Though San Francisco surprised many in the NFL establishment with a 12-4 season after winning just 10 games combined the previous two years, the New England Patriots did it even better. And Niners general manager Terry Donahue was taking notes. While the Niners rebuilt a team that was 6-10 in 2000 with astute drafting and a few shrewd free-agent moves, the Patriots were turning a last-place, 5-11 team from 2000 into a surprise Super Bowl champion by pressing the right buttons in free agency.
"You have to look at what the Patriots did and say that they did as good a job or better than anybody in pro football in that area," Donahue said in a conversation with Niners beat writers earlier this week. "They were patient. They were frugal. And they made a lot of really good acquisitions that affected their success and they didn't make them with big contracts and big dollars.
"It's like when you watch an offensive team or defensive team that gets to the Super Bowl, you see that team and you say, 'Whoa, they're doing some things that might be the right thing to do.' You always tend to emulate somebody that's successful and you see how they did it and sometimes copy their format."
With that in mind, the Niners are sticking with their format of not throwing around any big bucks in free agency. Not that they have much to throw around. But with quarterback Jeff Garcia restructuring his contract last week, the Niners were able to get approximately $4 million under the cap. The team immediately signed 25-year-old center Jeremy Newberry - one of the team's four unrestricted free agents - to a six-year, $20 million deal with a $5 million signing bonus. Newberry, who has become the young anchor of San Francisco's quality offensive line, appeared in his first Pro Bowl this year and already is one of the top centers in the game. Newberry obviously was the team's No. 1 priority to re-sign.
Donahue continues to either talk or negotiate with representatives from the other three unrestricted free agents - all key 2001 starters who are attracting interest from other suitors. Donahue reiterated his stance that the team would like to sign all of them, but doesn't expect that to be a realistic possibility.
"Our desires haven't really changed," Donahue said. "We'd like to get all of our guys back. You can get them back if you want to pay the maximum amount of money. You have to understand what the impact that has on your team and the future, this year and where that's going to put you. The system is designed where you don't get all your players back. Could I get all of our players back? Yeah, I could have them tonight. But we would have overpaid and put ourselves in a bad position, a very similar position of what we just went through. We're not going to do that under any circumstances."
Instead, the Niners will continue to try and work adequate deals with their free-agent stars while also working on contingency plans to replace them should they depart. The Niners also will look at bringing in a few key free agents for the right price - as they did last year with defensive starters Derek Smith and Dana Stubblefield - while also building the team by extending contracts of younger players. "We've got a little room under the cap," Donahue said.
"We've got all kinds of things to do with every dollar we're under the cap. We're not committed to free agency under those dollars. We can try and extend some of our younger players. We can eat up some of our future dead money. I don't want to give you guys the impression that we're going to spend that money in free agency. We're not. We didn't plan to. We didn't get 12-4 by being in the free-agent market."