49ers Year-by-Year: 2003

Come all ye masochists, gather round. That sick pleasure that you take when Dennis Erickson flits across your disheveled mind will be well served here. That fascination with destructive infighting, the magnetic attraction that you feel toward heart-wrenching loss - all of your greatest fantasies are fulfilled within.

Because this is the 49ers' 2003 season. This was the beginning of the very worst of it all. This was the Episode I of Modern Era 49ers' seasons. This one kind of hurts. I still think you should read it, though. And if you do need some intrigue to continue, I've uncovered conclusive evidence that Mike Singletary blatantly plagiarized Jeremy Newberry. It's true.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 7

Chicago Bears

W: 7-49

1-0

0-1

Sept. 14

@ St. Louis Rams

L: 24-27

1-1

1-1

Sept. 21

Cleveland Browns

L: 13-12

1-2

1-2

Sept. 28

@ Minnesota Vikings

L: 7-35

1-3

4-0

Oct. 5

Detroit Lions

W: 17-24

2-3

1-4

Oct. 12

@ Seattle Seahawks

L: 19-20

2-4

4-1

Oct. 19

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

W: 7-24

3-4

3-3

Oct. 26

@ Arizona Cardinals

L: 13-16

3-5

2-5

Nov. 2

St. Louis Rams

W: 10-30

4-5

5-3

Nov. 17

Pittsburgh Steelers

W: 14-30

5-5

3-7

Nov. 23

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 10-20

5-6

6-5

Nov. 30

@ Baltimore Ravens

L: 6-44

5-7

7-5

Dec. 7

Arizona Cardinals

W: 14-50

6-7

3-10

Dec. 14

@ Cincinnati Bengals

L: 38-41

6-8

8-6

Dec. 21

@ Philadelphia Eagles

W: 31-28

7-8

11-4

Dec. 27

Seattle Seahawks

L: 24-17

7-9

10-6


Head Coach:
Dennis Erickson

Key Losses: HC Steve Mariucci, WR J.J. Stokes, K Jose Cortez, G/T Dave Fiore

Key Additions: T Kwame Harris, WR Arnaz Battle, WR Brandon Lloyd

After two winning season, including a playoff win just one season before, the 49ers were suddenly an unknown quantity going into 2003. With the unceremonious dismissal of head coach Steve Mariucci, who had been in open conflict with the ownership group as well as some of his more outspoken players for the better part of two years, the 49ers were going into 2003 behind new head coach Dennis Erickson. Erickson had previously coached at the NFL level, finding little success in a brief sting in Seattle. However, his great success as a college coach preceded him, and 49ers fans had to be hopeful that he would finally be able to translate that success at the NFL level.

But while the rift between the ownership and the coaching staff was presumably solved by the hiring of Erickson, the controversy surrounding the team was hardly solved. Over the past two seasons, Terrell Owens had developed not onto into an All-Pro talent, but also into a divisive, emotional, impulsive and disruptive presence on the team. In a short period, he had made waves with his on-field hijinks, while constantly taking light shots at the coaching philosophies and alternately praising and criticizing Jeff Garcia's play. As strange as it is to credit one player with so much influence, Owens' role under the new regime would go a long way toward determining the cohesiveness of the entire team.

Still, the 49ers were largely unchanged from a team that had won 23 games in the past two seasons, including a dramatic, come-from-behind playoff victory. It was a battle-tested team that, theoretically, should be able to repeat the success that had put them in the playoffs for two straight seasons.

And the first game of the season completely justified that optimism. A strong defensive performance and a lighting fast offensive attack combined to trounce the Bears by a score of 49-7. Jeff Garcia used the game to silence critics who worried about a preseason back injury, while a visibly giddy Dennis Erickson used the game to set the tone for what he hoped would be many more like it.

However, it wasn't going to be that easy. Traveling to St. Louis to take on their division rivals, the 49ers and Rams duked it out for four full quarters. Early in the game, both Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens were knocked out of the game with concussions. However, after passing verbal tests on the sidelines, both were allowed to return. Their play almost brought the 49ers a victory. With time running out in a tied game at the end of regulation, Garcia threw a pass to Cedrick Wilson in the middle of the field. Wilson incorrectly believed that time had already run out on regulation and tried to run for the end zone. Meanwhile, his teammates frantically tried to get him to drop to the ground to call a timeout. By the time he did hit the turf, regulation was over and the game went to overtime. After a series of defensive mistakes in overtime, the Rams won on a field goal.

By the end of the third game, another loss, Terrell Owens was making public statements about his dissatisfaction with his role on the offense. But he wasn't the only malcontent. After the loss, fullback Fred Beasley openly criticized the quarterbacks for continuing to platoon Garrison Hearst with Kevan Barlow, saying that they needed to pick one for the sake of offensive continuity.

Things only got worse from there. Another ugly loss in week four led to even more public dissension from Owens. This time, though, he didn't just make noise to the media after the game. During the game, Owens made an extremely visible display by marching up and down the sideline screaming at the top of his lungs. After the game, though, it was his continued criticisms of Jeff Garcia - even going so far as to suggest that a quarterback change was needed - that grabbed the headlines. Garcia, frustrated, had some choice words for Owens himself.

Things were officially ugly in San Francisco.

But the season was not without intrigue. Despite being 1-3, the 49ers fifth game of the season came with a storyline built in: The Detroit Lions - led by none other than Steve Mariucci - were coming to town. Before the game, Garcia and Owens reportedly patched things up, and it certainly appeared that way as the game went on. The two got off to a fast start, and the 49ers jumped to a 17-0 lead over their old head coach. Then, the Lions buckled down, but it wouldn't be enough as the 49ers, relieved and loose, escaped with a victory.

And that win gave them a chance to climb back to .500. Taking on the Seahawks in Seattle, though, the 49ers failed to capitalize, and it looked like they would drop to 2-5 in the coming week against the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers - the very team that had knocked San Francisco out of the playoffs the season before.

Amazingly, the two-faced 49ers not only showed their good side for once, but completely manhandled the Bucs. Led by Garrison Hearst, San Francisco stepped on Tampa Bay's throat from the first minute, and never got off. After the game, center Jeremy Newberry explained the team's winning attitude by saying, "We wanted to hit them in the mouth. And then when they got up, we wanted to hit them in the mouth again."

But the joy from that game would be short-lived as the 49ers would turn back into the bickering, identity-less team against the division rival and perennial pushover Arizona Cardinals. Unable to punch the ball into the end zone on multiple trips to the red zone, the 49ers routinely had to settle for field goals. Settling, though, would be the difference in the game as two missed field goals and a missed extra point by kicker Owen Pochman. The team's frustrations boiled over and directed itself at the special teams unit. Garrison Hearst, of all people, curtly told the media that he was "pissed off" about the loss. Jeremy Newberry, who just a week before had beamed at the team's toughness, openly railed that losing a game because of a special teams failure was "bull---". Adding injury to insult, Jeff Garcia sprained his ankle during the game and would miss the next week.

But against the Rams it was Garcia's absence that proved to be the difference. Behind the leadership of backup Tim Rattay, the 49ers' offense appeared to find itself again. Though the Rams had won four straight, they had no answer for Tim Rattay's three touchdown passes (one to Owens) and 236 yards (17 to Owens). At 4-5, with the playoff still amazingly within reach, the 49ers had another chance to climb back to .500 following their bye.

This time they wouldn't squander it. Facing Pittsburgh at Candlestick on Monday night, the 49ers enjoyed a special night indeed. With an efficient Rattay getting another start, Terrell Owens again starred in the spotlight. As Owens caught eight passes for 155 yards and a touchdown, the 49ers jumped out ahead of the Steelers and never looked back. At halftime of the victory, they retired Ronnie Lott's jersey, putting number 42 away for good.

The good vibes wouldn't last, though. The up and down 49ers continued their up and down season by getting pummeled in Green Bay, and then again in Baltimore. Just like that, the goodwill of being .500 was gone, the dissension among the team was back, and the team was staring down a schedule that would require them to win out to even have a chance at the postseason. With luck, the Cardinals were coming to town and the 49ers beat the sad-sack club up and down the field.

But even then, they couldn't make it back to .500. The season essentially ended in week 15 when a sloppy, mistake-filled performance doomed an otherwise inspiring offensive display in Cincinnati. The Bengals won 41-38 to ensure that the 49ers would not have a third consecutive winning season.

But .500 - and dignity - was still within reach, and amazingly the 49ers did not squander it as easily as they had at other points in the season. Facing almost impossible odds against an Eagles team that was among the hottest in the league, the 49ers broke through their slump and looked for all the world like the team that they should have been. During the victory, Terrell Owens landed hard on his shoulder and broke his collarbone. He wouldn't play for the rest of the game or the season. In his absence, rookie Brandon Lloyd thrilled fans with unbelievable, acrobatic catches. Unbelievably, it was the 49ers' only road victory for the entire season.

After the game, questions about Owen's future with the team were thrown about. It was well-known at this point that Owens and Garcia were not going to remain on the same team, and Owens looked for all the world like the odd man out. Speculation was that he had caught his final pass as a 49er. And after so much controversy - after so much trouble - many 49ers fans were more than happy to accept that possibility.

The season ended quietly with a loss, but following the result, the future of the team was thrown immediately into doubt. Along with questions about Owens' future with the team, there was uncertainty over whether or not fan-favorite Garrison Hearst would return to the team. With a hefty paycheck and the emergence of Kevan Barlow, it didn't seem likely. On top of Hearst, the 49ers went into the offseason with a whopping 14 unrestricted free agents. More than that, defensive coordinator Jim Mora, Jr., was well on his way to becoming the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

After what could only be described as a disappointing first season, new head coach Dennis Erickson had an unenviable job going forward. The team was undoubtedly about to be dismantled again, and there was nothing that anybody could do about it.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/2003.htm
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/09/08/SPGV21KHFJ1.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/09/15/SPGI51NCQA1.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/09/22/SPG661RS7L1.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/09/29/SPGH020LT91.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/10/06/SPG8124AEI13.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/10/20/SPGF02F4PA1.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/10/27/SPGH92JV7A1.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/11/03/SPG432OV761.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/11/18/SPG7234JV61.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/12/22/SPGNQ3SBJ91.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/12/29/SPGA03VQ2K1.DTL

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