Contra Costa Times

Garcia's legacy is still undiscovered
January 12, 2003

In many ways Jeff Garcia is a logical and worthy heir to the 49ers quarterbacking legacy. And in many ways he seems more a fan of that legacy than a functionary.

At his best he leaves opponents awestruck and deferential. At less than his best he leaves his fans (and certain wide receivers) acutely unsatisfied.

He is fabulously improvisational, yet at times he seems reluctant to apply that aptitude. On some plays his feet are quick and decisive, a real attribute. On others they are frantic and frightened, whether the situation calls for foreboding or not.

He is good more often than he is not, yet there is the nagging feeling that he should be good more often than he is. Which leads to another nagging feeling: Do we expect too much of him because of his quarterbacking forefathers? Or has he helped us set the bar that high?

He's a hard guy to get a handle on, as the New York Giants discovered last Sunday. And as we all discovered after the 49ers' unthinkable 39-38 comeback victory.

Lobbed the obligatory legacy question after the game, at a time when he could rightly throw back his shoulders and puff out his chest, Garcia put on his frantic feet and fled the whole weighty issue.

"I'm still trying to build a legacy here," he said, almost apologetically. "There's so much for me to accomplish. As far as legacies are concerned, I'm still trying to find my way out of the hole sometimes."

All credit to Garcia for recognizing that a rip-roaring comeback in a wild-card game fails to compare to anything that happens in a Super Bowl. On the other hand, his painful I'm-not-worthiness is even more pronounced than the young Steve Young's.

Young, you'll recall, spent a great deal of his career with the 49ers as a conflicted quarterback. Should I go, or back up Joe? Should I play, or should I stay? Am I running too much? Am I not running enough? Do they love me? Do I love myself? Can I win a Super Bowl? Would one be enough?

Garcia's angst is as powerful, but not nearly as complex. Distilled to its essence, it goes something like this:

What the heck am I doing here?

He is so unlike Joe Montana and Young, whom he worshipped as a fan. They had pedigrees. Montana may have been a third-round draft pick, but he came from Notre Dame. Young signed a $40 million contract with the USFL's Los Angeles Express upon leaving BYU. Both men felt the glare of the national spotlight at a young age, and had the tan lines to prove it.

Garcia, by contrast, moved among the shadows. He was undrafted out of San Jose State, backed up Doug Flutie in Canada, then starred with Calgary after Flutie's return to the NFL. When he tried to follow Flutie's path back south, few took him seriously. And few took Bill Walsh seriously for recommending him.

There probably will always be a bit of underdog in Garcia, which is something you would never have said about his predecessors.

Then again, Garcia lives in the same statistical neighborhood as Montana and Young. If you compare the first four full seasons (250 passes or more) for each man's 49ers career, you find:

Garcia first in attempts and completions, second in yards and touchdowns, second in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, third in completion percentage (at a respectable 62.2 percent). He has been named to three Pro Bowls, same as Young and one more than Montana.

He is a distant third in yards per attempt, everybody's favorite inside-the-numbers number. Young averaged 8.71 yards per pass attempt in his first four seasons as a starter. Montana averaged 7.33. Garcia: 6.96, fueling criticism that he doesn't take enough chances down the field.

Where Garcia really fails to stack up, naturally, is in the Lombardi Trophy department. Both Montana and Young won a Super Bowl in their first four seasons as the 49ers starter. Garcia is a 1-1 postseason quarterback in the NFL as he wakes up this morning.

Another playoff victory would help his cause. How about a heroic playoff victory? Garcia skipped Saturday's light practice because of a cold; imagine him courageously overcoming the ravaging effects of a runny nose to lead the 49ers past Tampa Bay.

In the end, only a Super Bowl victory will completely validate Garcia as 49ers quarterbacking royalty. In the meantime he is something of a paradox -- accomplished yet somehow lacking, more appreciated beyond the Bay Area than within it, denied the credit he deserves either because we won't give it to him or because he won't accept it.

A few more games like last Sunday's, and neither we nor he will have any choice. Our reserve was shattered at the end of that game, and for one really nice moment his was, too.

"To hear that reaction," he said shortly after leaving the field, "I wish I could have stayed out there and soaked it up more. It leaves me speechless."

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