The San Francisco 49ers have had some extreme down periods over the last 20 years. It’s hard to believe that the Niners have only made the playoffs six times since 1999. The successful seasons under Jim Harbaugh, Steve Mariucci, and last year under current head coach Kyle Shanahan take the sting away from the dark years of the mid-2000s.
Looking back at the early part of the century, one of the worst hires the 49ers brass made was giving the keys to Dennis Erickson, who coached the team during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
Erickson took over for the popular Steve Mariucci, who was let go by the 49ers because of off-the-field performance, according to John York. Mariucci’s San Francisco teams performed well on the field. He led the team to the playoffs four times in six seasons and finished with a record 57-39. Mariucci was popular among fans, so the decision to let him go was met with hostility.
Erickson won two national championships with the Miami Hurricanes in 1991, but he couldn’t translate that success to the pros. He got the job despite missing the playoffs in four-consecutive seasons as the coach of the Seattle Seahawks during his first NFL coaching stint.
After four seasons in college with Oregon State, Erickson was given the head coaching job with the Niners. This was despite the fact that the Beavers went 31-17 over those years, which is unimpressive for a coach in the college ranks.
With Pro-Bowlers Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia, and Garrison Hearst on the roster when Erickson took over in 2003, the 49ers came out of the gates blazing, blowing out the Chicago Bears 49-7 in Week 1, but unfortunately, that was the only time the team was over .500 that entire season.
San Francisco lost its next three games, including a 27-24 overtime loss to the Rams in Week 2, and a 13-12 defeat by the Cleveland Browns in Week 3. Garcia got hurt during a Week 8 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals and missed the next three games, leading to backup Tim Rattay becoming the starter.
The Niners went 2-1 over their next three games with Rattay under center, leading to a deepening divide between Garcia and Owens, who had praised Rattay’s play. After beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-14 on Monday Night Football to get to 5-5 after Week 11, San Francisco was in a position to make a run for a playoff spot.
But, It was downhill from there. Garcia returned just in time for a 44-6 beatdown by the Baltimore Ravens, dropping the 49ers to 5-7
The Niners finished 7-9 in Erickson’s first year, with five losses coming by three points or less. San Francisco finished 18th in total DVOA in 2003.
With Owens, Garcia, and Hearst gone for various reasons after the 2003 season, 2004 turned ugly for Erickson. Rattay was the starting quarterback, and a sign of things to come came in a Week 1 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Rattay and Eric Johnson connected for a 16-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left to cut the Falcons lead to 21-19. Unfortunately, Rattay’s pass for the two-point convert went incomplete, sealing the win for Atlanta.
The highlight of the 2004 season came in Week 5 against the Cardinals. San Francisco trailed 28-12 late in the fourth quarter when Rattay put on his Superman cape. He hit Johnson for a six-yard score with 4:35 left on the clock, and ran in the two-point conversion, cutting the deficit to eight points.
Rattay then hit receiver Brandon Lloyd for a 23-yard score with 1:07 left, and then the pair connected on the game-tying two-point convert, tying it up at 28-28.
Kick Todd Peterson connected on a 32-yard field goal less than four minutes into overtime, giving the Niners their first win of the season.
San Francisco would lose its next seven games, before beating the Cardinals 31-28 in overtime for a second-time in Week 14. if Erickson could have played Arizona every week, he may been a Hall of Fame coach.
Those were the only two wins the 49ers would have all season, finishing 2-14. The Niners were dead last in total DVOA at -41.8%. To put things in perspective, the Rams were second-last in DVOA at -27.2
I don’t know why York and co. made the decision to hire Erickson, who was an uninspiring choice, to say the least. He went 9-23 over two years before being fired after the 2004 season.
What do you remember most from the Dennis Erickson era?