Posted on Sun, Jun. 08, 2003
ERIC GILMORE: TIMES COLUMNIST
49ers, Owens in for bumpy ride
The exact year escapes me, but the scene at 49ers headquarters remains clear.
Wide receiver Jerry Rice was still a 49er, in the prime of his amazing career. Minicamp had ended at Santa Clara, and Rice was talking to reporters about his push for a new contract.
"Buckle your seatbelts," Rice said, flashing a smile. "It's going to be a bumpy ride."
In reality, Rice's contract rides were rarely very rough. He was the league's best receiver, not to mention a tireless worker who, for the most part, avoided divisive controversy. So the 49ers kept unlocking the bank vault for Rice, keeping him at or near the top of the NFL's salary chart for wide receivers.
You want to watch a truly bumpy ride?
Keep your eyes on the 49ers and receiver Terrell Owens. We're talking about a potential head-on collision that could shake the franchise to its core.
Owens can void his contract after the 2003 season, when he's slated to earn a base salary of $4.2 million. He wants a new long-term, megabucks contract, and he wants it now.
Just in case the 49ers had any doubts, Owens skipped two voluntary minicamps and one voluntary passing camp. He also went on ESPN's "Rome is Burning" and said he's "underpaid" and willing to play for "any other team" in 2004 if the 49ers don't show him enough money.
The 49ers' response?
"We have a contract with T.O.," 49ers general manager Terry Donahue told reporters Monday. "There's no urgency to get a new deal."
Donahue has met with David Joseph, Owens' agent, and opened contract talks. But it's clear he's in no rush to make a deal.
You can bet Owens has his spandex in a bunch over Donahue's go-slow approach. It's not hard imagining him waging a training camp holdout.
There's no question Owens will play hard and play with passion when he reports to camp, new contract or no new contract. But when Owens is unhappy, he has a way of making everyone unhappy. Welcome to the 49ers, coach Dennis Erickson.
Donahue and his boss, John York, face a tougher decision concerning Owens' fate than the 49ers ever did when Rice was in his prime.
Owens comes with more baggage than Rice. What's more, the price tag for NFL superstars has skyrocketed.
The Chicago Bears just signed linebacker Brian Urlacher reportedly to a new nine-year, $58 million deal, including a $13 signing bonus.
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis signed a seven-year, $50 million contract in 2001 that included a $19 million signing bonus.
Owens apparently wants guaranteed bonuses in the $20 million range.
The 49ers have to decide whether they want to invest that much cash in such a talented but volatile player.
It's hard to even imagine York, who is as frugal as former owner Eddie DeBartolo was lavish, signing a $20 million check.
What makes the situation even more dicey for Donahue and York is that Owens isn't the only 49er approaching free agency.
Pro Bowl outside linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerback Ahmed Plummer also can void their contracts after the 2003 season.
Peterson is a rising star who will carry a huge price tag. Plummer isn't quite Pro Bowl-caliber. But the demand for quality corners in the NFL far outstrips the supply. So he'll become a very rich man.
Starting cornerback Jason Webster and starting receiver Tai Streets can become unrestricted free agents, too. More money.
The 49ers dug themselves out of the salary-cap hole Carmen Policy, Dwight Clark and DeBartolo created in mad pursuit of Super Bowls past.
They even managed to make back-to-back playoff appearances the past two seasons while crawling toward the light.
The 49ers will have to make some tough decisions to avoid a return to salary-cap hell. They can't keep everyone. That's especially true if they re-sign Owens, their best player.
The 49ers could always slap the franchise player tag on Owens for 2004, paying him the average of the NFL's five highest paid receivers. That's currently $5.01 million.
You can imagine how bitter Owens would be if the 49ers forced him to stay in 2004 without a new long-term deal. In that scenario, he would be free to leave in 2005.
Talk about your long, bumpy rides.