Niners need a true backup for Newberry

It hasn't exactly been football follies, but the exchange between center and quarterback hasn't exactly been a snap for the 49ers either the past three training camp practice sessions since Jeremy Newberry left the field with a strained left calf Tuesday morning. And that immediately brings to the forefront one of the Niners' primary issues entering the summer - the team needs to find a backup center and get him up to speed at the position.

Newberry will be OK, and coach Steve Mariucci said Wednesday that - if the Niners had a real game to play this Sunday - Newberry probably would be their starting center. But since this still is the preseason, Newberry's injury is serious enough that Mariucci said it's entirely possible Newberry won't travel to Japan for the team's preseason opener Aug. 3 against Washington. At the very least, Newberry is not expected to be available until the end of this week at the earliest.

Without Newberry, there has been at least five bad exchanges between the quarterbacks and a quintet of backup centers since the Pro Bowler went down. A few of the bad snaps have been almost comical, except that nobody's laughing. The most obvious was Dave Fiore launching the ball over Jeff Garcia's head when the quarterback was in shotgun formation, sending the Pro Bowler and MIN - Most Important Niner - scrambling for the ball in front of onrushing defensive linemen.

Nobody wants to see that happen in a game. And, yes, the real games still are a long way off. So, on Wednesday, general manager Terry Donahue said the team is not actively pursuing a backup at the moment.

"I think we're going to try to get through this," Donahue said. "In the long run, it can be a blessing to us. It forces us to look at our second and third centers."

But the Niners can't actually like what they've seen the past two days. Last year, when Newberry was injured during a Monday night game against the New York Jets and had to miss a spell, veteran backup Ben Lynch stepped in and performed both capably and admirably. But the Niners chose not to re-sign Lynch this year because of his veteran salary. Lynch was something of a luxury on the roster last year since he was a true center and didn't play other positions.

This year, the Niners are trying a lot of guys who play other positions in the void created by Lynch's departure. Obviously, as we are seeing in camp, snapping the ball to a quarterback is more of a skill than many people might think.

Mariucci said starting left guard Dave Fiore is the backup center, so you figure out what that would do to the Niners' offensive line if he had to replace Newberry in a real game. That's what Fiore - then the starting right guard - had to do last year at Atlanta when both Newberry and Lynch were out with injuries. In that overtime thriller won by the Niners, Fiore and Garcia botched three exchanges - one turning into a lost fumble that almost cost San Francisco the game.

Fiore is an adequate center - and would be better than that if he gets his exchanges down pat - but let's get real. He's a starting guard, and doesn't have time to be snapping the ball every day. So the Niners seem to be getting their priorities a little confused here at the position. Fiore, who has been moved around so many times by the team, should be left alone during camp to learn his new starting position.

Matt Willig, whom Mariucci said would take Fiore's spot at guard in the starting lineup if Fiore had to be the starting center, also has tried a few snaps at the position. So has Jeff McCurley - a true center - and rookie Eric Heitmann, a guard by trade who is being given a chance to be one of the top backups at that position. After Newberry was hurt, the Niners worked out and then signed center Ty Wise, who played in NFL Europe this spring after brief 2000 flings with Philadelphia and Chicago.

But McCurley and Wise aren't expected to make the team. To put it even more realistically, they won't make the team. So the Niners, as is their current plan, are going to go with a true guard as their backup center this season.

That's all great if Newberry remains healthy. If he doesn't ... Well, we've been getting a glimpse the past few days of what can happen. And it's not good.

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