O-line will be behind entering season

Don't expect to see guard Ron Stone again this preseason. Don't expect to see much of center Jeremy Newberry, either. And as a result, don't expect to see the great continuity and chemistry that the Niners had along their offensive line the past two years when the season begins in September.

It's simply not going to be there now that summer injuries have rocked the foundation of one of the team's most stable areas since 2000.

When asked Monday evening if Stone would miss the rest of the preseason with the sprained right elbow he suffered in Saturday's 38-7 exhibition loss to Washington in Japan, Niners coach Steve Mariucci said, "We'll see how it goes." What he meant to say was, "Not a chance."

Stone is expected to miss 2-to-4 weeks, and Mariucci said that hopefully he'll play in another preseason game before the Sept. 5 season opener at New York against the Giants. But that is not the 49ers' way, particularly in the preseason. It's unlikely the Niners - particularly with the way their reserves played against the Redskins - would put a front-line starter such as Stone back on the firing line in a meaningless preseason game so soon after an injury.

Just look at Newberry. The Pro Bowl center suffered a strained calf during the opening few days of training camp. He hasn't practiced since, and he didn't even make the trip to Japan. But if the American Bowl game in Osaka would have counted, Newberry probably would have started it.

As it is, the Niners will rest Newberry another week or two until he is fully healthy before they send him back into action. In the preseason, the team has this luxury, and it uses it. It's the same deal with a collection of other veteran starters with minor injuries, such as cornerback Jason Webster.

It's the right thing to do. But it also puts the Niners behind, as far as progressing as an offense, in general, and an offensive line, in particular.

Stone will stay close to action, attend meetings and keep himself in shape while the elbow heals. But he'll be missing snaps - in practice and game action - that he needs to fit into a line of which he is the only newcomer. Newberry probably doesn't need those snaps, considering his knowledge of and comfort level in the system, but with him out, the Niners started Dave Fiore at center against the Redskins.

Fiore happens to be the team's starting left guard. He was the starting right guard last year, flipping sides this spring to accommodate the arrival of Stone, an All-Pro last season. So if Fiore continues to see time at center, that's three positions on the line that aren't developing with starting tackles Derrick Deese and Scott Gragg with the season opener now less than a month away.

The Niners will have a good offensive line this year, but be prepared for it not to be that way from the get-go in 2002 like it was the season before. Those kind of things take time, and part of that time now must be used to rest injuries.


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