Steve Mariucci is as relentlessly peppy as a coach can be. But mention the trio of punishing NFC West running backs who stand between Mariucci's 49ers and their quest to regain division supremacy, and the third-year coach becomes gloomier than a Garth Brooks ballad.
"All the flashy stuff sells tickets, makes headlines and lights up the scoreboard, but the bottom line is, if you want to have any chance of controlling a football game, you have to stop the run," Mariucci said last week, following a minicamp practice for rookies and selected veterans. "We're well aware of what we're up against—the best backs in the league, as a division—and that's one reason we drafted two defensive linemen early on."
It's bad enough that the 49ers must play six games against the NFC West's Big Three: the Falcons' Jamal Anderson, who last year rushed for 336 yards in three games against San Francisco; the Rams' Marshall Faulk, who with the Colts in '98 was the league's most productive all-purpose back; and the Saints' prized rookie, Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. Throw in games this season against Fred Taylor ( Jaguars), Eddie George (Titans), Robert Smith (Vikings), Jerome Bettis ( Steelers), Corey Dillon ( Bengals) and Dorsey Levens ( Packers), and there could be a lot of cleat marks in San Francisco's immediate future.
The 49ers, who were second in the league in rushing defense in 1997, slipped to ninth last year (19th in average yards per carry)—and things could get worse. Defensive line candidates include a tackle coming back from a serious leg injury (All-Pro Bryant Young), an end who missed part of the '98 season with a bad leg of his own (Gabe Wilkins), a pair of rookies (first-round draft pick Reggie McGrew, a 300-pound tackle from Florida, and third-rounder Chike Okeafor, a pass-rush specialist from Purdue), an undersized fifth-year tackle coming off a career year (Junior Bryant) and a longtime locker room menace with a bad back who has not made a sack since 1996 ( Charles Haley).
But Haley, whose series of grotesque off-field antics inspired the team to trade him to the Cowboys in 1992, has defied expectations many times before. He won three more Super Bowls after leaving San Francisco—he's the only NFL player with five—and wrote a book, All the Rage, that trashed some of his former Niners coaches and teammates. After Haley, who had retired following the '96 season, returned to his old romping grounds and put forth a pair of fairly impressive postseason performances, Niners general manager Bill Walsh decided to extend Haley's bizarre tenure for a full season. "It might've been a desperation move to bring him in last year," Walsh says, "but this isn't, because we saw what he could still do."
The 49ers will take all the help they can get. Walsh says Haley, 35, who is expected to sign a one-year contract soon, would likely be used for only 20 to 30 plays a game and may need a week off from time to time. (Young has recovered well from the broken right fibula and tibia he suffered last November, but his right knee is bothersome, and he probably won't return to full-time duty until the second half of the season—at the earliest.) The decision on Haley was made somewhat easier by the fact that Walsh, who picked him in the fourth round of the '86 draft, is among the people Haley didn't rip in his book. "[His past] is a consideration, but my relationship with him has been excellent," Walsh says. "Besides, there's a maturity factor. I think he can be a positive force in the locker room."