If this Titanic of an NFL ship, the SS Forty-Niner, gets righted anytime soon, you would do well to look back at a scene from last Saturday's NFL Draft. At 11:46 a.m. PDT, just after commissioner Paul Tagliabue had intoned over the TV at the far end of the San Francisco 49ers' war room, "With the 14th selection...the Green Bay Packers select Miami tight end Bubba Franks," the Niners' brain trust had a momentous decision to make. It could do the right thing for a horribly salary-cap-strapped team with one of the league's worst defenses. Or it could make one of those against-the-grain picks, as the team had done in recent drafts. (Does the name Jim Druckenmiller ring a bell?)
In a room papered with draft charts and packed with 31 scouts, coaches, medics and brass, the 49ers were about 15 minutes from being on the clock to make the first of their six picks in the opening three rounds. Coach Steve Mariucci huddled with general manager Bill Walsh, director of player personnel Terry Donahue, vice president John McVay, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and defensive coordinator Jim Mora. The 49ers were almost certain mat the team then picking, the Denver Broncos, would take Cal cornerback Deltha O'Neal. That would leave San Francisco, selecting 16th, to choose from among the four highest-graded prospects left on its draft board: Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington, Wisconsin tackle Chris McIntosh, Michigan State linebacker Julian Peterson and Ohio State cornerback Ahmed Plummer.
The 49ers hadn't expected Pennington to be available, and with 38-year-old Steve Young's comeback from multiple concussions in doubt, taking a quarterback didn't seem such a bad idea. San Francisco, however, had run through all sorts of draft scenarios, and each time the conclusion was the same: Fix the defense. Even if the ghost of Joe Montana were available, fix the defense.
Mariucci, usually effervescent and boisterous, spoke firmly in the war room. "I know we didn't think Pennington would be here," he said, looking from man to man. "But we know what we have to do, right? Look at our football team. We're not even competitive on defense. We've got to go with Peterson. We all on board with that?"
Everyone nodded. Then, when Tagliabue announced that Denver had indeed picked O'Neal, there wasn't a second thought for Pennington. "Yesss!" Donahue shouted, pumping his fist. "We got our guy."
The 49ers needed only 1:35 of the allotted 15 minutes to decide Peterson was their man. "We couldn't afford to be tempted by Pennington," Mariucci said on Saturday night, after the Niners had drafted five defensive players and a quarterback, Giovanni Carmazzi of Hofstra. "We'd just gotten to the point where it didn't matter if I had Steve Young and Joe Montana in their primes. We weren't going to win without massive help for our defense."
In the moments after they chose Peterson, the 49ers talked to three teams about their other spot in the first round, the 24th selection. New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi offered second- and third-round choices—Nos. 42 and 73 overall—for the 24th pick. With Pennington still on his mind, Walsh talked with the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren about moving up into Seattle's spot at No. 19. And Chiefs vice president of football operations Lynn Stiles, whose team was picking 21st, was willing to swap first-round picks if San Francisco would throw in a third- or a fourth-rounder. The 49ers stood pat. "Let's keep in mind what we've got to do here," Walsh said to McVay.
The 6'4", 240-pound Peterson, whose low Wonderlic score was a major concern for some teams, will be expected to win the pass-rushing linebacker job. Plummer, who was taken with the 24th pick, and second-round selection Jason Webster of Texas A&M are penciled in as starting corners on what was the NFL's worst pass defense in 1999; both have better-than-average speed and had at least 30 starts for highly successful programs. Virginia Tech's John Engelberger, another second-round choice, should fill the hybrid pass-rushing end-linebacker spot—known as the elephant—originated by Charles Haley in the 1980s. A fifth starter could come from a Zach Thomas-type of player, Hawaii middle linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, whom the Niners got in Round 3 after trading up. The prospect of starting five rookies on defense is frightening, but San Francisco is expansion-team needy, in part because of poor drafting (high picks such as defensive end-linebacker Israel Ifeanyi, a second-round selection who played only one season before being released in 1997, and struggling cornerback R.W. McQuarters, a first-round choice in '98) and in part because of cuts that had to be made (safety Tim McDonald and linebacker Lee Woodall, among others) to keep the team under the salary cap.
No matter how many 49ers starters emerge from this draft—among its five selections on Sunday, the team picked up Louisiana Tech quarterback Tim Rattay in the seventh round—San Francisco still will not have solved all its problems. What will the Niners do with Young and 37-year-old wideout Jerry Rice, who can see the end of their careers but aren't ready to retire? Walsh says two neurologists must clear Young, who missed the final 13 games last year after suffering a concussion, before San Francisco will put him back in the lineup. The team wants Rice, whose skills are in rapid decline, to take a substantial cut, but he has refused. Walsh sounds as if he's preparing the ax for both.
"This reminds me of coaching in 1987, when I felt I had to replace Joe Montana with Steve Young," says Walsh. "Playing Steve was best for the team. So I took Joe out, embraced him and put Steve in. It's the same principle now. If it's my role to facilitate saying goodbye to these men, so be it. It would be the end of our dynasty, but we all know that day has to come."