JULIAN PETERSON remembers how low the 49ers were upon his arrival, in 2000, back when a team that included Jerry Rice, Bryant Young and Terrell Owens was coming off a 4--12 season and could muster only six wins in the outside linebacker's rookie year. What he recalls most, however, is how quickly those hard times passed. San Francisco reached the playoffs in '01--with Peterson contributing 37 tackles, three sacks and two fumble recoveries--and to this day he stresses to younger players how fast fortunes can change in the NFL.
That's an important lesson to impart to a team that went 2--14 last season and gave up a league-high 28.3 points per game. Indeed, fortunes change quickly in either direction. Peterson, a two-time Pro Bowl starter, missed the last 11 games with a torn left Achilles tendon, but he is healthy again and is expected to be the centerpiece of a defense that is undergoing a major overhaul. The 4--3 scheme is out, replaced by a 3--4 that will rely heavily on his playmaking skills. "It's going to be a good deal for me," he says. "I get to play downhill a lot, use my instincts and my quickness to make things happen. What's great about the defense is that I'll get to create a lot of havoc."
The 6'3", 235-pound Peterson was a standout defensive end at Michigan State, so he is anxious to get back to rushing the quarterback. As a strongside linebacker in the 4--3 he excelled at dropping into zone coverage and shadowing tight ends. More than anything, though, Peterson is just happy to be playing again after snapping the Achilles while pursuing an opponent in a 31--28 overtime win over the Cardinals. He could have handled an injury that takes four to six weeks to heal, but losing almost an entire season was tough to stomach. He kept to himself in the locker room and wondered how much of a difference he could've made as San Francisco struggled to its worst finish in 25 years. "I wanted to contribute to the team," Peterson says. "Watching them play was like watching ancient soldiers going to war without Alexander."
Doctors told Peterson that the typical recovery time for a torn Achilles is 12 months, but he was back on the field within 10, just in time for training camp. "It meant a lot to us that he was out there, because he didn't have to come back that soon," says linebacker Jamie Winborn. "He told me he loved the game too much to not be out there."
If Peterson comes close to his 2003 form--two interceptions, a team-high 94 tackles and a career-high seven sacks--and all the other linebackers play well, the Niners figure to have a better season. Winborn will man the other outside linebacker spot, while Derek Smith and Jeff Ulbrich will handle the inside. Andre Carter, a converted defensive end and a former first-round pick, will rotate into an outside position. The major advantage of the new system is that it enables San Francisco to pressure quarterbacks from a variety of angles, which it didn't do last season, getting only 29 sacks. The improved pass rush will also keep the pressure off an inconsistent secondary and presumably generate more turnovers for a team that can expect little help from its offense. The 49ers have no proven playmakers at wide receiver, a suspect offensive line and a running back ( Kevan Barlow) who averaged 3.4 yards per carry last season.
It's a daunting challenge for new coach Mike Nolan, who was the Ravens' defensive coordinator the past three seasons, but he's hoping the entire team believes what Peterson already knows to be true: Dramatic improvement from one season to the next is possible in today's NFL. "We just have to play well as a team," says Nolan. "Some teams can win with stars, but the really good teams just win with a lot of guys who know how to play the game. That's what New England does. And hopefully, we can win the same way here."
When Peterson looks around the locker room, he sees several players who are still discovering what it takes to succeed in this league. "We just have to become more consistent and learn how to finish games," he says. "Last year we'd play well for a few quarters and then things would fall apart at the end. If we can stop doing that, we'll give ourselves a chance to win." --J.C.
Tight end Eric Johnson, a seventh-round pick out of Yale in 2001, is the team's most dependable target. He has the savvy to find open spots in zone coverage, the toughness to make catches over the middle and the soft hands to take in any kind of throw. Last year he had a career-high 82 receptions for 825 yards and two touchdowns. Without a proven playmaker at wide receiver, the Niners need Johnson to put up similar, if not better, numbers this season.