had limited success with Jeff Garcia in subsequent years, but they haven't acquired or developed the right quarterback. Sometimes it's that simple.

"The Niners were once a team that was built upon a strong mixed offense," SFDM12 wrote, "but over the years they have had some key ingredients, but always lack one important piece: a stable quarterback that can handle the pressure and deliver."

Having the wrong quarterback magnifies problems that might not matter so much otherwise, whether it's losing a coordinator or making a mistake in the draft. Rice thinks the quarterback issue is even bigger now than when he played, because players are less apt to rally around a lesser one.

"When I played the game, if it was not Montana or Young, I had to do whatever I had to do to make that guy under center better, and I took pride in that," Rice said. "But with the guys today, they are not going to do that. If they feel you are not capable of doing it, they are not going to waste their time. You are done. It's a whole different generation of guys. I'm not saying they don't love the game, but I could tell with the Niners that they did not feel confident that this guy was the leader and they could win games with him."

For that reason, and because the 49ers have pretty good talent elsewhere on the roster, Rice said he thinks the 49ers should pursue a veteran quarterback.

The road back

The 49ers' ownership isn't likely to change. The leadership and coaching positions appear set.

Quarterback remains a massive question mark.

Harbaugh has a five-year contract and a clear offensive philosophy. He should be able to offer some continuity on offense, at least. And he has said he'll reach back into the West Coast tradition Walsh established three decades ago.

"That was the philosophy he was using at Stanford," Rice said. "It is very simple where these players can just go play football. I think that is going to help. I think having a GM in place is going to help because it takes some of the pressure off Jim Harbaugh."

They will, of course, need the quarterback.

"Since the hiring of Nolan, they have at least tried to do the right thing, and the roster talent has grown immensely," WakeTripper wrote. "With Jed at the helm, there seems to be a new attitude, more similar to the 'Eddie D' days. And now, capped with the hiring of Harbaugh and his desire to bring back the West Coast Offense, us longtime fans can at least have hope that the Niners can regain their team identity and return to their former status as one of the great teams in the league."

Thoughts on 49ers' offensive coordinator

January, 14, 2011

A few nuggets following news that the San Francisco 49ers have identified Stanford assistant head coach Greg Roman as their next offensive coordinator:
  • This was an expected move once Stanford hired David Shaw over Roman as successor to new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
  • Roman has worked closely with Harbaugh, a bonus. The comfort level is already there. The 49ers haven't had this built-in comfort level between their head coach and offensive coordinators in recent seasons.
  • Roman might have done a marvelous job at Stanford, but Harbaugh's background on offense diminishes, to a degree, the value of the 49ers' offensive coordinator. Put another way: The 49ers will be less reliant on their offensive coordinator because their head coach can do the heavy lifting on that side of the ball. That is a welcome change, although the defensive hires now become more important than they were under, say, Mike Nolan.
  • The 49ers have not ranked higher than 18th in points per game or 24th in yards per game since ranking among the NFL's top 10 in both categories back in 2003, Dennis Erickson's first year as head coach. The bar has been set pretty low, in other words. Harbaugh and Roman need to jump over it pretty quickly.
  • Roman has coached in the NFL with Carolina, Houston and Baltimore. That helps. He was quarterbacks coach for the Texans when current 49ers backup David Carr was their quarterback in 2004 and 2005. I don't know if that makes Carr more or less likely to return as a backup, but the 49ers know they still need to find their long-term starter elsewhere.

We should expect Harbaugh to continue piecing together his staff at an accelerated rate now that Stanford has hired a head coach.

Gruden, big-name coaches and the 49ers

December, 29, 2010

Thanks to @rcurtis67 for asking how Jon Gruden could be out of the running in San Francisco, which precipitated some Googling, which led to this NBC Bay Area item about Peter King's comments Tuesday night:
"The 49ers have not been trendsetters in anything recently, except losing. But I do think what they’re going to do this year is going to set an example for a lot of teams in this league to follow. ‘In’ are going to be the young, hungry, affordable, mostly assistant coaches in the NFL. ‘Out’ are going to be the been-there, done-that, won-Super-Bowl guys -- Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden. A lot of people have said, ‘Hey, Gruden is a good candidate for this San Francisco job’. And I’m told flat-out he is not a candidate for the San Francisco job. Instead, a guy like Jim Harbaugh, the Stanford coach, who I’m told by several people around the league is going to be the hot guy this coming offseason. Harbaugh is a guy the 49ers are definitely interested in -- and I think he is going to have interest in them."

The 49ers have gone with first-time head coaches for their last two hires. Neither succeeded. Before hiring Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan, the 49ers went with Dennis Erickson, who did have experience as a head coach. That failed, too. We have no evidence the 49ers' current leadership knows how to identify, develop or support successful head coaches. That does not doom the 49ers to failure in the future, but if they do not hire strong, experienced leadership, it's especially important for them to find an exceptional head coach.

Hiring head coaches with previous experience in the role can carry risks, too. If the 49ers go that route, they need to make sure that coach remains hungry. They would want to make sure he could assemble an ascending, forward-thinking staff. Gruden is a grinder by nature. I would not question his hunger or drive. The 49ers' current leadership could view his strong personality as a threat, however. And if teams really are going to focus on hiring cheaper coaches from the pool of assistants, Gruden obviously would not fit that mold.

Return of the note about return TDs

December, 27, 2010

One more return touchdown in Week 17 would leave the Arizona Cardinals tied with the 1998 Seattle Seahawks for the most in an NFL season.

Note that previous reports had associated that record with the 2003 Seattle team; the Cardinals have subsequently updated their note. It was definitely the 1998 team. I covered that Seahawks team and remember it struggling to an 8-8 finish in Dennis Erickson's final season as head coach.

One of the more memorable returns that season: Sam Adams batting Troy Aikman's pass to himself and returning the ball 25 yards for a touchdown.

The chart shows the teams with at least 11 return touchdowns. I've added a column for season records. Arizona and Seattle are the only teams on the list that failed to finish with a winning record despite all those unconventional points.