Doleman finds new life in 49ers' rush for gold All-Pro defender is happy after his exile in Atlanta

November 18, 1996|By Dave Reddy | Dave Reddy,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SAN FRANCISCO -- He is three time zones removed from his family. He is no longer his team's lone defensive star.

But Chris Doleman is happy. Ecstatic, actually, now that he has escaped his two-year sentence with the Atlanta Falcons. And his new team -- San Francisco -- is smiling with him.

Eight months after the 49ers rescued him from Atlanta, Doleman, 35, is proving worthy of the gamble some thought San Francisco took by signing the aging defensive end as a free agent.

That gamble paid its greatest dividends yesterday when Doleman stripped the ball from Ravens quarterback Eric Zeier near the Baltimore end zone and pounced on it for a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Niners' 38-20 win at 3Com Park.

"It was a huge lift," said 49ers defensive tackle Bryant Young.

"It was a turning point in the game," Zeier said.

The Ravens, trailing by four points with 13 minutes left, indeed had forced the 49ers to create a turning point. Baltimore safety Eric Turner had just intercepted Elvis Grbac at the Ravens' 13. The 49ers were desperate. After all, what would San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown say if they lost to a 3-7 team?

Doleman, who thought earlier this week that he might miss this game because of a sprained knee, saved them the humiliation. Doleman swept around the right side past tackle Tony Jones and swatted the ball from Zeier as he cocked his arm to pass. Before Zeier could turn around, Doleman had dropped on the ball in the end zone and the Niners had a safe 31-20 lead.

"Most QBs, when they're dropping back, are holding the ball so lightly that it's not that tough to knock it out of there," said Doleman. Apparently, quarterbacks aren't tough to catch either. Doleman managed to get around Jones for three sacks and four tackles.

"I'm not going to give him credit by saying he got the best of me," Jones said. "That would be a lie. He got me on one play."

But what a timely play it was. The 49ers were craving a big play. Coming off a loss to Dallas and a week in which Mayor Brown publicly insulted Grbac, San Francisco couldn't afford to lose to a team it was supposed to beat.

"That's what Chris Doleman is here to do," 49ers linebacker Lee Woodall said. "Chris Doleman is here to be a pass rusher. When it comes to the beginning of the season, when the 49ers make changes, they expect the people they bring in to make an impact. Chris Doleman is making an impact."

He's making it with a fearsome front four, one the 49ers put together by signing Doleman and former Minnesota Viking Roy Barker in the off-season to complement tackles Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young.

The chance to shine again is exactly why Doleman left his wife and children in Atlanta and signed with the 49ers in March. Although he was a Pro Bowl selection for the seventh time last year, Doleman was merely a good player on a forgotten team. Atlanta, he said, "was very messy."

In San Francisco, Doleman's a good player on a star-studded defense, one that features names like Norton and Hanks, but sharing the spotlight doesn't bother him. He just wanted to be someplace where there actually was a spotlight.

"It was the first time I had ever been a free agent and I think I made the right choice by coming out here and spending my last days with the 49ers," Doleman said.

Some had wondered if those last days were upon him, but in the past month, his pass rush has improved. Doleman, who broke his right hand nearly two months ago, was able to play without a cast for the first time yesterday. And in the past three weeks, he has been a full-time right end, his natural position. Previously, he and Barker switched sides regularly.

"I'm happy here in San Francisco," Doleman said.

For the Niners, the feeling is mutual.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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