In effort to return to top, 49ers lower their standards

On The NFL

July 11, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Times are changing for the San Francisco 49ers, who were once noted as the best team that money could buy.

The 49ers won five Super Bowls back in the days when owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. could use his late father's shopping mall empire to subsidize the team.

DeBartolo, who was suspended by the league after a guilty plea in a Louisiana gambling investigation, is now negotiating to sell the team to his sister, Denise, who says her brother ran up $94 million in debt. Assuming she keeps it, Denise is more likely to run the team as a business.

On top of that, the team has grown old and made a major mistake when it bypassed Jake Plummer for Jim Druckenmiller. That leaves the team without a replacement for quarterback Steve Young, who turns 38 in October.

The 49ers suffered another blow to their offense last week when it was revealed running back Garrison Hearst may be suffering from avascular necrosis, the condition in which a lack of blood flow causes the death of a bone. It is what ended Bo Jackson's career.

The 49ers are so desperate that they brought in troubled running back Lawrence Phillips for a look last week.

There was a time when the 49ers were so good that they could dump problem players they thought weren't good for their image. They got rid of Charles Haley in 1992, and he won three more Super Bowl rings in Dallas. They dumped Ricky Watters in 1995, and his only problem was that he was a hot dog who was disliked by the players.

The 49ers no longer have the luxury of being so selective. If Hearst can't play, the top rusher from last year on the team is Young.

Bill Walsh, who's now running the front office, even said Phillips has a "disarming pleasant personality." This comes just three months after Walsh had said "I wouldn't have taken Lawrence Phillips no matter what was out there because of the violence."

That the 49ers are even willing to consider Phillips shows that these are desperate times for a franchise trying to remain a contender.

Carrying a soft stick

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue speaks with a loud voice and carries a soft stick when it comes to the NFL's violence policy.

It was announced with much fanfare in March 1998 as a reaction to incidents involving NFL players off the field.

But the league has yet to suspend anyone for violating the policy, and Phillips, scheduled to meet with Tagliabue this week, isn't likely to be the first. Tagliabue will probably fine him and order some mandatory counseling.

Power trip

Coach Norv Turner of the Washington Redskins is good at convincing owners the team's lack of success in his tenure isn't his fault.

He got former owner Jack Kent Cooke to give him a three-year extension on his original five-year contract, even though he didn't make the playoffs in his first three seasons.

Now, he's gone five years without making the playoffs, and he convinced new owner Dan Snyder that general manager Charley Casserly is the problem.

Turner somehow obscured the fact that he wanted quarterback Heath Shuler despite Casserly's misgivings and talked Casserly into drafting wide receiver Michael Westbrook when Casserly preferred Joey Galloway. He also wanted quarterback Brad Johnson, who cost the team three high draft picks.

Despite all that, Snyder plans to give Turner more power and was ready to fire Casserly until he found out Casserly has three years left on his contract.

Now, Snyder appears ready to demote Casserly in hopes that he'll quit, although Casserly won't walk away from the final three years of his deal without a settlement.

Turner will be left on the firing line with no one else to blame. If he doesn't make the playoffs this year, Snyder seems likely to find himself a new coach.

Free-agent derby

The curtain drops on this year's unrestricted free-agent signing season on Thursday.

A total of 114 UFAs have changed teams so far, with the Cleveland expansion team signing the most -- 14. Carolina has signed 11.

There's actually a lot more player movement, but the NFL doesn't count the so-called street free agents who were cut by other teams.

For example, the Ravens are listed with signing six UFAs, including offensive tackle Harry Swayne. But the league doesn't count all the street free agents they've signed, including Webster Slaughter, Eric Metcalf, Billy Davis, Qadry Ismail and Steve Broussard.

Staying in school

Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick was apparently serious when he denied reports he was going to make himself eligible for the supplemental draft, which was held last week.

He wasn't on the list of 12 players who were bypassed in the draft. Although none of them was selected, Cincinnati quickly signed offensive lineman Rob Murphy, who was dismissed by Ohio State because of poor grades.

Assuming that Warrick doesn't change his mind in the next two months, he's likely to be one of the top picks in the draft next April.

Hall of Famer

The name Dameyune Craig probably doesn't ring a bell, but his jersey is now in the Hall of Fame. That's his Scottish Claymores jersey.

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