Looking Back At The Year That Was

<STRONG>Rabble-Rouser Award </STRONG>- Terrell Owens. T.O., you are the coolest, but you sure do know how to stir it up. This is the first of several times you'll see Owens' name on this page.

Best comeback - Who are we kidding here? It's Garrison Hearst, ankles down. If you're saying now that you really believed Hearst was going to return from a form of bone necrosis in his left ankle to become a Pro Bowl tailback and dangerous offensive weapon again - after missing the previous two seasons, no less - then you lie.

Worst ending - The Niners' disastrous fade at Chicago on Oct. 28. Leading 28-9 in the third quarter and 31-16 with less than four minutes to play, the Niners allowed the Bears to score 15 points in the final 3:39 to send the game into overtime. On the first play of the extra period, Terrell Owens was ripping through the Chicago secondary on a slant pattern, but Jeff Garcia's pass popped off Owens' mitts and into the hands of safety Mike Brown, who returned it 33 yards for a shocking, game-ending touchdown that gave the Bears a 37-31 victory. That loss ended up costing the Niners dearly.

Best debut - Terry Donahue, that was a pretty impressive first season as San Francisco's general manager. There is more to this man as an administrator than meets the eye.

Top rookie - Andre Carter, just like the No. 7 overall pick in the draft should be. Carter had some out-of-this-world expectations to live up to, but he kept plugging away after a slow sack start and was becoming a force by season's end.

First runner-up: Kevan Barlow, the team's third-round pick who has star potential. Second runner-up: Eric Johnson, a steal as a seventh-round pick.

Special mention: Jamie Winborn. Jamie, we haven't overlooked the speed and fire you brought to the team this season.

Best Coming Out Party - 49ers 19, New York Jets 17 on Oct. 1. In a national scope, nobody really had given much thought to what the Niners could become this year until then went into the Big Apple on the Monday Night Football stage and trampled the Jets with a season-high 233 yards rushing. This also was the Best Indication of Things to Come, as the Niners would finish second in the NFL in rushing this season, and surprise the football world to become one of the league's best teams.

Worst late-season development - Is it just us, or did others see the Niners offense seemingly turning away from its tried-and-true, bread-and-butter West Coast explosiveness during the stretch run of December? A grind-it-out running game can only take a team so far, as we were quick to find come playoff time.

Offensive Play of the Year - Jeff Garcia drops back to pass in overtime. He pump-fakes. Terrell Owens puts a nifty inside move on Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan, then breaks outside. Buchanan bites hard on the deception. Garcia hits Owens in stride and T.O. does the rest, streaking into the end zone to complete a 52-yard, game-ending touchdown play that gave the Niners a 37-31 victory over the Falcons. Now, that's excitement.

Team MVP - While we're on the subject of Mr. Owens again ... Controversial or not, tantalizingly terrific, terrifying, terrible and tumultuous T.O. took his game to the highest level this season, and became one of those rare NFL players who could take over a game. Heck, if the Niners would have gotten the ball to Owens half as much as he wanted it, maybe the NFL leader in touchdown receptions would have made a run at league MVP, and perhaps San Francisco would still be playing in late January. Just a thought.

Best controversy - Owens-Mariucci. Mariucci-Donahue. Mariucci going to Notre Dame. Mariucci rumored for other NFL jobs. Mariucci unhappy with contract. Owens unhappy with offense. Garcia unhappy with offense. Take your pick.

Biggest surprise - 1. Eric Johnson. He stepped in at tight end and did things seventh-round draft picks just aren't supposed to do. 2. Terry Killens. We knew this guy was a special teams wiz, but we didn't know he was THAT much of a stud. Nor did we know he could come through in a pinch like that at linebacker.

Best newcomer - Derek Smith. Wow. Talk about adding speed, aggression, intensity and production at linebacker. This guy added all those dimensions to the defensive puzzle and was a great fit for San Francisco's system. When you are severely strapped by the salary cap and bring in a free agent who finishes with 34 more tackles than any other player on the team, something's going right.

Outspoken Award - 1. Terrell Owens after the Chicago game. 2. Owens after the Dallas game. 3. Owens after the Packers game. Whoever said football players don't speak what's on their mind?

Speechless Award - Owens after the first St. Louis game. Staring into space without changing expression for nearly an hour in a busy locker room isn't an easy thing to do.

Best brute - Center Jeremy Newberry is truly a nice guy, but he just keeps looking meaner and meaner each week on the football field. For an offensive lineman who made the Pro Bowl in his fourth season, that's a good persona to have.

Mr. Versatility - Terry Jackson, you can run with the ball, you can catch it and run with it, and you were voted special teams season captain for the second year in a row for your prowess on those units. What else can you do?

Worst performance - 1. St. Louis 27, 49ers 14 on Dec. 9. The Niners entered this colossal NFC showdown looking like they could play with the Rams. But they couldn't. And didn't.

2. Dallas 27, 49ers 21 on Dec. 30. Explain to us again, please, exactly how this happened.

Best assistant coach - 1. Jim Mora. Your patience, persistence and perseverance finally were rewarded this season. So was your unwavering faith in your defensive system and players.

2. Bruce DeHaven. We like what you're doing with all those young, inexperienced players on special teams.

3. Greg Knapp. Not a bad debut as offensive coordinator. Not bad at all.

Defensive Play of the Year - 1. Defensive end Chike Okeafor strips New Orleans running back Ricky Williams of the football, cornerback Ahmed Plummer recovers it in the fourth quarter, and that leads to the game-winning touchdown on Nov. 11. The Saints were headed toward victory before that play. Instead, the Niners pulled out a confidence-building 28-27 win and reached midseason at 6-2. 2. Zack Bronson's team-record 97-yard touchdown return for a touchdown against Chicago. This play would have been No. 1 had the Niners not wasted the 19-point lead Bronson's TD gave them and lost the game.

Best return - Glad to have you back, Dana Stubblefield. Sorry you ever left.

Worst haircut - Linebacker Jeff Ulbrich's bald job in late December, shaving clean the front and crown of his head, but leaving hair on the sides and back. That was pretty scary, Jeff. But it would have made for a good Saturday Night Live skit audition.

Best cackle - It was offensive tackle Derrick Deese this year, in a close battle with last year's winner Garrison Hearst. Deese's charismatic veteran presence and chiming voice made for a loose locker room.

Worst injury - 1. Anthony Parker's season-ending shoulder injury in Game 6. It never gave Parker a chance to continue his development as the team's third cornerback and nickel back, and that development might have come in handy down the road.

2. Chike Okeafor's fractured leg in Game 14 against the Eagles. His late-season emergence as a pass-rushing force was missed the next week against Dallas and again in the playoffs.

Most Deserving Recognition - After 16 seasons, it was about time Ray Brown made the Pro Bowl. He has been one of the league's best guards on one of the league's best offenses for years. And then he gets selected to the All-Pro second team, too. It's a shame Brown had to wait until age 39 for those late-arriving honors.

Best interception celebration - There were a lot of them this season, considering the Niners were third in the NFL with 24 interceptions, but we'll go with Ahmed Plummer's understated kneeling down and reaching for the sky after his eight picks. A religious man, he obviously had good intentions.

Worst spike job - The cleat that made its way underneath Jamie Winborn's facemask and tore a hole in his face above the chin in the first game against Carolina. Ouch! But Jamie - as is his style - continued to keep a stiff upper lip. He continued playing and finished his first NFL start with 13 tackles, a team record for a rookie.

Best last-second comeback - 1. Jeff Garcia's perfectly-placed touchdown pass to Terrell Owens with one second remaining in regulation against Carolina on Nov. 18, followed by Garcia's two-point conversion pass to Eric Johnson that sent the game into overtime, where the Niners triumphed 25-22.

2. Garcia's perfectly-placed 17-yard touchdown pass to Owens with 21 seconds remaining in regulation against Atlanta, sending that game into overtime, where the Niners won 37-31 after trailing 14-0 and 20-7 at halftime.

Worst hamstrings - Veteran tight end Greg Clark lost the entire 2001 season to hamstring problems that never allowed him to get back on the field, even though the Niners kept him on their 53-man active roster the entire season with the hope he'd return. Get well, Greg.

Best new development - The 49ers are winners again. Now, that wasn't so hard was it, guys? Actually, that the Niners were able to rise again so quickly to the NFL penthouse, particularly given their limitations and young roster, was nothing short of phenomenal. Here's to you, Steve Mariucci and Co. Now, keep it up. Let 2001 only be the beginning.

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