A positive frame of mind
January 03, 2003
Donahue thinks 49ers can win it all, and why not?
Kevin Lynch, Chronicle Staff Writer
Rumbling across Interstate 70 in a hotel passenger van, 49ers general manager Terry Donahue gave his assessment of his team's chances in the impending playoffs, just before the 49ers' season finale in St. Louis.
"We're going in thinking we're as good as any team that's going to be in there, and somebody is going to win it," he said. "Why not us? That's going to be our attitude."
In any other year, the 49ers' quest for a title might seem downright quixotic. None of their 10 wins has been dominating, and at season's end they had scored only 16 more points than their opponents.
They step gingerly into the playoffs after losing four of their last seven games and with the wincing memory of their fourth-quarter collapse against the Rams on Monday night fresh in their minds.
Yet as Donahue suggests, the rest of the playoff pool is also flawed. Possibly the most striking statistic on the league's parity emanates from Las Vegas. During a standard season, the Super Bowl favorite shifts three or four times.
This year, there have been nine different favorites from seven teams, and three of those -- the Rams, Patriots and Broncos -- didn't make the playoffs. Consequently, Donahue's attitude seemed to be the right one.
Here's a quick look at the 49ers heading into the playoffs:
An assessment of any team must start with its quarterback. Jeff Garcia's numbers took a NASDAQ-like dive this year compared with his past two seasons.
His quarterback rating (85.6), completion percentage (62.1) and touchdown passes (21) have all slipped.
"I don't care that much about some statistics," coach Steve Mariucci said. "Favor the run game, plus high-percentage passes, make first downs, don't turn the ball over -- all of those things (we rank) very high statistically, which makes your yards per game look a little lower."
To be successful in the playoffs offensively, two things have to happen. Garcia must get comfortable early, and that seems to happen when he runs. He has even said he likes to get hit to get him into the game.
The 49ers should run him on quarterback draws and bootlegs to get him settled.
Secondly, the running game has to work. When it does, the pass rush becomes less of a problem. Garcia then has the time to hang in the pocket and let deep patterns develop.
When the running game clicks, the opposition must commit a safety to stop it, which can free up wide receivers such as Terrell Owens.
"Our biggest asset unquestionably would be a hot Jeff Garcia and a dominating T.O. And then our ability to run the ball," Donahue said.
The secret weapon could be tight end Eric Johnson, who is often Garcia's safety valve.
The defense has played well the past four games and safety Zack Bronson is returning.
The defense is built upon speed and pursuit, and both will increase with Bronson's return.
"I think it will really help (safety) Tony (Parrish) to have Zack back because now some of that burden of making calls and adjustments can go right back to Zack, which Zack does really well," defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. "And Tony can just fly around."
Bronson also will be able to help the defense in its most glaring weakness.
"I think our biggest liability would be the fact that we have shown a vulnerability in passing situations, at times not getting our defense off the field. At times. Not all the time," Donahue said.
The team's defensive philosophy always has been to stop the run first. But maybe the team should revise that approach to help the secondary. One approach would be to keep the safeties back and play more three-deep zone to prevent deep passes.
Nothing can discourage a team more than yielding big plays.
This team is on edge and ticked off. The 49ers were on their way to their most dominating win of the season, a pummeling of the rival Rams in the season finale, and then they allowed 28 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
Part of the collapse was freakish. Running back Garrison Hearst, who lost one fumble in 213 carries this season, lost two in his next three carries.
Even though the game was rapidly slipping away, Mariucci refused to put starters back into the game. With defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young yelling to be put back in, coaches went with backups.
Mora was severely limited with a young linebacking corps of Quincy Stewart, Cornelius Anthony and Brandon Moore.
While the strategy kept the defense from sustaining an injury to a starter, it denied the players from possibly having a statement game going into the playoffs.
That's what might be partially behind center Jeremy Newberry's vitriolic comments about kicking the Giants' "ass."
Back in the rickety hotel passenger fan, Donahue seemed to grow excited about his team's playoff prospects.
"Who knows? Lots of good things have to happen and you have to get some luck," Donahue said.
Tell us what you think on the new 49ers Clubhouse message board.