49er inspiration born of desperation
January 06, 2003
NEIL HAYES: TIMES COLUMNIST
SAN FRANCISCO - There was 1 minute, 5 seconds left in an epic playoff game and Terrell Owens was laughing.
The 49ers trailed by five points and had just called timeout. Quarterback Jeff Garcia was consulting with the coaching staff. Offensive linemen were standing near the line of scrimmage, eager to start playing again. Owens was soaking it all in, shaking his head at the absurdity of it all.
The New York Giants defensive linemen, meanwhile, had taken a knee. Their heads were bowed and their chests heaved as they gulped for air.
This was not the most memorable moment of one of the most dramatic playoff games ever staged, but it foretold the unforgettable scene to come.
One play later, Garcia threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets to cap the second-greatest comeback in playoff history.
Almost every player in uniform contributed to the 49ers' rallying from a 24-point third-quarter deficit for a 39-38 win at Candlestick Park on Sunday, but history should not overlook the role played by much-maligned offensive coordinator Greg Knapp.
Knapp made it all possible by making the most critical decision of the day. It was his idea to start using the no-huddle offense with 4:22 left in the third quarter. From that point forward, the Giants defense was on its heels and in disarray.
As a result of that decision, New York's defense was exhausted in the final moments when the 49ers were driving for the game-winning touchdown.
"Greg Knapp really believed we needed to get in the two-minute drill and get going," Garcia said. "We weren't running the ball and we needed a spark. It was something that was agreed upon by everybody, but it was first mentioned by Greg Knapp."
There was a buzz around the 49ers training facility all week. Coach Steve Mariucci has been criticized often for his conservative offense, but he and his staff had come up with some new wrinkles to throw at the Giants.
It was refreshing to see Garcia picking up key yards after faking out the Giants defense with bootlegs. Owens even threw a 25-yard pass to Streets on an end-around.
The idea that won the game for the 49ers was not originally part of the game plan, however. The 49ers rarely have used the no-huddle offense this season unless it was during the last two minutes of the first half or the fourth quarter.
This was an idea born of necessity, but if the 49ers want to increase their chances of beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in next Sunday's divisional playoff game they shouldn't hesitate to use the no-huddle to jump-start a sluggish offense.
This offense is at its best when it has nothing to lose. Desperation forces it to take chances it wouldn't normally take, and it's better off for it.
Garcia is at his best when he's calling the plays at the line and skittering around the backfield making the opponents defend against a scramble or a pass. Going into the two-minute mode forced the 49ers to start attacking offensively, which is something they didn't do often enough during the regular season.
"By doing the two-minute offense we gave ourselves the opportunity to get in a rhythm," Garcia said. "Maybe we found our niche."
The 49ers marched 44 yards on six plays before Garcia hit Owens for a 26-yard touchdown. They hooked up again for the two-point conversion that made it 38-22.
Mariucci planned to go back to the conventional offense during the next drive, but his players lobbied to stay in the no-huddle as much as possible.
"We could've started huddling up and mixing and matching like the game plan said, but the guys wanted to stay on the ball," Mariucci said. "They don't move guys in and out on the defensive line much and we wanted to get them tired."
The 49ers took advantage of a short field for another quick score and then jumped in and out of the no-huddle during a 15-play, 74-yard drive that culminated in a short Jeff Chandler field goal that brought San Francisco to within five.
The Giants don't have much depth on the defensive line, and the no-huddle made it virtually impossible to get fresh players into the game. Several 49ers offensive linemen said Giants players were so gassed that they chose not to run the defensive line stunts that were being signaled in from the sideline.
"Those guys were sucking wind," center Jeremy Newberry said. "Anytime we had a break in the action they were sucking wind and water and we were ready to go."
It all culminated on the final drive. Rallying from a 24-point deficit is wildly improbable, but the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown seemed inevitable when Owens was laughing while the New York defensive linemen were trying to catch their breath.
Owens probably sensed the obvious. The 49ers had yet to make the game-winning play, but thanks to their no-huddle offense, the Giants already were beaten.
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