Nevertheless general manager Rick Spielman says, "There's a bright future that's going to happen here very quickly. People think we are so far away, but we're actually very close to turning this around." Skeptics might regard that as delusional. In a recent interview Williams said he "couldn't have helped [this year's Dolphins]; they've got big problems." Feeley, too, questioned the team's offensive approach, saying, "We need a scheme, an identity. That kind of went out the door when Ricky quit."
With interim coach Jim Bates not likely to be retained after the season, the offense will be one of many issues to be addressed by the next coach. Who will hire himis a mystery as well. Owner Wayne Huizenga, who has declined comment since Wannstedt's resignation, is searching for a successor to retiring team president Eddie Jones. It's possible that a personnel guru will be hired for the job, or to replace Spielman. Or the new coach could be given authority over the roster's makeup.
the niners' chain of command, on the other hand, is clearly defined; it's the people in charge-- Denise DeBartolo York, who wrested control of the team from brother Eddie DeBartolo during the 1998 season, and her husband, John--who infuriate many of the fans. They chanted, "Sell the team!" during the closing moments of San Francisco's 37--27 home loss to the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 14, a development that undoubtedly delighted the creators of dumpyork.com, a website that has obtained more than 1,100 signatures demanding that the team be sold.
It is unlikely that ownership will be changing hands anytime soon. John York, who declined comment for this story, has turned down overtures from a group of prospective buyers fronted by former Niners stars Steve Young and Brent Jones. And in October, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison mentioned at a company shareholders' meeting that he had inquired about purchasing the team, only to be told that it wasn't for sale.
York, who once lectured franchise architect and Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh on how to run an organization--"I've only written a book on the subject," Walsh complained to friends--has stressed cost-consciousness at every turn. Last winter, team sources say, York decided to end the longtime practice of giving toys to employees' children at the team's Christmas party, earning him the nickname Bad Santa. (He relented, after several executives offered to pay for the toys, though he did institute an age cutoff.)
More objectionable from the fans' perspective has been York's fiscal restraint when it comes to roster moves. General manager Terry Donahue blames the recent gutting of the 49ers' roster on salary-cap woes caused by the DeBartolo--Carmen Policy regime, though it was Donahue who negotiated many of the contracts purged during the off-season. In addition to trading its best player, All-Pro wideout Terrell Owens, San Francisco cut ties with quarterback Jeff Garcia, guard Ron Stone and running back Garrison Hearst (all Pro Bowl players at one time) and two other offensive starters, tackle Derrick Deese and wideout Tai Streets. "I feel bad for Coach Erickson," fullback Fred Beasley said last week. "They stripped this team and gave him nothing to work with."
Each departed starter was replaced by a younger, unproven player, which affected team chemistry on and off the field. "Some of those guys they got rid of were the heart and soul of this locker room," running back Kevan Barlow said. "I don't know if we even have a good locker room guy [on offense]. It was devastating."
Unlike the Dolphins, the Niners harbor no illusions about a quick turnaround. Echoing the skepticism of several players, Beasley said, "We've got so many holes to fill, and with the route we're going right now, it'd be very difficult for me to sit here and say, 'We're going to have a winning season next year.'" What they'll probably wind up with is the first pick in a draft that many believe lacks a true franchise player (box, right).
As for the rest of this year, Barlow said, "we're all playing for our jobs because this season's done." That was obvious as the final seconds ticked down on Sunday. While the Dolphins congratulated one another on their first road victory, the 49ers trudged off as the league's unquestioned laughingstock. Just before ducking into the locker room tunnel, Barlow took off his gloves and tossed them to a middle-aged fan a few rows above the railing. As the running back disappeared into the darkness, the fan chucked the gloves back to the tattered grass below.