The week in 49ers world

Covering the spectrum from Ninerland as the clock begins to tick down on San Francisco's 2003 season.

Coach Dennis Erickson is not concerned with any sort of sticky contract situation for quarterback Jeff Garcia for next season. He just knows he wants him to be his starter in 2004.

After seeing Garcia play the last two weeks, Erickson said there is no doubt in his mind who he wants to be his man next season.

"He played well against Arizona but the way he played (last week against Cincinnati) was special," Erickson said. "The throws he made; he was accurate; moving around - (all) the things I saw on video last year. There's no question in my mind, if he's healthy, he'll be our quarterback - no question in my mind."

Most of Garcia's problems this season have stemmed from his inability to remain healthy. He reported to training camp with a bulging disk in his back. He sustained a mild concussion in the second game of the season, then also incurred a strained groin and a bruised right forearm that affected his wrist and thumb.

But it was not until he sustained a high left ankle sprain that he was forced to the sideline, ending a 61-game streak of consecutive regular-season starts.

It was during the time with Tim Rattay as the starter that Garcia's future with the 49ers began to look a little shaky. Rattay led the 49ers to their only back-to-back victories of the season. Rattay struggled against Green Bay, and Garcia reclaimed his starting job when he was cleared by the team's medical staff.

The uproar continued when Garcia threw four interceptions in his first game back against the Ravens in a 44-6 loss. But Erickson said the decision was unanimous within the coaching staff to stick with Garcia.

Garcia said the endorsement was a welcomed relief to him, as he hopes to finish his career with the 49ers.

"That's a confidence-builder for me; that's definitely a boost coming from my head coach," Garcia said. "Obviously, I want to be here.

"Hopefully, this is a situation I can help (make) better in the future and, hopefully, we can continue to grow together. With coach Erickson finally getting that one year under his belt, things are probably going to change a little bit next year. Hopefully I'm the quarterback who's helping him to improve the situation we have."

After throwing eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his first nine starts and compiling a lowly passer rating of 64.2, Garcia has responded in a big way in his last two starts. He has thrown six touchdowns and no interceptions with a rating of 137.1.

"He's feeling more comfortable," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. "First of all, he has his (offensive) line intact. And he came back for the Baltimore game and he was playing the best defense in league.

"The last two weeks his confidence has grown. It's a confidence deal. This is the healthiest he's been. In his week of practice I haven't seen him throw the ball as well."

Garcia has never been known for his ability to make accurate throws down the field, but he hit on two long strikes against the Bengals. He found Terrell Owens some 40 yards down the field for an eventual 58-yard scoring play. He also hit Tai Streets in the middle of the end zone for a 41-yard strike.

Now that Erickson has weighed in with an opinion about whom he wants at quarterback next season, that puts pressure on general manager Terry Donahue to make it happen.

Garcia is scheduled to earn the average of the top five-paid quarterbacks in the league next season, a figure expected to be between $9 million and $9.5 million. Team sources say the 49ers will not pay Garcia that much, so they must reach some agreement on a new contract prior to the time when he is scheduled to receive a $500,000 roster bonus.

The signing of Garcia could serve a couple useful purposes. In addition to retaining the quarterback that Erickson wants to have running his offense, the 49ers would be able to gain significant salary-cap savings with a new deal for Garcia.

The 49ers have 14 unrestricted free agents that they would like to make a concerted effort to re-sign. Unless they are able to sign linebacker Julian Peterson to a new deal, they figure to make him their franchise player, which means receiver Terrell Owens would be free to leave as a free agent.

Of their other players who are scheduled for unrestricted free agency, eight are offensive or defensive starters when healthy: Owens, Peterson, cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, defensive linemen John Engelberger and Travis Kirschke, receiver Tai Streets, and tight end Jed Weaver. Kicker Todd Peterson and long-snapper Brian Jennings are without contracts for next season.

NOTES, QUOTES AND ANECDOTES

--- The motivation is simple. The 49ers might be out of the playoff hunt, but 26 of their players do not have contracts for next season.

Tight end Jed Weaver and defensive linemen Travis Kirschke and Chidi Ahanotu are all veterans who signed one-year contracts with the 49ers prior to the start of last season. They all know how the game is played.

"I try to tell the young guys that every time you go out to play it's a job interview, because every team in the league has five or six guys aside from the coaching staff that watch every game of every team in the NFL," Weaver said. "You just have to have that mindset, but you have to go out and fight for this team and do whatever it takes for this team to win."

So even though Sunday's game against at Philadelphia might not mean a whole lot to the 49ers, as a team, it should mean a lot to the individual players.

"It doesn't matter if you're in the playoffs or out of it, the next two games - and every game, really - is important to you," Kirschke said. "Regardless of the contract or not, your play represents you. You want to represent yourself the best you can. You're being watched by a lot of people every week."

--- Running back Kevan Barlow showed some of the inconsistency last week that the team feared with him as the featured back. He twice fumbled inside the Bengals' 20-yard line, and then failed to pick up a blitz that resulted in a Jeff Garcia fumble that was returned for a touchdown.

Barlow will start again on Sunday, his third start in a row, when the 49ers face the Eagles. Veteran Garrison Hearst might be available but he won't start after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Dec. 2. One of Hearst's strengths is his ability to recognize and pick up blitzes.

"In defense of Kevan a little bit, there were some other blitzes in that game that he picked up and he pass-protected pretty well," Erickson said. "Garrison, I've said this before, is probably one of the better pass-protectors in the NFL. He's been around, and understands it. He's been in this offense and understands it. There are some complications of things that we do in this offense protection-wise, and Kevan missed that one."

--- Erickson said he has spoken to Barlow about his fumbles in the aftermath of the team's loss at Cincinnati.

"It's a reality," Erickson said. "You can't be quiet and hope it goes away. It just doesn't go away."

Barlow has fumbled eight times in 43 career games, or once every 61.1 touches.

Barlow accepted the responsibility for the Cincinnati loss and vowed it would not happen again.

--- Even though the 49ers are out of the playoff picture, coach Dennis Erickson said he would not start playing for the future. The 49ers could start giving auditions to some of their younger players, such as quarterback Ken Dorsey and defensive end Andrew Williams, but Erickson said he is in no rush to look at the youngsters.

"That to me, is not the most important thing," Erickson said. "We have looked at them in training camp, some during the year; we will look at them some in next year's training camp. To me, just playing them to play them is not what it is all about. It is about getting this football team the best opportunity to win, and that is what we are going to do. We are going to play whoever we need to, to win."

--- Receiver Terrell Owens, who has not spoken to the San Francisco-area media for more than two months, said Tuesday he is open to re-signing with the team during an interview on the NFL Network.

Former 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr., an analyst for the network, told Owens that they will "have no team; they have to re-sign you to have a chance."

Owens responded: "I think that's the feeling from a lot of fans and people that have been watching me play football there. I would have no problem coming back and playing in San Francisco, but at the same time, I would definitely want to see them have a plan to help us get to the next level."

--- The 49ers might be out of the playoffs, but their last two games have some league-wide significance. This week, the 49ers play at Philadelphia, which is in the hunt for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Next week, they close the regular season against the Seahawks, who are fighting for a wild-card berth.

Will that role as a spoiler serve as motivation?

"Darn right it does," Erickson said. "It gives everyone a little more incentive. Obviously, you would like to be at the other end of it, but Philly is sitting there not sure if they are going to have home-field advantage, so there is no question about that. Seattle is probably going to come in here and probably have to win the game to have a chance to get into the playoffs. Those are what the facts are going to be and our players know that."

--- Center Jeremy Newberry was chosen as the winner of the Ed Block Courage Award. Newberry had exploratory surgery prior to the start of training camp that revealed a torn ligament in his left ankle. Instead of undergoing surgery that would have forced him to miss most of the season, Newberry decided to play this season in pain and have the surgery in January. Despite being able to practice just once a week, Newberry is putting together a solid season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think the last couple of weeks, we've attacked a little bit different. We've been in four wides more. We've been in three wides more. We've dropped back and threw it on first down. We've mixed it up pretty good. Greg (Knapp) and I have attacked a little bit more than maybe we did earlier. Maybe because of the front and maybe because we felt that we had to run it because of our situation, but the last two weeks, we've opened it up" -- Erickson on the flexibility he and his offensive coordinator have with the offense because of a healthy line.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Tight end Jed Weaver expected to be used primarily as a blocker when he signed a one-year contract with the 49ers in the offseason. But when starter Eric Johnson sustained a season-ending broken and displaced collarbone in the preseason, it became Weaver's job.

Weaver has started 13 games this season and has compiled career-highs with 28 receptions for 236 yards. But he is still known more as a blocker than anything else.

Weaver said he has taken a lot of pride in the fact that on one of the 49ers' most successful running plays this season, it is his responsibility to throw a key block on the strong-side linebacker.

On the play, "Fox 2 run," which is a lead draw, center Jeremy Newberry and right guard Ron Stone double-team the nose tackle, while right tackle Scott Gragg takes a pass set and rides the defensive end to the outside. Fullback Fred Beasley is supposed to take on the middle linebacker, while Weaver gets through to block the "buck" linebacker.

"We've had a lot of good runs off that play," Weaver said.

Weaver said he would like to be back for another season with the 49ers, but he is unsure what is going to happen in the offseason.

"This is the most I've played in my career, so going out and playing and being able to play every down is exciting to me," Weaver said. "You want to be a guy that front offices say, 'That's the guy we want out there to make plays and we'll get him involved in the offense.'"

PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES:

--- QB Jeff Garcia, despite being slowed by injuries for most of the season, is having more success running the ball than he had in his five-year NFL career. Garcia has set off running 47 times for 290 yards, including a career-high seven touchdowns. Kevan Barlow and Garrison Hearst have combined for just eight touchdowns. Garcia's 6.2-yard average is the highest he's achieved in his career.

--- DE Andre Carter leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks. Since Dec. 2, 2001, he has 24 sacks, which ranks fifth in the NFL during that 34-game stretch.

--- LB Derek Smith has led the 49ers in tackles in nine of the 14 games this season and has accounted for 416 tackles in his three-year career with the organization. He has 15 percent of the 49ers' 2,906 tackles over the past three seasons.

--- S Dwaine Carpenter, who GM Terry Donahue believes will be a very good player in the near future, will get his first start of the season Sunday at either safety or cornerback, depending on the team's injury situation at those two positions.

--- CB Mike Rumph has started 10 games this season, and he will start again Sunday against the Eagles. He has shown a dramatic improvement in his second season in the league, after working his way into the defense as a nickel back. He has 54 tackles, three interceptions, two sacks, one forced fumble and eight passes defensed. Last season, Rumph had 40 tackles, no sacks, no interceptions and four passes defensed.

--- WR Kahlil Hill, a sixth-round draft pick of the Falcons from Iowa in 2002, was signed to the 49ers' practice squad. Hill played one game with the Falcons last season.

GAME PLAN VS. EAGLES

The 49ers are in danger of going winless on the road for the first time since the 1979 season, which was Bill Walsh's first year with the organization. In order for the 49ers to break that dry spell, they will have to win a game against the Eagles as a 71/2-point underdog. Obviously, the 49ers have not played real well consistently in any area on the road. The offense, which has struggled through most of the season, has shown some signs of coming to life under a healthy Jeff Garcia at quarterback. Surprisingly, the 49ers now own the league's No. 4 offense.

The running game has been pretty consistent all season, and there is no denying that Kevan Barlow is a very good talent. He leads the 49ers with 830 yards on just 157 carries, for a 5.3-yard average. He has to prove that he can hang onto the ball, however. He has lost three fumbles in the last two games, including two inside the 20-yard line against the Bengals.

Over the last two weeks, Garcia is throwing the intermediate and deep pass better than ever. His effectiveness goes hand-in-hand with the 49ers' ability to make defenses respect their passing game. Terrell Owens has not had a good season, but they throw to him so much that he has managed to put up very respectable statistics. Owens leads the team with 79 catches for 1,082 yards and nine touchdowns.

Defensively, the 49ers have not done a good job of stopping the run on the road, where the opposition is averaging 162.3 yards per game. The 49ers will have a big test trying to contain the three-headed running back monster of the Eagles: Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley. Those three have combined for 1,469 yards and a 4.9-yard average. The Eagles have a lot of different weapons on offense, which enables them to spread the ball around evenly. The trigger man is Donovan McNabb, who has also rushed for 334 yards. With cornerback Jason Webster out of action, McNabb might try to pick on Rashad Holman, who will be elevated to the role as the nickel back.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

-- RG Ron Stone, who has been a key to the 49ers' running attack that is heavily favored to going to the right side, vs. Eagles DT Corey Simon, a force on the inside who is tied for the team-lead with 5.5 sacks.

--- WR Terrell Owens, who has caught six touchdown passes in the last six games, vs. Eagles LCB Troy Vincent, a 12-year veteran who has a team-leading three interceptions this season.

--- FB Fred Beasley, one of the league's top lead-blockers, vs. MLB Mark Simoneau, who leads the Eagles with 118 tackles in his first season with the squad after signing as a free agent.

--- TE Jed Weaver, who has done a credible job with 28 catches and some solid blocking, vs. LB Carlos Emmons, the strong-side linebacker who has 105 tackles, including five for losses.

--- DE Andre Carter, who leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks, vs. LT Tra Thomas, a perennial NFC Pro Bowl selection who missed last week's game against the Dolphins because of back spasms.

--- LB Julian Peterson, the 49ers' best all-around defender who lines up at LDE in most nickel situations, vs. RT Jon Runyan, a 6-foot-7, 330-pounder whose quickness will be tested against the 235-pound Peterson.

--- LB Derek Smith, who leads the 49ers with 170 tackles and is a big key in the team's up-and-down run defense, vs. FB Jon Ritchie, a big key to the run game as a lead blocker although he has not carried the ball this season.


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