What's My Line?
The 49ers may have solved their problems at offensive tackle
Two weeks before the 49ers open one of the final seasons of the Steve Young-Jerry Rice era, you would think San Francisco would be kicking itself for not having devoted enough high draft picks or free-agent money to shore up an aging and depleted offensive line. You would think the Niners would be fatally flawed after failing to plan for the retirement of their most reliable blocker, right tackle Kirk Scrafford, and adding head-case tackle Jamie Brown, in a trade with the Broncos.
But what happened in the Niners' first three preseason games, particularly in Vancouver last Saturday night, showed that San Francisco's line may be in fine shape after all. In bolting to a 21-0 second-quarter lead over the Seahawks, the 49ers got flawless play from the lowest-paid pair of starting tackles in the NFL, Dave Fiore (1998 salary: $204,000) and Derrick Deese ($360,000), against a Seattle front seven featuring five players who have multimilllion-dollar contracts. In particular Fiore, who has never started a regular-season NFL game, played superbly. On four series encompassing 14 pass plays, the man Fiore was responsible for blocking—variously, linemen Cortez Kennedy and Phillip Daniels and linebackers Chad Brown and Darrin Smith—never got a sniff of Young or backup quarterback Ty Detmer. The Niners are getting used to this. In their preseason opener Fiore never allowed Willie McGinest, the Patriots' $5 million-a-year pass rusher, to get a hand on the quarterback. Ditto for the Chargers' $3-3 million man, Marco Coleman, in week two. Fiore appears to have quick enough feet and the arm strength to be a competent, if not outstanding, tackle.
The 36-year-old Young hasn't been thrilled about San Francisco's neglect of the line in recent years. Now, with premier outside pass rushers like the Redskins' Ken Harvey and the Bills' Bruce Smith lining up against the Niners in the first five weeks of the season, Young must rely on a pair of tackles who were free agents coming out of college. Still, he's starting to believe in the Fiore-Deese tandem. "I'm not a Pollyanna about it," Young said after the 24-21 win over Seattle. "I'm a little concerned about the experience factor. But in football not enough is made of playing with passion. These are two guys who love playing, and I don't know how many guys in this league you can say that about. We're going to win with these guys."
After Scrafford retired in April because of a neck injury, the Niners dealt a second-round 1999 draft pick for Brown. In three seasons he had played un-spectacularly in Denver under relentless line coach Alex Gibbs, but no one has taken on that babysitting role with the 49ers. Longtime line coach Bobb McKittrick believes it is the players' responsibility to get motivated. Brown was slowed by a hamstring injury early in camp, and he was ostracized by teammates when he didn't attend the exhibition opener against the Patriots. In an unusual move the Niners then excused Brown from camp so he could rest the hamstring and soothe his fragile psyche. Brown was expected to return to the team this week in a reserve role.
Enter Fiore. Recommended to San Francisco as a rookie free agent in 1996 by New Jersey workout buddy and former Niner Jim Burt after a nondescript career as a nonscholarship player at Hofstra, Fiore spent die first half of his rookie season with the Niners before being released and picked up by the Jets. He hurt his left knee during training camp in '97, reached an injury settlement with the Jets and after re-signing with the Niners, spent die season on injured reserve. He entered camp this year as a 288-pound insurance policy.
However, winning the starting left-tackle job this summer wouldn't be the biggest upset of Fiore's career. Just getting to the NFL was. A high school quarterback and tight end from Waldwick, N.J., Fiore worked his way through Hofstra; he played football as a sideline. "I worked security at a bar," he says. "I was a bartender. I was an RA [resident assistant] in a dorm. I took out loans that I'm still paying back."
No wonder Fiore plays every snap as if it's his last. On pass plays, after the ball is out of the quarterback's hand, he sprints upfield like a Frisbee dog, looking for someone to block On Saturday night, he tangled with Brown, the prize of the 1997 free-agent crop. "What a great player," Fiore said of Brown. "Lightning quick. But those are the guys I have to stop. I just have to."
To the surprise of everyone but himself, Fiore is doing just that. "The only expectations I've exceeded are everyone else's," Fiore says. Welcome, perhaps, to the underdog story of 1998.
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