How much will Mora be missed?

You have to wonder if the 49ers are getting a queasy feeling right about now. As Jim Mora takes his energetic, dynamic presence to Atlanta to become the Falcons' next head coach, the thought crosses the mind of what might have been if the Niners had made Mora their head coach last year instead of Dennis Erickson.

Mora, San Francisco's defensive coordinator the past five seasons, was a finalist for the Niners' head coaching position last year after the team dumped Steve Mariucci. Owner John York and general manager Terry Donahue were both impressed by his interview and presentation - substantially so, in fact - but the team opted for the experience and offensive bend of Erickson while also offering Mora a contract extension to stay on board.

A year later, that has San Francisco's coaching staff now clearly defined as an established, veteran guard that lacks the exuberance of the previous regime that was highlighted by Mariucci and Mora. Clearly, San Francisco's coaching brain trust would have continued along those lines had Mora been hired as head coach last year.

That's not necessarily a bad thing for the 49ers, though, and the mixture of old and new and newcomers and holdovers on the staff last year likely produced an underlying transitional period that had an adverse effect on the team's performance on the field.

Next season, Erickson - who went through his first season in San Francisco with Mariucci's coordinators, Mora and Greg Knapp - will have his own handpicked coordinators in place and will have his stamp on the team more clearly defined. The Niners are much more likely next year to see the impact of Erickson's coaching philosophy they had expected to see this season.

The fire, enthusiasm and tough guy/nice guy persona Mora brought to the Niners definitely will be missed. He is a player's coach, and that no doubt helped him land a prestigious head coaching job in the NFL at age 42. He also is an innovative defensive strategist whose units can be both unyielding and turnover-producing.

But Mora's defenses in San Francisco never finished a season ranked above 13th in the league. That's middle of the pack, though the Niners often played like one of the league's better units this season. Still, many of the Niners' defensive breakdowns in 2003 seemed to come in close games with the outcome on the line, and at least part of that can be traced back to coaching.

The Niners definitely would be a different team heading into a different future today if Jim Mora was their head coach. But that's not the way the team decided to go, and the direction it went instead under Erickson will be clear on the horizon - for better or worse - by the time the team takes the field for the 2004 season.

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