Good-bye Garcia, hello rebuilding?

Well, the 49ers made it below the NFL-mandated $80.6 million salary cap limit by Tuesday's deadline. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is Jeff Garcia and Ron Stone no longer are on the roster. By releasing the three-time Pro Bowl QB and two-time Pro Bowl guard, the Niners continue to blaze a trail from erstwhile championship contender to team in a rebuilding mode. Pulling the trigger on the Garcia decision, as difficult as it was, clearly suggests the 49ers are moving in that direction.

The Niners wanted to keep Garcia, their best quarterback, but only at the right price. That price was about $5 million for 2004 - well below the $9.9 million take Garcia was scheduled to receive.

Garcia was willing to take the reduction, but wanted to make up for the cut in incentives. The team, not wanting to send any more guaranteed money toward its 2005 cap - money that Garcia might make in incentives - offered him a chance to make up just an extra $1.5 million incentives.

No deal. And, finally, no starting quarterback for the Niners.

Well, that's not altogether accurate. The Niners have Tim Rattay, and Niners general manager Terry Donahue anointed him as the team's starting quarterback Tuesday while informing everyone that the team regretfully was saying goodbye to Garcia.

Rattay gained some believers during his starting stint in place of Garcia last year, but he has a lot to prove as he ascends to what has been one of the most glamorous positions in professional sports - the San Francisco quarterback.

Not known for the mobility blessed by Garcia, Rattay will be operating behind a line in 2004 that now will be without two of its best blockers - right guard Stone and left tackle Derrick Deese.

Stone also was released after refusing a pay cut. The Niners will save $1.7 million against this year's cap by releasing Garcia and $1.5 million by releasing Stone.

"This isn't easy," said Donahue, who noted that Garcia still has some quality performance left in him. The decision, Donahue said, was all about "doing what's best for the long-term cap health of this team and keeping us competitive."

Donahue said all of the tough decisions the Niners have made this offseason - the release of Deese and tailback Garrison Hearst are other prime examples - were all done in relation to what the team wants to accomplish in the long term.

That doesn't say much for the short term. Maybe Rattay will surprise people and his pocket presence and solid arm will become a blessing for coach Dennis Erickson's spread-them-out passing philosophy. Maybe Garcia's absence will allow Rattay and Ken Dorsey to develop and - who knows? - for the Niners to look again in the draft for their quarterback of the future.

But here's the bottom line: The 49ers just dumped one of their best players because he wouldn't take a pay cut. Not just one of their best players, but their quarterback. In football, everything revolves around the quarterback, and the Niners now will be spinning behind center with an unproven veteran behind an uncertain line - at best.

That sounds an awful lot like a team that plans on rebuilding instead of contending.

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