Even if Garcia rocks, the 49ers appear to be in trouble. They haven't drafted an offensive lineman in the first round since 1987, and line coach Bobb McKittrick, who has worked wonders for two decades, has been weakened by his battle with bile-duct cancer. San Francisco's defensive leader, strong safety Tim McDonald, has said he expects this to be his final season. The 37-year-old Rice could be on the way out too. Still attempting to regain his burst following reconstructive surgery on his left knee in '97 and a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last December, Rice says he'll return next year only if his health improves. "It's gotten to the point where I don't think my body can tolerate any more," he says. "I'm pushing it right now."
Meanwhile, Hearst, an All-Pro halfback who broke his left ankle in the 49ers' playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons last January, hopes to return in December, but the Niners' brass isn't counting on it. Hearst had surgery in July in an attempt to reverse a degenerative bone condition in the ankle that threatens to end his career.
The 49ers may be even shakier upstairs than they are on the field. DeBartolo stepped away from the team in late 1997 after news broke that he was being investigated in a bribery scandal in Louisiana. He later pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to report a felony, paid a $1 million fine and was suspended by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Last April, DeBartolo was sued for $94 million by the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., the family company, which is now headed by Denise DeBartolo York, and he countersued. A resulting series of settlement conferences led to a still-unsigned agreement that calls for DeBartolo to cede full ownership of the team to his sister, who appointed her husband, John York, as vice president and overseer of the franchise's day-to-day operations. There have been rumblings of tension between John York and Walsh over the Niners' business practices, and reports of territorial friction between Walsh and Mariucci, but all three men insist they are comfortable working with each other.
York has angered some Niners employees, notably by his decision to strip Lisa DeBartolo, Eddie's oldest daughter and Denise's goddaughter, of her title of vice president. Lisa, who runs the 49ers Foundation, learned she was no longer a vice president when the team released its 1999 media guide. York says Lisa is employed not by the team but by the 49ers Foundation, which is run by a separate board of directors. But York concedes that Lisa's paychecks are issued by the team.
Last month several photos of Eddie DeBartolo were removed from the team's offices, including shots of him hoisting the Lombardi Trophy that were featured in a display case in the lobby. After the disappearance was reported by the San Jose Mercury News, a spokesperson for York said that the photos, which have since been returned, were being cleaned. York now claims that explanation was cooked up by two unnamed employees who, he says, took down the photos without his knowledge and were later reprimanded. "That stuff is so petty," York says. "When Denise heard about it, she was sick."
In January, after noticing payments made by the team to retired Niners tight end Brent Jones, York reported the expenditures to the league as a possible salary-cap violation. The issue remains under NFL investigation, but Eddie DeBartolo's camp believes York's action was calculated to gain leverage in the battle for control of the team. York has publicly denied this, and he defends the suit brought against DeBartolo. "If your sister owed you $94 million, wouldn't you sue her?" he asked.
"I own half the corporation, so half of that debt is owed to me," DeBartolo said on Sunday from his Montana vacation home. "I'd like to move on and not spend my energy fighting with people, especially through the media. I'm just so sick and tired of this venomous behavior. My parents would be rolling over in their graves."
Eddie's second-oldest daughter, Tiffanie, a Los Angeles filmmaker and a member of the DeBartolo Corp. board of directors, says that York "has some serious issues with our family that he should be working out with a therapist, instead of while running a football team. Everything my uncle does is a calculated attempt to hurt my father."
Counters York, "I'm sorry that she supports her father to the point where she's blind to the facts. We did not create the debt, we did not create Louisiana. Eddie can't find it in himself to accept responsibility for his actions."
On Sunday the Niners lost their second straight game under Garcia. The secondary forced four turnovers and scored a pair of touchdowns, but Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein (23 completions in 36 attempts for 300 yards and four touchdowns) and his tall receivers exploited San Francisco's undersized cornerbacks. A few days before the game one Panthers coach had told his players that the Niners' cornerbacks were more vulnerable than those Carolina had burned in a 27-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 26. Ouch! And next up for San Francisco are Minnesota Vikings wideouts Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed. If the 49ers fall to the 2-4 Vikings, it will mark the first time they've lost three straight in the same season since 1980. Think about that—no losing streak to speak of in nearly two decades.