The Parrish principle

The last time SFI spoke with Tony Parrish, as he was on his way to a defensive meeting at 49ers headquarters in June, we made a point to tell him that 2004 finally will be the year he'll get his Pro Bowl due. "That's what you said last year," the dynamic safety said, rolling his eyes. It's a crazy NFL out there when studs such as Parrish get overlooked, but his star is decidedly on the rise, and the upcoming season promises to be the biggest and best yet for the seventh-year standout.

Of course, it will be tough for Parrish to top his 2003 performance, when he tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions, knocked away 15 passes, was fourth on the team with 73 tackles and ran his string of consecutive regular-season starts to 96, the fourth-longest active streak at his position. While Parrish was overlooked by his Pro Bowl-voting peers, he was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

And while he's at it, it also will be tough for Parrish to top his 2002 season, when he had seven interceptions, 17 passes defensed, two fumble recoveries and earned NFC defensive player of the week honors in a December game against Dallas during which Parrish played with a massive brace on his arm to protect a dislocated elbow he played with the rest of the season and playoffs.

Tough? Oh, yeah, Tony Parrish is as tough as he is productive.

"Tony's a warrior," new Niners secondary coach Ron Lynn said after getting his first extended viewing of Parrish this spring. "He's a legitimate tough guy. He just has tremendous mental toughness."

That is a somewhat underestimated quality in the NFL, but Parrish has an entire reservoir of it filled within him. And that has rubbed off on his San Francisco teammates the past two years, just as it is rubbing off on the waves of new youngsters that have flowed into the team's secondary plans this spring.

"It's neat to have a guy like that, that the young guys can look to and see," Lynn said. "And not only do they see that, but they see that mindset that allows Tony to be successful. If he were less of a warrior, less of a tough guy, or less of a mentally-committed guy, he probably wouldn't have been able to play at the level he's played. And he's playing at a level right now where you say ... Shoot, he's got a lot to give and a lot left."

While Parrish's level of play hasn't earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl - even though he earned first-team All-Pro honors from Football Digest and Sports Illustrated in 2002 - it has moved him to the top of the pecking order in San Francisco's secondary, in particular, and defense in general.

He's the rock of the secondary now, and one of the core players the 49ers have built their defense around, a defense that will be expected to carry the team in 2004.

At age 28, Parrish is in his prime. But, as his numbers suggest, he has been playing at a top level since even before he joined the Niners in 2002 after four seasons with the Chicago Bears.

"I think I'm a better player now as far as experience-wise," Parrish said. "But as far as what I do, I've always made plays. It's as simple as that."

With San Francisco's active linebackers making most of the tackles, Parrish has been freed in the Niners' system to cruise the middle and make plays on the ball. That's a bit different than his Chicago days, when Parrish had 100 or more tackles in each of his first three NFL seasons. Since the 11th week of the 2001 season - which includes all of his time in San Francisco - Parrish leads the NFL with 17 interceptions.

"It depends on the situation I'm in," Parrish said. "If I'm able to get around the ball and do whatever, I've always made plays. My picks have gone up dramatically. The way the defense is here, I haven't had to make that many tackles. Because guys are so fast, guys are getting to (ball carriers), we're a good attacking defense, and we're playing better defense than I've been exposed to before, so I haven't had to make that many tackles."

But even with his newfound status as a ballhawk, tackling - or, let's say, hitting - still is one of the things the 210-pound Parrish does best.

"He can be a banger when the situation allows, and he can be a good, solid, consistent tackler when the situation demands," Lynn said. "He can play in the box or he can play deep. He can even play man on some wide receivers. He's got very good ball skills. I think the guy just has a lot of things that are giant plusses."

Lynn also mentioned leadership as one of those "giant plusses." On this young team, Parrish, of course, is up for some of that, too.

"I've always been in that role no matter where I was," Parrish said. "It's no different than what it has been. I'm making a conscious effort to be responsible for what's going on. To be solid, especially for the guys in the secondary, so they feel like I'll always be there for them. Really, that's what I always think about first."

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