49ers head into uncertain future

One by one, the 49ers filed out of the team's Santa Clara headquarters Sunday, a season of unfulfilled promise behind them and an uncertain future ahead. As the organization regroups for 2004 in the upcoming months, players can only stand by as the franchise formulates its new plan and decides what changes are to come in the future. "It's one of those things where you have to sit back and wait and see what happens," safety Tony Parrish said. "You hope for the best and you wait."

For some - and perhaps many - it will be an excruciating wait.

The Niners have 14 players - several of them key starters - headed for unrestricted free agency in March. At least 10 other players will either be restricted or exclusive-rights free agents.

In other words, San Francisco has some serious decisions to make regarding who should stay and who should go.

To be sure, there definitely will be some prominent names going.

"You try not to think about it," said cornerback Jason Webster, who is one of the 14 scheduled for unrestricted free agency. "But it's reality right now. We might not all be here next year."

But coach Dennis Erickson, in his farewell address Sunday afternoon, said the Niners would like to keep this team together as much as possible, despite its 7-9 record and failure to live up to expectations.

"There is not a free agent there that we wouldn't want to have back," Erickson said. "There isn't anyone that I wouldn't like to bring back. Will we be able to keep everyone? Probably not. But we do know what direction we would like to go. The No. 1 priority is to re-sign our free agents that are on this football team right now."

But as several of those free agents - some of whom have played prominent roles in the team's rebuilding project of the past four seasons - walked to their vehicles and into their offseasons, it was with full knowledge that nobody knew for sure exactly who would be coming back.

Cryptic comments from several veterans suggested the only thing that was certain was that they wouldn't all be back.

"Everyone knows the nature of the business," said Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson, who said he likely will test the free-agent market before considering whether to re-sign with the team.

Several other players had similar feelings, with each using some sort of phrase including the word "business" in their comments.

"It's a cut-throat business," said Pro Bowl fullback Fred Beasley, who - like Parrish - is one of the few who is certain to be part of San Francisco's plans next year. "So, basically, we just got to wait and see what goes on."

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