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Tuesday, August 5, 2003
Updated: August 13, 7:56 PM ET
Erickson brings more contact to 49ers camp

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Located next to the parking lot of the Great America Amusement Park, the 49ers are enjoying a different ride these days. No more camp outing to Stockton or Rocklin. Dennis Erickson has the 49ers at their team headquarters pounding on each other each day in preparation for a new season.

The new ride involves more physical contact than past training camps. Receivers line up against cornerbacks for blocking drills and attack until one or the other is thrown to the ground. "That's Kick Your Ass 101," yelled one of the coaches. Last week, linebacker Derek Smith thought halfback Kevan Barlow got him too good in a blocking drill and they got into a shoving match. The work is crisp. Attitude is great. But West Coast laid back it isn't.

Dennis Erickson
Dennis Erickson was 31-33 in four seasons as the Seahawks head coach.
"It's a lot more physical this year than the last two," Barlow said. "He wants us to be more physical in practice so we can go into games and know how to tackle. He thought we were missing tackles and stuff. We normally don't wear pads during the season. We didn't tackle well last year. This year, it's intense."

Erickson returns to the NFL after four seasons at Oregon State on a mission. Reflecting on his days as head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, Erickson is taking nothing for granted. The hitting is the same drills he did at the University of Miami. Sure, it's going to tone down as games approach. But little things won't be glossed over during this tour. Erickson wants to win in a hard-contact sport and he's adjusting the tempo accordingly.

"That's how I always practiced," Erickson said. "Contact is the best way you get better on defense. It's good for the offense. It's good for the running backs and offensive linemen. As long as you keep your feet, people don't get hurt. The defensive players like it. It's kinda been around here that you don't hit anyone on offense."

For years, the 49ers have been the model of a West Coast offense team. Padded practices were rare. Veterans loved it because it preserved their bodies for the long season. From Bill Walsh to George Siefert to Steve Mariucci, 49ers coaches worked as much on the cerebral part of the game as the physical. Erickson's entrance has been a brief shock to the system and is creating energy.

"I think in order to improve and get better, you've got to go at it," Erickson said. "You can't assume anything. That's the one thing I did learn in Seattle."

The 49ers made the playoffs under Mariucci the past two years, but the window may be closing because of free agency and salary cap issues on the horizon. Terrell Owens, Julian Peterson, Ahmed Plummer and others become free agents after the season. Jeff Garcia's contract escalates to the franchise numbers. The 49ers can't assume anything. They have to get the most out of their talent now.

What Owens likes about Erickson's arrival is aggressiveness. He likes the contact work and he loves Erickson's desire to go downfield for long pass attempts.

"It's a point of emphasis," Owens said of the long pass. "The last few years I've been around, the outside routes were just clear out routes. Now, those are up for grabs. That gives us a chance to make a big play. There were times in the past where we cleared out the outside and we are open. Now, the quarterback is looking at those."

Garcia and the rest of the 49ers quarterbacks are throwing longer more often. During morning drills, receivers who draw single coverage are allowed to break their routes deep, and Garcia lets it fly. Players are loving it.

"It seems like every other play we are throwing it downfield on streak routes," Barlow said. "Coach Erickson said he was going to do it and he's doing it. He's launching the ball."

Erickson has maintained the integrity of the 49ers offense. The numbering systems are the same. The routes haven't changed. The verbiage for play-calling is the same. Erickson studied the offense and added a few fine points and a more aggressive philosophy.

"We just gave Jeff more flexibility," Erickson said. "You motion in this offense to try to get matchups, yet we didn't audible very much here except to get out of a bad play. Once you get the matchup you have been working on and it's sitting there, you have to take advantage of it. We're going to give Jeff the flexibility to see that match up and go downfield with it."

As a coach, Erickson does things the quiet way. He's not a big guy for meetings and rah, rah speeches. He's a coach's coach, who was ahead of the offensive curve in college with his spread offense. He loves studying tape and tweaking schemes. He's always worked well with quarterbacks.

For Garcia, the transition could have been tougher. Garcia loved Mariucci and still does. The two won a lot of games together. Mariucci developed Garcia to be an NFL starter after he came over from the Canadian Football League. But Erickson's behind-the-scene style made it easy for Garcia to accept the coaching change.

"I really like Dennis," Garcia said. "I think he's done a nice job of coming and somewhat adapting to what we do, but putting his own stamp on things. I think what he brings is an aggressive style, a style where he's going after it."

It's a lot more physical this year than the last two. He wants us to be more physical in practice so we can go into games and know how to tackle. He thought we were missing tackles and stuff. We normally don't wear pads during the season. We didn't tackle well last year. This year, it's intense.
Kevan Barlow, 49ers running back on camp under new coach Dennis Erickson

At Seattle, Erickson was 31-33 but should have won points for the degree of difficulty he was under. He left national champion teams at the University of Miami to come home to the Seattle area, but he came to a franchise heading toward turmoil. Ken Behring, then the owner, didn't kick in big dollars for free agency, but that didn't bother Erickson too much. Uprooting the franchise and moving it to Los Angeles for one offeason spoiled another year.

In Year 4, fighting for that first playoff game, Erickson had a win stolen from him when an official thought Vinny Testaverde's helmet was a football and gave the Jets a game-winning touchdown that shouldn't have happened.

Unlike the Seahawks experience, Erickson has been handed a talented team in San Francisco. Depth on the defensive line is a worry. With Jason Webster out until mid-August following ankle surgery, the cornerback position is precariously thin. But offensively, the 49ers are good. Erickson's an offensive coach. This should work.

"The sky is the limit in this season," Owens said. "I'm not going to say what numbers we can put up. I've been productive in this offense the last seven years. But now we can be more alert for the downfield throw. I'm looking forward to that."

Uncertainty looms after this season. Owens hoped to have a contract extension wrapped up by the start of training camp, but negotiations haven't really begun. The incredibly successful 2000 draft class in which the 49ers found five defensive starters are watching their contracts run out, too.

"I've come to the realization that I may not be here next year," Owens said. "I pretty much prepared myself for that. I've seen situations come and go. I've seen the situation with Jerry Rice. I heard about the situation with Joe Montana. I'm no different than those guys. They were bigger superstars than I was. I'm just a football player here right now who's under contract. If we don't get something done, I can hold my head down. Life goes on."

Life is going on in San Francisco with a new man in charge. So far, Erickson has been a hit.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.