Former 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci knows what it's like to lose a star receiver.
In 1997, his first season at the helm for San Francisco, Mariucci saw Jerry Rice go down in the season opener against Tampa Bay. Even without the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, touchdowns and receiving yards, the 49ers finished first in the NFC West and made it all the way to the NFC Championship.
Mariucci recently returned to the 49ers training camp to film interviews for NFL Network and told 49ers.com that he sees many similarities to his 1997 team.
"It brings me back because my first year here as the Niners coach in '97, we lost Jerry Rice for the season," Mariucci said. "That's very hard to deal with, losing a player like that. The way the Niners run the football, play offensive football, they have a West Coast Offense plus this pistol offense, which is a lot of fun to watch and very difficult to defend. With that said, plus this great defense, there's a lot of good things ahead for this team."
Fortunately, the 49ers acquired Anquan Boldin in an offseason trade with the Baltimore Ravens, easing the setback caused by the loss of Crabtree. Mariucci is eager to see what Boldin can do as a new focal point for the 49ers offense.
"He's been moved over to the Z receiver, which is position that Crabtree had, T.O. had or Jerry Rice had," Mariucci said. "It's the feature position in the West Coast Offense. He'll do a good job with it."
The receiver lining up across from Boldin remains a question mark with some of the 49ers younger receiver competing at the X position. A.J. Jenkins has had an impressive offseason, but rookie Quinton Patton has shown flashes of playmaking ability and Ricardo Lockette is also looking to have a breakout year. Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are also working their way back from injury and are on schedule with their rehabilitation.
"Some of these young guys have to step up," Mariucci pointed out. "We all know about Vernon Davis who is a great tight end. It requires some of these other young receivers, whether it's A.J. Jenkins or Patton or some of these guys who need to figure out who can get on the field and contribute a little bit in addition to Anquan Boldin while Michael Crabtree's still on the sidelines."
When Mariucci lost Rice, he leaned heavily on running back Garrison Hearst throughout the 1997 season. Mariucci believes the 2013 49ers are similarly equipped to withstand the loss thanks to a a strong rushing attack, led by the the 49ers all-time leading rusher, Frank Gore.
Mariucci insists the 49ers will not become one dimensional, however, with Colin Kaepernick evolving into a more complete quarterback.
"He gives people fits with what he can do with his arms and his legs," Mariucci said. "We all say he's fast and he can run, but I think we underestimate his skill set in terms of a passer. He can sling it."
Mariucci was impressed with what he saw from Kaepernick last year in just ten starts, especially considering where the 49ers were one year ago.
"I don't think anybody in this building felt, 'Oh yeah, we have Alex Smith, but there's this guy named Kaepernick from Nevada who's going to be a great player and get us to the Super Bowl,'" Mariucci said. "I don't think that was the mindset. I thought they were hoping he could be a capable backup. Well, he got his chance and boy, did he take advantage of it. That's what you have to do in this league. You have to take advantage of your opportunities, which he certainly did. He did it constantly throughout the ten games that he started."
Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman utilized the pistol offense to great effect last year, which fit Kaepernick's skill sets perfectly. That scheme helped Kaepernick run past the Green Bay Packers and mount a comeback against the Atlanta Falcons during the 2012 Playoffs.
The challenge now, according to Mariucci, is continuing to stay one step ahead of NFL defenses.
"You have guys like Chris Ault from Nevada, who was (Kaepernick's) coach," Mariucci said. "Now, he's a consultant over there for the Chiefs for Andy Reid. Eric Mangini is coming in here to help and give some insight into how to stop it and slow it down. That's the trend right now. The NFL has cycles and trends. It used to be the 46 defense and then it was the run and shoot. There are different offenses and different theories and right now it's this pistol that has taken the league by storm with these athletic-type quarterbacks. It's going to be fun to see how defenses try to slow it down."
Maybe even more challenging this season will be staying on top of the NFC West. With San Francisco and Seattle both considered Super Bowl contenders, it's going to be even more challenging to win the division for a third consecutive season.
"It's gone from the 'NFC Worst' to the 'NFL Best' in the course of a few years," Mariucci said. "It's because of the talent and some new coaches. When you're not winning, you draft early over a few years. This offensive line for the 49ers, it's the youngest in the league and it's the best in the league. They're all youngsters and they're going to be around for a long time. That makes it exciting for this division."