The San Francisco treatise
Steve Mariucci prepares for the playoffs ... next year's
This is the 11th in a series of postcards Sports Illustrated's Peter King will e-mail from his annual NFL training camp tour.
Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 7
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Site: The microwave oven also known as Stockton, Calif., at a college -- the University of the Pacific -- that no longer has a football program. Driving here from San Francisco, the energy crisis hits home. There seem to be about three times the number of those energy-producing windmills dotting the central California countryside than I remember there being a year ago.
Five observations from practice that you just can't get anywhere else: Actually, I saw a special teams practice and not a full-squad workout, but I'll mix in some observations with that I've heard here.
1. Bruce DeHaven, the special teams coach fired after the Music City Miracle in Buffalo, has been reborn out here. "I just love it," he told me. "Steve Mariucci really gives special teams the time it deserves for us to be good."
2. "Now this is something I've never seen before," said club consultant John McVay, staring out on the field from under his wide-brimmed hat. It was a punt-blocking drill. Live and in color. Punters Stephen Clark and Chad Stanley go into their motion, and rushers go full bore around each end trying to get one. John Engelberger, Menson Holloway and Chike Okeafor broke in for blocks while I was watching. Good drill.
3. Andre Carter is the genuine article. He'll start at one end on opening day, and the 49ers will give him plenty of chances to go after the quarterback. "Smart, mature, hard-working -- and his energy is absolutely incredible," Mariucci said. "He could be a rare player."
4. Jeff Garcia tipped the scales at 189 pounds at a recent weigh-in. Mariucci, truth be told, is afraid his quarterback might break in half someday.
5. The 49ers are cautiously optimistic Garrison Hearst can come back from his everlasting health problems. He'll play Saturday night in San Diego. But the coaching staff hasn't seen much from their third-round pick, former Pitt running back Kevan Barlow, who could be the steal of the draft. He strained a thigh early in camp.
Opinion/factoid that might be interesting only to me: The 49ers might just start Eric Johnson at tight end, someday if not right away. I bet he's the only former Yale golf team member to be a candidate for a starting job in the NFL. Golf team. Yale. That's right. And Mariucci absolutely loves him.
The food: Probably a bad day to judge because I arrived late to camp and public relations assistant extraordinaire Chad Steele brought me for a late lunch. As camps go, this was a clunker of a meal.
Overall grade: C-minus
Dear NFL Junkie ...
The thing I like about Steve Mariucci is his honesty when you ask him about his team, even if the answer isn't always pretty.
"If I was retired from coaching and into the football analysis business," he told me in his air-conditioned (thank the Lord) office on the Pacific campus, "I would say if everything goes right we're almost a playoff team. This is my third-best team. We were better in 1997, obviously, and in '98, when Steve Young won some games by himself. Then the bottom fell out, with all the cuts we had to make because of the cap, and I'd say our worst team was in '99 and next-worst last year. Now we're growing. We have a pretty good defense. We need one more draft. You know what happens when you build a team? You've got to have guys who play together, and you've got to build a unit. Our problem is we haven't had time to build a unit because the kids are so young, and we've had so much turnover. So they play together this year, and we have one more draft, and we get after the quarterback a little better, and I really think we'll be in position to make the playoffs next year. We could this year, if we're injury-free and everything goes right. But I think now everyone here knows we're headed the right way. You know who's been really good for us so far? Dana Stubblefield. He seems happy to be back. I don't know what happened in Washington other than he helped his bank account, but I think he feels like, 'This is the right place for me.' He's got a lot left, several years, I think. He and his wife bought a home here this offseason, and I think he's really going to be a great asset to B.Y. [fellow defensive tackle Bryant Young], in keeping some of the pressure off him. We needed him. We just need time. In the last three years, we've basically lost about 30 players a year, which leads to no continuity at all. We're building continuity now."
Some places I drive away from, like Cincinnati, thinking: No chance. Dead men walking.
Some places I drive away from, like Denver and Baltimore, thinking: I'll be covering these guys in January.
Some places I drive away from, like this one, thinking: They're on the right track, just a year away.
Next up: Oakland