A healthy 2004 for 49ers?

The 49ers want to make the dead disappear. And as GM Terry Donahue threw out phrases this week such as "hoping to get cleansed," and "we sooner or later have got to take our medicine," it makes you wonder what can be expected of the team's status in 2004.

Donahue said the Niners will have a new approach to the salary cap this offseason, working a two-year plan that will eliminate dead money that bogs down the team's salary structure. Dead money is those dollars still being paid to players no longer on the roster that still counts against the team's cap figure.

The Niners still are paying off contracts from years gone by and, while the problem isn't nearly as bad as it was when San Francisco began rebuilding after the 1999 season, the team wants to make sure it doesn't happen again in the future.

So the Niners plan to structure future deals accordingly, giving out long-term contracts only that they feel a player has a realistic chance of finishing with the team.

That is a key factor this offseason, since the Niners will be working on several contracts of varying lengths in an attempt to keep some of their free agents. The Niners have 14 players scheduled for unrestricted free agency in March, and nine others who will be either restricted free agents or exclusive rights free agents.

Donahue said the Niners will steer away from "manipulation of the cap; manipulation of contracts, putting voidables in contracts, making a contract an eight-year deal when in reality it is a four-year deal. That creates dead money."

In those kind of deals, bonus money is prorated over the length of a contract. So when a player leaves the team before the original contract is over, which happens often, the team still is on the hook for the pro-rated portion of the bonus. That can add up over the course of several manipulated contracts to keep veterans on the team, which is how the Niners were able to keep their core nucleus together the past few years.

The Niners will still attempt to keep together their core nucleus, but it will be a much more hard-line stance when it comes to contract negotiations this offseason.

"The realization that if we want to get clean and we want to have a good cap situation, we sooner or later have to take our medicine and not continue to make bad personnel decisions or manipulate contracts," Donahue said. "We just need to get through that period of time that you have to get through to get there. It's not a very long period. It's one or two seasons. But we are going to be much more sensitive to any contract manipulations than we have been in the past."

To sign top talent, Donahue realizes some cap manipulation still may be required. But, he said, "To some degree, you are going to manipulate contracts, but you have to be very careful when you do that and you have to understand the short- and long-term ramifications of it and take it into account."

The goal, Donahue said, is to maintain high quality and consistent teams over long periods of time and still have cap health.

"That is where we are going," the GM said, "and that is where we are going to get to so we don't have to continually endure cap restraints when we're trying to either resign our own free agents or other free agents that are out there. It's a longer-term thinking. There is some temporary medicine that you have to swallow, but at the end of the day, you are a whole lot healthier and you are going to be able to produce a much more consistent quality product over a longer period of time."

So the inference is obvious: The 49ers are going to lose some talent from the inconsistent product they put on the field in 2003. It remains to be seen whether that prevents the Niners from being a championship contender - or even a playoff contender - while they work to get "healthy" over the next few years.

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