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There's pennies in them thar pockets

Jeff Garcia doesn't even have to turn out the lights as he leaves the San Francisco 49ers' portion of his career behind. The franchise has done a perfectly complete job of appearing to operate in the dark already.

Garcia reportedly wound up with his choice of a couple of NFL jobs before settling on a four-year, $25 million contract to take over as the starting quarterback in Cleveland, but that doesn't begin to cover his good news. He's also getting out of San Francisco slightly ahead of the curve, or at the very least right in the thick of it.

Trust us: It's the right move at the right time.

The 49ers went 7-9 in Dennis Erickson's inaugural season, and congratulations, Kroger, you're at the top of the Delta pledge class. In other words, Erickson may well have already seen the best roster he'll be given as he attempts to coach his way through the John York era of San Francisco ownership.

Garcia, who came back from injury to finish astoundingly strong last season, went to the rear of the class because his salary ($9.9 million) and age (34) both were too high, and he and the 49ers couldn't agree on how far down to bring the former (sound familiar, Tim Couch?). He thus fell into the waiting arms of the Browns, who figure Garcia has at least two or three elite seasons left in him.

The 49ers? They're all set to embrace Tim Rattay, who is 26-years young, cheap and unproven after two solid starts and one hideous breakdown in Green Bay last season. Behind Rattay sits second-year man Ken Dorsey, who shares a University of Miami connection with Erickson. Beyond that, it's Brandon Doman, followed by Close Your Eyes And Wish Real Hard.

All question marks -- but, shoot, that's just one case. In general, the 49ers of York's tenure cannot shed contracts fast enough, no matter how bare their roster becomes in the process.

Garcia: Gone. Terrell Owens: Presumed gone for months, now in trade-grievance limbo, but most assuredly never to play another down for the 49ers despite their crying need for a game-breaking receiver. Garrison Hearst: One-way ticket out of town. The offensive line: In "transition," a word you'll hear a lot this summer around the 49ers' Santa Clara training facility, after the team declined for financial reasons to retain three-time Pro Bowler Ron Stone and versatile Derrick Deese.

General manager Terry Donahue, the man most often sent out to take the hit for York's fiscal strangulation of the franchise, gets high marks for accentuating the positive. Donahue points out that the 49ers may get $4 million under the league's salary cap by 2005, and possibly $14 million under the cap by the year after that. This current unpleasantness, Donahue says, is the only way to address the mountains of "dead money" the club is paying to players no longer performing for the team.

All well and good -- except that as recently as the season before last, the 49ers were a playoff-competitive team with no clear incentive to begin dismantling. It wasn't until York fired Steve Mariucci a year ago (this after Mariucci took San Francisco to the second round of the playoffs before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay on the road), and the "search" for the coach's successor revealed that York had no clear plan beyond sacking Mariucci, that the future became truly clouded.

Now? Your guess is as good as anyone's. For all the talk that the York-Denise DeBartolo ownership group is the same one that presided over an inspired turnaround of the franchise from 4-12 in 1999 to 12-4 in 2001, the truth is that Bill Walsh and assistant John McVay played huge, primary roles in that transition. McVay just retired; Walsh officially severs ties with the franchise later this spring.

The 49ers lost their defensive coordinator, Jim Mora, to Atlanta as the Falcons' new head coach. Mora quickly snapped up offensive coordinator Greg Knapp to go with him and direct the next incarnation of Michael Vick. Erickson undoubtedly will be happy to call the plays, and few doubt his ability an an offensive schemer. But the NFL, in the end, is still a talent league.

For years, during the fat-cat days of Eddie DeBartolo and his bottomless money pit, San Francisco was the franchise that didn't mind paying for the top two players at every position -- one to start for them, and the other one so he couldn't start for any other NFL team. Steve Young stood on the sideline holding Joe Montana's clipboard for three years. End of story.

But that was long ago, long ago. The 49ers of today are the 49ers of John York, who announced he intended to run the club more like a "business" and has gone about doing so, right down to the point of going 7-9 and then stripping away much of the playmaking talent from even that club. Jeff Garcia got run out of town and all the way to Cleveland in the process.

That makes him, quite possibly, one of the lucky ones.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com