The San Francisco 49ers signed wide receiver Terrell Owens to a long-term contract Monday and moved closer to making a much more controversial move signing troubled tailback Lawrence Phillips.
Owens, who had a team-high 14 touchdown catches last season while surpassing Jerry Rice as the 49ers' go-to receiver, signed a seven-year, $34.2 million contract extension that includes a $7.5 million signing bonus.
With the team's situation at running back uncertain due to Garrison Hearst's serious ankle injury, Owens said he knows the passing game will be the focus of the San Francisco offense.
"We've got to pick up the slack, the receivers, with Garrison out," Owens said. "We are going to have the carry the team, along with the defense."
With Hearst out until at least late in the season, the 49ers are negotiating with Phillips who has had extensive off-field problems including domestic violence and drunken driving, and lost jobs with the St. Louis Rams and Miami Dolphins to take his place in the backfield.
The 49ers talked with Phillips' agent again on Monday after holding discussions last Friday and during the weekend. General manager Bill Walsh said the 49ers have completed their examination of Phillips' off-field problems and could sign him soon.
"We're continuing to explore it, more and more intensively," Walsh said. "We're alert and sensitive to the feelings of the public. I'm sure there would be some adverse commentary if we were to sign Lawrence Phillips, and some of it would be valid. But if he can live within the normal framework of our society, than maybe we would take that risk."
Walsh and 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said they hoped the veteran leadership of teammates such as Rice and Steve Young would provide a good atmosphere for Phillips, who starred this spring in NFL Europe and is being pursued by several teams.
"It's very important that the mood in your locker room is right. The chemistry of this team is always a concern of mine. We are in the process of researching this one very thoroughly," Mariucci said. "We have a strong feeling that one of the strengths of this team is bringing new players along. They have to get with it and learn the 49er way. We feel good about being able to do that."
Walsh said the 49ers will not babysit Phillips or fine him repeatedly, as the Rams did, for missing practices or violating team rules.
"There would be no fines here; the relationship wouldn't continue. He wouldn't be lectured every day by a different resource," Walsh said. "Continued counseling and following him around in a different automobile every night, those kind of things aren't going to happen. If the guy is late to meetings continuously, then he's history."
Mariucci said Hearst, who has encountered circulatory complications in his recovery from a broken ankle, was scheduled for another MRI on Monday ad that a decision could come as early as Tuesday on whether to have surgery to try to increase blood flow to the damaged area.
"I would hope to have him back by the end of the season," Mariucci said. "Maybe that's being optimistic. Maybe we'll have to play without him this season."
Hearst, who rushed for a team-record 1,570 yards last season, fractured his ankle on the first play of the 49ers' playoff loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Hearst was third in the NFL in rushing last season and set a team rushing record of 198 yards against the Detroit Lions.
The 49ers already have agreed to terms with former Philadelphia running back Charlie Garner, but believe Phillips would be better suited to take over as the team's No. 1 back.
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue last Wednesday cleared Phillips to play, but warned he will have to pay a substantial fine for violating the league's violent-crime policy if signed by a team.
"The times change and he's changed, and we have a need," Walsh said. "We're seeking a back, the best talent available, and Lawrence is a very good back."
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