Special teams getting some special attention

During 49ers practices in recent years, former special teams coach Bruce DeHaven had several players wear colorful covers atop their helmets to identify positions on opposing schemes. He also wore a microphone so nobody missed a word. And yet, through all of his methods, the 49ers were getting worse instead of better on special teams last year. Expect it to be different in 2003 now that coach Dennis Erickson is giving more attention - and adding new coaching positions - to his speciaty units.

The Niners haven't given much attention to their special teams in more than a dozen years. Throughout the latter half of their two-decade dynasty in the 1990s, special teams were an afterthought because the team was so strong with front-line talent on offense and defense. The 49ers were so often so far ahead so many times that special teams rarely made a difference.

That changed after the dynasty collapsed in 1999, but at that point the Niners were in such a severe salary-cap hole that they didn't have the resources to concentrate on rebuilding their flagging special teams. They had more immediate concerns on offense and defense. Special teams were addressed with tape-and-paste - at best - with the lower-end players on a roster that was begging for better talent.

The Niners have that better talent now, but - as is the trend throughout the NFL these days - the team must rely mostly on young reserves to fill special-teams roles. By drafting kicker Jeff Chandler in the fourth round last season, the Niners finally began addressing some specialists roles through the draft.

But even with the emergence of kick returner Jimmy Williams last year, the Niners special teams were a disaster much of the time. The Niners ranked 25th in the NFL in kickoff return average, 28th in gross punting, 29th in net punting, 24th in field-goal percentage and 26th in kickoff coverage.

The Niners realize this has to change if they're going to keep moving up among the NFL elite.

So Erickson not only hired former University of Arizona defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff to coach special teams. He also recently hired former Arizona assistant Jeff Rodgers as a special-teams quality control coach, creating a position the 49ers have never had in the past. Another recent hire in a newly-created postion - nickel teams coach Dick Tomey - also will provide input on special teams in addition to overseeing the team's defensive coverage packages.

Erickson said Rodgers will assist Mac Duff in specific areas of game planning, and will take care of much of the film-room work that will free Mac Duff to spend more time implementing procedures on the field.

The new head coach obviously realizes the importance of special teams, an area that often has been neglected in San Francisco. With management's approval, he already has strengthened that area before the 2003 Niners have even spent one day of practice on the field.

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