Inside the 49ers

With eight games remaining in the regular season, the 49ers still have a lot of things to accomplish. But with a 1-7 record heading into their game Sunday at Monster Park against the struggling Carolina Panthers, also 1-7, the 49ers certainly are not going to the playoffs. But they can look to the future and some key positions.

Niners coach Dennis Erickson said all the evaluations have to start with the job he is doing.

"There is nobody I evaluate more than myself, as far as what I've done right and wrong," Erickson said. "You do that when you win and you lose. Did I make the right call? Should I have downed it? Should I have taken another shot with seven seconds left? I do it all the time when I look at video of the game. I'm my own worst critic, and you need to be in this business."

Erickson is going through the worst coaching season of his 23-year college and NFL career. Before coming to the 49ers last season, he owned a career win percentage .660.

Although it is known that Erickson was not happy that team management decided to undergo a salary-cap purge in the offseason after a 7-9 record, he denied an ESPN report that stated that Erickson believes getting fired after this season would not be the worst thing in the world.

Although Erickson is concentrating on getting the 49ers through the second half of the season with as many wins as possible, he still has an eye on the future.

One of the issues surrounding the future of the organization is what to do at quarterback, where Tim Rattay has played very well when he has been healthy. However, Rattay has also shown to be prone to injury.

"I think he can (be the quarterback of the future), but a lot of it depends on what he does in the next eight weeks," Erickson said. "Can he stay healthy in the next eight weeks? I think the two injuries he had with the arm and groin were kind of freak injuries."

Although nobody has written off second-year player Ken Dorsey as a viable backup in the NFL, the talk has quieted from inside the 49ers organization about him being the quarterback of the future.

Rattay has completed 64.6 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. His passer rating is 92.9. He has missed three starts with injuries after being sidelined for virtually the entire offseason with a torn groin tendon. Rattay also missed three weeks of training camp with a forearm strain.

If Rattay does not prove to the 49ers' hierarchy that he's capable of being the long-term answer at quarterback, the 49ers could look to upgrade that position in the offseason. Or, they could also give rookie Cody Pickett a chance. Pickett had an impressive training camp and completed 65.9 percent of his passes in the exhibition season.

The 49ers might also turn to some of their younger players in the second half of the season, specifically wide receiver Rashaun Woods.

Woods, the 49ers' top draft pick, has seen limited playing time as the team's No. 5 receiver. He has just two receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown. But Woods did not even step on the field Sunday in the 49ers' 42-27 loss to the Seahawks.

"I would like to get him some experience," Erickson said of Woods, the No. 31 overall pick. "Over the last three weeks, (he) has really stepped up in practice. So he has earned a right to play. He can make plays for us. He can help us win.

"We're not (going to play) Rashaun just for experience, we're playing Rashaun to help us win."

Woods missed three weeks of training camp because of hamstring injuries. He fell behind second-year player Arnaz Battle, who has shown to be the most explosive of the team's receivers. But getting Woods on the field has turned into a priority.

"We've got to have a plan to get him in," Erickson said. "We've got to get him involved. In order to do that you have to have a plan to do that. We did (against Seattle), but we didn't because we were having success. So we just didn't get him in."

SERIES HISTORY: 15th meeting. The series with Carolina is tied at 7-7, the 49ers having won the last two meetings in 2001.

NOTES AND QUOTES

--- WR Curtis Conway, a 12th-year veteran, probably would have retired if a West Coast team had not made a bid for his services this season. So when the 49ers signed him in late May, it was easy to assume that part of his responsibility for this season was to teach the younger players the ropes.

When a recent question that included the word "mentor" was asked of Conway, he wanted to set the record straight.

"I hate that word," Conway said. "I'm not here to be a mentor. I'm here to play football, and I'll help guys as I go."

Conway has spent the first half of this season as the 49ers' No. 3 receiver, but he is still the top pass-catcher among all the wide receivers this season. Conway has 29 catches for 318 yards and two touchdowns.

"He's been an asset to us since he got here," QB Tim Rattay said of Conway. "The way he handles himself and how he prepares, it shows other guys how to do it. Watching him make that play, it was a great play. Everyone can see how good a play it was."

--- Fullback Fred Beasley said he wasn't singling out receiver Brandon Lloyd last week when he made comments critical of some of his young teammates' priorities. Beasley said he thought some players were more concerned with how much money they're making or "how long their braids are," rather than winning football games.

Lloyd is the only receiver wearing braids who gets playing time.

"I wasn't trying to point anyone out," Beasley said. "Everyone got on Brandon Lloyd because of what I said. I was just talking about young guys in general because most of the starters on this team are young guys. I was just talking about honor and respect. Some guys come in and think the money or having a radio show earns you respect. You earn respect on the field, not just when you catch passes and touchdowns."

Lloyd is also one of the few players on the team who has a radio show.

--- Wide receiver and special-teams standout Arnaz Battle appears to be one of the few 49ers who might garner Pro Bowl mention this season.

Battle is having an outstanding season on special teams. He has recorded 11 tackles on special teams, forcing one fumble, and ranks seventh in the NFL with a 9.8-yard average on punt returns. His 71-yard return for a touchdown was one of the key plays in the 49ers' only victory of the season, a 31-28 win over Arizona on Oct. 10.

"When you think about most valuable players on our team halfway through, he'd have to jump out at you," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "Talk about a plus and a (pleasant surprise) from the first half, you'd have to say Arnaz Battle."

--- For only the second time all season, the 49ers opened the week as a favorite. They are favored by one point to defeat the Panthers. The only other time they were picked to win a game was Week 5 against the Cardinals, a game in which they rallied from 16 points down midway through the fourth quarter for a 31-28 overtime win.

Obviously, the 49ers are not taking the Panthers lightly. Coach Dennis Erickson said the Carolina defensive line is still one of the tops in the league.

"They still have (Mike) Rucker and still have (Julius) Peppers at defensive end," Erickson said. "Peppers might be as good at that position as anybody in the league. And (Brentson) Buckner is playing very, very well for them. I'm not sure what is going to happen at the other tackle because they've had some injuries there. They're a good defense. They've played good defense all year."

--- Quarterback Tim Rattay, who sported a beard for last week's game, showed up to practice this week clean shaven. When asked about the change in appearance, he did not offer an explanation.

"Obviously, your wife didn't like it," one reporter interjected.

Rattay's response: "Obviously."

--- Because of injuries, the 49ers have been forced to use 14 different combinations on the defensive line during the first eight games of 2004. San Francisco has used the same group of players on the defensive line in consecutive games only twice. The 49ers have made nine transactions to add defensive linemen to the roster since the final cutdown day on Sept. 5.

BY THE NUMBERS: 83.9 -- Average yards rushing per game the 49ers have compiled this season, ranking 30th in the league.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I knew we were going to be inexperienced and we could work through this thing. I didn't expect that, but I also didn't expect some of the injuries that we've had." -- 49ers coach Dennis Erickson on the team's 1-7 start to the season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The 49ers signed veteran defensive lineman Chris Cooper and released Otis Leverette, whom the team claimed off waivers before the first game of the regular season.

Cooper, a four-year veteran, broke into the league with the Oakland Raiders in 2001. The 6-5, 285-pound defensive end appeared in 43 games and recorded 90 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one interception. He spent two games with the Cowboys this season before his release.

Cooper was one of the players who tested positive for designer steroid THG, and the NFL fined him three game checks. If he tests positive again, he is subject to an eight-game suspension.

"I liked Chris when he played at Oakland," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "Particularly a year ago in the preseason, he was playing really well. He had some injury problems during this past year. The reason we brought Chris in is because we feel he can play both spots. We really feel that we need another tackle in there. We're going to move Tony (Brown) out and he's going to play more end because of all the guys that have come in, he's the best against the run."

Cooper was one of five players to work out for the 49ers on Tuesday, joining running backs Ken Simonton (Oregon State) and Ahmad Galloway (Alabama), and defensive lineman Cedric Hilliard (Notre Dame) and Eddie Freeman (Alabama-Birmingham).

--- CB Ahmed Plummer is going to be out at least another two or three weeks with a bulging disk in his neck. But it's also possible that Plummer might not play again this season. "We're just kind of taking it a week at a time and see, obviously," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "As we move toward the end of the season, if they're talking two or three weeks, right now, we have eight games left. It's getting close to that type of thing."

--- DE Andre Carter looked a lot better in practice this week and might be able to return to the starting lineup on Sunday against the Panthers. Carter saw limited action in his return last week against the Seahawks. He missed six games with a back condition caused by a cyst that was pressing against the sciatic nerve.

--- LT Kwame Harris, who has not started since the 49ers' Sept. 19 game against the Saints, will not regain his starting job from Kyle Kosier this week, either. Harris went down with knee and ankle injuries against the Saints, but he has not appeared on the team's injury report for a month. He is scheduled to see some action as Kosier's backup.

--- QB Tim Rattay said he has a better understanding of his right forearm injury and what he can and can't do during practice. Rattay will most likely require surgery at the end of the season on the sheath that covers the muscle, called the fascia. In the meantime, he said he will limit the number of throws he makes at the beginning of practices. During 7-on-7 and team drills, Rattay said he only makes about 30 throws, so he should be able to handle that for the rest of the season.

--- TE Eric Johnson is on his way to placing his name at the top of the list when it comes to 49ers who have played his position. Johnson is on pace to have the best season for a tight end in team history. His 51 catches for 547 yards are only 17 short of Brent Jones' team-record 68 catches for 735 yards for a tight end in 1993 and 200 shy of Jones' record of 747 receiving yards in 1990.


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