Donahue sees hope with 49ers season

Friday, November 12th 2004, 7:35 am
By: News On 6

This is not the worst football season that Terry Donahue has experienced. Not yet, anyway.

Many years ago, when the 49ers' general manager was a young assistant coach at the University of Kansas, the Jayhawks finished 1-9.

''I remember the record,'' Donahue said Thursday. ''I don't remember the pain.''

This year, Donahue is remembering both. And with the NFL season halfway gone, it seemed a good time to sit down with him and do a quick assessment about what the 49ers' 1-7 start means for the franchise's future.

He was surprisingly frank and realistic in doing so. To Donahue's credit, he is no longer repeating the ''salary-cap hell'' mantra we heard so often last spring and summer. That's smart. Fans do not want to hear any more about salary-cap hell.

Know what the fans want? Hope.

For example, two weekends ago against the 49ers, the Chicago Bears won the game with a rookie quarterback (Craig Krenzel) throwing a touchdown pass to a rookie wide receiver (Bernard Berrian). For Bears fans, that is hope. The 49ers have not had many similar moments this season. But Donahue said he is still finding hope, while trying not to sugarcoat.

''Look,'' said Donahue, ''prior to the start of the season, nobody in this building anticipated the season would be like this. No one. The bottom line is winning. We've got to win.

''But when you don't win games, you've got to put your hopes on a 417-yard passing game by Tim Rattay, like the one he had last month. Or you watch Jamie Winborn. You pick one of his performances this year and you say, 'Man, this guy's going to be a really good player.' The hope for the future lies in our younger players ascending and becoming true NFL stars.''

The A-word is one Donahue uses often. Except in the case of Terrell Owens, said Donahue, the decisions to release older players in the off-season were made with the belief that the younger players behind those older players could ''ascend'' to a solid NFL level. The master plan is to have those players ''ascend'' and then draft or acquire more good players for better results as soon as next year. And Donahue resents any implication that the plan is off-track.

''If you are saying that none of the young players are ascending,'' Donahue said, ''then you are saying they are all busts. And they are not busts. I'm not going to sit here and say that Shawntae Spencer, Jamie Winborn, Eric Johnson, Arnaz Battle, Kyle Kosier, Brandon Lloyd...that those aren't good, young ascending players.

''At the same time, I'm not going to tell you that a guy like Kevan Barlow has gotten to be a top-10 back. When we signed Barlow, the thought was that this kid could be one of the league's top 10 backs. And when we signed Kwame Harris, the thought was this kid can be a starting offensive lineman. Can he become one? Yes, he can. But has he established himself as an NFL mainstay at left tackle? No, he hasn't. Has Barlow established himself as a top-10 running back? No. Has he shown some flashes that would give you some hope? Yes.''

Donahue is also careful in talking about Harris, who has been hampered by a knee injury this season.

''Last year,'' said Donahue, ''Kwame Harris was able to block Simeon Rice of Tampa Bay and shut him out, OK? Now, Harris hasn't played like that this year. He got hurt, got slowed down by getting his knee hurt, and he hasn't played as well this year as he played last year. I'm not picking on him. I'm just making that point.''

What about the situation with Coach Dennis Erickson? Last weekend, the scuttlebutt was that Erickson had told a friend getting fired from his job wouldn't be the worst thing that might happen.

''I think Dennis has put that to rest with his remarks since then,'' Donahue said. ''The rumor was about Dennis; it wasn't about us.''

Anything else? Yes, as a matter of fact. Donahue said that in the long run, the most crucial element in the team's rebuilding will be -- you guessed it -- the construction of a new home. The added revenue could then fund free-agent bonuses.

''Our short-term success is going to be more difficult until we do get our stadium,'' Donahue said. ''But I think the organization is working hard to try and get a stadium built. And once those plans become established, that will be huge in us going forward. Now, I want to make this perfectly clear: That doesn't mean we can't have success without a new stadium.''

At the end of the season, when we see how many ''ascenders'' there are on the 49ers' roster as opposed to ''descenders,'' we should all have a better idea.