49ers must deliver before dollar days daze

The free-spending days and ways of yore have vanished in the five-year whirl of change in ownership, management and coaching staff. A new regime is now in charge of the San Francisco 49ers, and it will run - and is running - the team like a business. Fortunately, that still is the business of winning Super Bowls. And this will be the Niners best shot at capturing a Lombardi trophy for possibly several years to come.

"I wouldn't say it's the make-or-break year," quarterback Jeff Garcia told SFI. But in so many ways, that's exactly what the 2003 season represents for the currently assembled version of the guys wearing cardinal red and metallic gold. This is a crossroads season for San Francisco, a turning point, a time and place and opportunity the 49ers surely won't be in at this time next year, for better or worse.

With a new head coach guiding basically the same young team, the Niners are banking that a fresh influx of Dennis Erickson and Co. combined with a little luck and a lot less injuries will be enough to push the team a few steps beyond last year, which ended with San Francisco sucking Tampa Bay dust in the NFC playoff semifinals.

Considering the tumultuous nature of that season, it was a good year. Good enough to get Steve Mariucci fired. Good enough to bring in Erickson and a handful of other veteran coaches who want to win now. As in yesterday. And who were hired to do just that.

Now is the operative theme here, because things start getting more expensive after this year. Earlier this month, John York - the team's bottom-line owner - plunked down a scheduled $70 million payment to estranged brother-in-law Eddie DeBartolo to take over the 49ers high-and-clear and do whatever he wants with the franchise. That load of cash was the final installment of the agreement York and his wife, Denise DeBartolo York, made with former team owner Eddie D. in April 2000 after the Yorks took control of the team in a settlement and division of DeBartolo family assets. This payment officially ends the Eddie DeBartolo chapter in team history.

It also begins an era of expenditure for the Yorks. Looming on the horizon are billowing, ominous clouds of dollar signs, the kind that are unfathomable to most outside of big-time professional sports, which - by the way - don't get any bigger than the 49ers.

York has received criticism in the media for being tightfisted, but from this vantage point, he is an astute businessman who has done a fine job overseeing the operation, letting his football people make the football decisions while he watches, learns and puts in his say with authority.

But he's about to get a serious case of wallet cramps. York has seen enough to know that the 49ers need a new stadium to survive in today's NFL. The team can't remain at the top level of competitiveness if its home of the future remains aging Candlestick Park. The stadium/mall project that has been in the works for years has a $525 million price tag. The bulk of that money, ultimately, will come from the team's owner.

And, before that huge bill is due, York must worry about keeping his contending team together. The Niners' best player, All-Pro receiver Terrell Owens, becomes a free agent next year, and it likely will take a record $20 million signing bonus just to keep him around. And keeping him around could mean paying all that money for a seven-year headache.

You can read the rest of Craig Massei's column in the July issue of the new-and-improved SFI magazine

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