Contra Costa Times

49ers enter postseason with issues
January 01, 2003

SANTA CLARA - If Monday night's meltdown in St. Louis didn't prepare the 49ers for the playoffs, maybe the trip home did.

"The plane flight was about as bumpy as that fourth quarter," coach Steve Mariucci said Tuesday.

Then again, turbulence is pretty much a dietary staple for the 49ers. Monday's loss to the Rams, in which the 49ers blew a 17-0 halftime lead and allowed 28 points in the fourth quarter, may not have been meaningful in a we-gotta-have-it context. Yet it was so telling it hurt.

Mariucci's team went 10-6 this season, encoring a 12-4 record in 2001. Not bad for a team that finished 4-12 in 1999 and 6-10 in 2000, inspiring Mariucci to say things like, "Nobody said it was going to be fun or easy to go through this process."

Oddly enough, this season hasn't produced much in the way of high times and big laughs either, even though it resulted in the 49ers' second consecutive playoff berth and their first division title since 1997. This could in part be due to the fact that last year's return to prominence was a bit of a false read.

Overachievement? Maybe yes, maybe no. Think of it this way: Had the 49ers gone 10-6 last season and 12-4 this season, their resurgence would seem much more well managed and orderly.


"Last year we won more of the close games," Mariucci said. "This year we sort of split them. That's the difference in the win-loss record. We're making progress. We're still building this team."

You can make a perfectly reasonable case for that assessment. Yet Mariucci fights the perception that this team is far enough along in its development it shouldn't be frittering away double-digit second half leads. Therein lies the rub with the Rams game -- it spoke to the things people have been speaking about for the past two seasons.

For one thing, that the 49ers have no earthly idea how to protect a lead. For another, that their defense, though young and athletic, also is combustible. For another -- and this goes beyond Monday's game, which receiver Terrell Owens sat out and quarterback Jeff Garcia left after one series -- they don't maximize their most potent offensive assets.

Have you seen the NFL's season-ending numbers? The 49ers were a middle-of-the-pack passing team, ranked 14th in passing yardage. This despite having a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback, a 1,000-yard-caliber running back in Garrison Hearst, and the best receiver in Sharpieville.

Yet instead of forcing the issue on opposing defenses, the 49ers seem content to play the move-the-chains game, taking what they're given and placing emphasis on efficiency and time of possession.

"I don't care about some statistics," Mariucci said. "I care about wins. We've won a lot of games playing that way. Jeff's best year throwing the football was our worst record. Why? Because we were coming from behind so often. We were a little more desperate."

This leads to two schools of thought regarding the 49ers' MO. One, Mariucci doesn't know as much as he should. The 49ers should be more aggressive offensively, putting the ball in Owens' hands far more consistently than they do.

Or two, Mariucci knows more than we do. For all there is to like about this team, it has its limitations. So pragmatism is priority one, controlling the ball to keep the 49ers' young defense (and the other team's offense) off the field.

As for the cautious nature of the passing game, that's symptomatic of the modern NFL game. The Raiders' Rich Gannon challenged Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record this season, and may well be named the league's MVP today. Yet we still have no idea whether he's capable of throwing a football 40 yards on the fly.

The upshot is, for a division champion preparing for a playoff game against a team it already has defeated this season, the 49ers are dragging a lot of baggage behind them. And if you want to toss Mariucci's contractual status on the fire (one year remaining after this season, no extension in sight, this is a recording), go right ahead.

"That's part of the deal," Mariucci said Tuesday, speaking of the demands of coaching in general and not his contract in particular. "Coaches don't sleep well. We live in a fish bowl. (But) if you don't want to be on center stage, get off."

Mariucci shows no inclination to surrender the spotlight. Nor should he. You can argue the criticism he takes two ways and qualify every last scrap of skepticism. And yet, not even Mariucci could disagree with this:

You can't take a resurgent young team into the playoffs, lose the first game for the second year in a row, and call it progress.

Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.