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Niners hope to make it a tough homecoming for Watters

December 27, 1996

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) _ The 49ers have had a tough time replacing Ricky Watters. Stopping the Pro Bowl running back could be even tougher.

Watters, who had a league-high 1,855 total yards from scrimmage for Philadelphia (10-6) this season, faces his former team for the first time since his bitter departure from San Francisco two years ago as the Eagles play the 49ers on Sunday in a wild-card game.

``He looks powerful. He looks tough and he attacks the line of scrimmage well,″ San Francisco defensive coordinator Pete Carroll said. ``He’s got all kinds of moves. He’s their guy, a big force for their offense.″

The 49ers (12-4) know all about Watters being a force, and not always in the positive sense. He led the team in rushing three straight seasons but also was considered disruptive, once squabbling on the sidelines with Steve Young and on another occasion arguing with Jerry Rice.

Watters split with San Francisco soon after helping the team win its fifth Super Bowl, signing a three-year, $6.9 million offer sheet with the Eagles that the salary-cap strapped 49ers declined to match. In a parting shot, 49ers president Carmen Policy said the club wasn’t willing to invest in a player uncommitted to team-oriented goals.

``I guess both parties felt it was in their best interest to split up, kind of get a divorce,″ said 49ers fullback William Floyd, who maintains his friendship with Watters. ``I don’t think it was a smooth transition for anybody on either side.″

Since joining Philadelphia prior to the 1995 season, Watters has had consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for the Eagles. He has rushed for 100 yards or more 10 times in that span, and the Eagles have won each of those games.

``We definitely have to contain him if we want to stop these guys,″ 49ers defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. ``If Ricky gets on a roll and gets that feeling, there’s no stopping him.″

Even though San Francisco’s running game has struggled since Watters’ departure _ its ineffectiveness was blamed for the 49ers’ elimination from the playoffs last season by Green Bay _ center Jesse Sapolu said Watters just didn’t fit the 49ers’ mold.

``With what I think Ricky wanted, it was best for him to leave,″ Sapolu said.

Watters, who has kept a low profile this week at the urging of Eagles coach Ray Rhodes, was unhappy over what he considered limited opportunities to carry the ball in a 49ers offense centered around Young and Rice.

Neverthess, coach George Seifert said he still believes Watters was the ideal back for the 49ers’ offense, and described him as the best receiving back in football.

``He was a natural fit,″ Seifert said. ``We have very good backs here, and I think Terry Kirby’s done a good job for us this year. But Ricky was a unique player, and you don’t just automatically replace a Ricky Watters, like you don’t automatically replace a Ronnie Lott. It takes some time.″

Watters continues to play in a system similar to the scheme used by the 49ers. But Rhodes, a former 49ers defensive coordinator, tends to run the ball more.

And that’s fine with Watters, who this season established career highs in rushing attempts (353), yards (1,411) and touchdowns (13).

``He works hard and runs every play like it’s his last,″ Eagles quarterback Ty Detmer said. ``He’s been good. He doesn’t say much. He just goes about his business.″

Rhodes said Watters has matured in the last two years and has reined in the emotional outbursts that at times alienated teammates and fans alike.

``He’s a very competitive guy, and he wants to win,″ Rhodes said. ``He’s worked extremely hard for our football team, and if you take a look at things, Ricky’s been at least a third of our offensive production both years ... and he’s a big reason why we’ve been successful.″

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