Facebook Twitter

Niners feel ‘train-wrecked,’ expect to heal in offseason

SHARE Niners feel ‘train-wrecked,’ expect to heal in offseason

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The front office was in disarray, and there was uncertainty about the team's ownership. There were rumors about the head coach's job security and some devastating injuries. Through it all, the San Francisco 49ers managed to put together a 12-4 regular-season record, beat Green Bay in a wild-card game to halt a three-year playoff skid to the Packers and reach the divisional round for the seventh straight year before being eliminated by a 20-18 loss to Atlanta. To be sure, the 49ers (13-5) fell short in their bid for a record sixth Super Bowl title, but considering what the team endured all year, it's hard to quarrel with the level of success. "I think that when we look back on this, we'll understand why this was a triumphant year even though we didn't lift the Lombardi Trophy," cornerback Marquez Pope said. "We achieved a lot under the circumstances we were given." The chaos in the front office has been evident since the first full-squad training camp workout in July, when the players were awakened for a midnight meeting and informed Carmen Policy had resigned as team president. Six months later, on the same day the 49ers' season ended, Larry Thrailkill, a corporate lawyer and an officer in the DeBartolo Corp., resigned as interim team president, bringing to a close the football novice's uncomfortable run as club caretaker. In between, Dwight Clark quit as the 49ers' general manager to join Policy in Cleveland as an executive with the expansion Browns. "I would be lying to you if I said the team ignored all of it. There's no way you can ignore all of it," said coach Steve Mariucci, who had been expected to sign his long-delayed contract extension on Monday but didn't because some details still need to be worked out. "But we stuck together through all the things that went on. I didn't see the wheels come off. I didn't see any finger pointing. I never saw any of that, ever. The uncertainty could be distracting, no doubt about that. It's not an excuse at all, but it's something this team had to continually overcome." On the field, San Francisco was hurt by a horrific injury to Bryant Young. The 49ers' best defensive player, Young broke both bones in his lower left leg Nov. 30 in a win over the New York Giants. Garrison Hearst, who set a team single-season rushing record (1,570), also went down with a broken bone in his left leg and a torn ankle ligament on the first play in Saturday's divisional playoff. In his absence, the 49ers' league-leading rushing attack faltered, San Francisco's offense became one-dimensional and the Falcons intercepted Young three times. "There's somewhat of a train-wrecked feeling," Young said. "We all had the mentality that we could go all the way, so it's just too bad we couldn't make a few more plays. We were hoping to do something remarkable." With its season over, San Francisco can now focus on trying to put its house in order. Eddie Debartolo, who withdrew as active club owner in December 1997 because of legal problems, may be close to regaining control of the team from his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, pending completion of an NFL review. Bill Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach who led San Francisco to its first three Super Bowls, is on the verge of rejoining the team in a front-office capacity, primarily to help in personnel matters and oversee the draft. Walsh's hiring could be announced this week. "We'll get it all worked out this offseason," Mariucci said. "We'll have people in the right places, and once we get it straightened out, it will be business as usual." The 49ers also must contend with some significant player personnel issues. San Francisco finished the year with a league-high 14 players 30 years of age or older and faces a salary cap crunch that could complicate its bid to retain such young stars as J.J. Stokes and Owens. The two, who with Jerry Rice formed one of the league's top triple threats at wide receiver, can potentially become free agents during the offseason. Meanwhile, the 49ers must find a way to trim a player payroll that could be as much $25 million over next season's cap. The team also must decide whether to cut their losses on some expensive additions from the Policy-Clark regime that didn't work out. They include cornerback Antonio Langham, a $17 million free agent bust, and offensive tackle Jamie Brown, who hurt the team and still will cost San Francisco's 1999 second-round draft pick because of the trade it made with Denver. "We've been very fortunate through the years to overcome things like that, and hopefully we will again," said Rice, whose own contract is likely to be scrutinized and restructured. "We need to get some help in here and make a run again next year."