49ers turn back clock with playoff run

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49ers turn back clock with playoff run

Brian Jennings, the sole survivor of a different era, smiled at the memory of 2002.

In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago, the 49ers' long-snapper said Wednesday.

It was. George W. Bush was in the early part of his presidency. There was no war with Iraq. American Idol was in its first season. The Giants had recently lost to the Angels in the World Series and no one knew if theyd ever come that close again.

Jim Harbaugh was a young assistant coach in Oakland, recently removed from his playing career. Alex Smith was a few months out of high school. Jed York was at Notre Dame. Bill Walsh was still a special consultant to the 49ers. Jeff Garcia was defying expectations. Terrell Owens wasnt looking for a new home because he was still with his original team. Steve Mariucci wasnt on the NFL Network because it didnt exist. He was coaching the 49ers.

That was the last time the 49ers won their division. The last time they were in the playoffs. And the only holdover from that era is Jennings, the long snapper.

It was a fun year, he said. There were a lot of veteran guys. We worked hard in practice and goofed off after. There was a lot of laughing and good times.

And a sense of optimism.

Oh, yeah, we were back, Jennings said.

Dont forget that 2002 was the resurrection year. It wasnt just one more season in a string of 49ers playoff successes. The 49ers had come through ownership chaos, salary cap hell and a massive transition. The team took a turn for the worse in a 1998 playoff game in Atlanta when Garrison Hearst broke his ankle. Three games into the next season, Steve Youngs career ended with a concussion. A year later, Eddie DeBartolo had to cede control of the team. The 49ers endured a 4-12 season in 1999 and a 6-10 season the next year.

But by 2002, the 49ers had finally managed to make it into a new, post-Steve Young, post-Jerry Rice era. They were pointing in the right direction, thanks to direction from Bill Walsh (we will not be giving credit here to largely absentee general manager Terry Donahue). Hard choices had been made like letting Rice go. The 49ers won the wild card in 2001 with a 12-4 record but lost in the first round to Brett Favre and the Packers in Green Bay.

In 2002, the 49ers won the NFC West, but were locked into a first round game, because Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Green Bay at 12-4 were all superior teams. The 49ers, at 10-6, had a couple of rough losses on their record.

But they won a wild 39-38 game at home against the New York Giants. And then lost to eventual Super Bowl champions, Jon Grudens Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on the road.

A few days later, owner John York fired Mariucci, a move as puzzling now as it was then, considering the trajectory of the team. And the 49ers have been a tailspin ever since.

Until now. Until, on the fourth try and after eight years of wandering in the desert - the 49ers finally got it right and hired the right coach.

What Jim Harbaugh has done is amazing. Astonishing. Not only getting the team back to the playoffs but potentially getting in as the No. 2 seed in the conference. Harbaugh had the Coach of the Year award locked up in about Week Four. Now hes vying for Coach of the Century.

And the only man who can really gauge just how amazing it all is, is Jennings.

I survived the drought, he said.

Hes the only player with a tie to Walsh -- having been drafted under Walshs watch. Hes the only player who made it through the dark tunnel of Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, only to emerge into the lightness.

This week, Harbaugh dropping uncanny Star Wars knowledge called Jennings a Jedi Knight, not a Padawan learner. Harbaugh didnt say what he meant by that, but perhaps he was alluding to Jennings patience and foresight that it would all work out.

The Force is finally back with the 49ers. Its been a long time.

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

Mailbag: Which 49ers vets are on shaky ground?

The 49ers’ new regime heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with the first major wave of offseason activity set to kick off.

Already, the 49ers have made roster improvements. And there figure to be plenty of activity ahead in the coming weeks.

Here are some questions submitted by readers on Facebook for this edition of 49ers Mailbag:

Do you see the 49ers cutting ties with larger contracts like Bethea, Torrey Smith and Ahmad Brooks?‬ (Blair Wilkins)
The 49ers have approximately $75 million in space under the salary cap – and that’s before any adjustment of Colin Kaepernick’s contract. So it’s not as if the organization needs to create cap room.

Any decision made to part ways with veteran players will be made solely on how that player fits into what the 49ers envision on the field.

And that’s what general manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff are doing now. They are studying the video from last season to determine which players fit their ideals.

Safety Antoine Bethea is scheduled to earn $5.75 million. Bethea, 32, enters the final year of his contract. There is no question he is everything the 49ers want in a player off the field. If one of the younger guys is not better than Bethea, there is no reason to get rid of him.

Brooks is on the books to earn $5.3 million in 2017. That’s not a huge amount for a starting outside linebacker or defensive end – whichever spot he might fit best. The 49ers must look to upgrade their pass rush. Brooks turns 33 next month. He’s good for six sacks a season. Again, it’s not as if the 49ers can’t afford him. And, as of now, it’s not as if the 49ers have anyone better.

Smith is scheduled to earn $8 million. He has been vastly underutilized in his two seasons since signing with the 49ers. He’s the most interesting case of the high-priced veterans.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on using the running game to set up the play-action shot down the field. Smith is limited. He’s not a possession receiver. He’s not going to make plays over the middle. He is an outside receiver whose contributions come in the vertical passing game. But that’s what Shanahan wants.

If Smith is paired with a strong tight end, a running back who catch the ball out of the backfield, a slot receiver with short-area quickness to get open underneath, a very good receiver on the other side and an accurate quarterback who can throw the deep ball, there should be a role for Smith in the 49ers’ offense.

Will the 49ers continue to be aggressive pursuing free agents this offseason? If so, what positions?‬ (Bradley Lodge)
The 49ers have zeroed in on two veteran free agents and they signed them both.

The organization has already spent more money than it did all of last offseason on veteran free agency with the four-year, $16 million deal to sign defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, whom the Miami Dolphins recently released.

Nickel back K’Waun Williams has a history with 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. The 49ers did not have to make much of a financial investment to sign him.

The 49ers will definitely go after a veteran quarterback or two in free agency or via trade. Pass rusher, inside linebacker and wide receiver are other positions the 49ers can be expected to look during free agency.

The opening of the new league year – when free-agent signings and trades can occur – is March 9. The draft is seven weeks later.

The 49ers must fill as many of their needs with smart deals that fit into the long-term plan with veteran acquisitions. Then, the draft is about taking the best players on their board when it’s time to select. Teams that reach for need generally strike out.

What are the chances of drafting a QB with first pick and playing them behind a Kap / Cousins until they're ready to become starter?‬ (Hillory Broussard)
If Colin Kaepernick returns, it will not be as a no-questions-asked starter. Just read what Lynch said on KNBR this week about the team’s needs:

“Do we have some places – probably the ultimate position, quarterback – where we need to improve? Absolutely. And we’re committed to doing that.”

That statement can easily be interpreted that Lynch does not believe the 49ers had a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster last season.

But if the 49ers were to go out and swing a trade for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s going to take a big commitment – in terms of draft picks and a suitable new contract. Then, the 49ers would have that player.

Cousins or Garoppolo would unquestionably fill the 49ers’ need at quarterback for 2017 and beyond -- at least in the minds of the 49ers' new decision-makers. There would be no reason for the 49ers to then draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick – if the 49ers even had the No. 2 overall pick at that point.

 

49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

49ers have already spent more in 2017 free agency than a year ago

Under the 49ers’ new regime, the club has already invested more in the free-agent market than a year ago under then-general manager Trent Baalke.

Just a reminder: The free-agent signing period does not officially open until March 9.

The 49ers on Friday reached a contract agreement with veteran defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, who is penciled into be a starter in the team’s new 4-3 base scheme under defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

"As soon as Earl hit the open market, he became a priority for us to sign,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement released Saturday morning. “A man of high character, he represents everything we want to be as a football team. Earl is a tone-setter who plays the game with a tremendous passion and the effort necessary to win in this league. We believe those qualities are contagious and will help to make our team stronger. We look forward to the impact Earl will have on the field, in the locker room and in our community.”

It was the first significant move under Lynch, who also signed a player with NFL experience earlier in the week.

The 49ers also added cornerback K’Waun Williams to a one-year contract. Williams served as the Cleveland Browns’ nickel back for two seasons. The Browns released him before the start of last season and he was unable to play due to an ankle injury.

Mitchell was available to be signed before the start of the new league year because the Miami Dolphins released him last week in a move to save the team $4 million in cap space.

Mitchell took four free-agent visits and after wrapping up his tour with the Atlanta Falcons on Friday, he and the 49ers quickly agreed on a four-year, $16 million contract that includes $5.5 million of money in the first year, according to a source.

Last year, Baalke did little to improve the roster for coach Chip Kelly. The 49ers, who finished 5-11 in Jim Tomsula's one season, dropped to 2-14. Just hours after the season concluded, the 49ers announced the firings of Baalke and Kelly.

The only veteran free-agent addition who stepped on the field for the 49ers last season was offensive lineman Zane Beadles. The 49ers signed Beadles in late-March to a three-year, $9.75 million contract with a $1.75 million signing bonus. Beadles had a good season for the 49ers, starting 12 games at left guard, two games at left tackle and the final two games at center.

The 49ers have already shown more willingness to be aggressive under Lynch’s leadership.

Mitchell, 29, is a seven-year veteran who began his NFL career from 2010 to ’13 with the Houston Texans. He was a rookie in Saleh’s final season as assistant linebackers coach in Houston.

Mitchell joins DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Quinton Dial on the 49ers defensive line. The 49ers view Mitchell as a high-energy player who bring good character to the locker room. The signing of Mitchell could be an indication the 49ers are moving on from Glenn Dorsey, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

With 5.5 sacks in seven seasons, the 49ers do not figure to use Mitchell in passing situations. The club must try to bolster its pass rush in free agency or the draft. Last season, Buckner and Ahmad Brooks shared the team-lead with six sacks apiece. In 2015, Brooks and Aaron Lynch both led the way with 6.5 sacks.