San Francisco Chronicle

Mariucci's future still a present topic
January 06, 2003

WITH ALL the postgame effervescing about Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens and the 25-minute two-minute offense and flying to Tampa for a game nobody believed could happen, and most of all for a 49ers team that didn't know well enough to pack it in when packing it in was clearly indicated, there was still room for people to dredge up the topic of Steve Mariucci, Machete Juggler.

It took Bill Walsh to explain, at least in part, what was at stake.

"He needed to break out," Walsh said of the beleaguered coach, "and win one game against a top-flight team."

Walsh then returned to the matter of Garcia, about whom he gushed almost intemperately: "Everyone talks about Michael Vick, but this man could be the best quarterback in football," was probably the high point.

And why not? Now, alongside the Super Bowls, The Catch, and even the Terrell Owens' game-winning score against Green Bay in the '98 playoffs, we have the 25 In 16 Game, in which the 49ers scored 25 points in 16 minutes to beat a Giants team that nobody felt could lose to the 49ers even if New York somehow wanted to do so.

Now we'll see, among other things, what it all means. That is, other than a game Sunday morning against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their new local icon, Jon Gruden, their fabulous defense and their hobbled quarterback, Brad Johnson.

We do know this, though: Walsh's remark, delivered in the midst of one of his Garcia raves, represents the organization's strongest statement about Mariucci yet issued on its coach's behalf, albeit inadvertently.

Not that it takes the issue off the table, mind you. We don't live that well.

In fact, it might muddy the issue a bit more (oh, yippee), because though the 49ers have promised to discuss a contract extension with Mariucci, the parameters very well might have changed at both ends.

At least we have a few more days of grace before the topic cranes its ugly neck again. That alone makes Sunday's game a glorious moment in club history.

The Mariucci's Future angle provided both pretext and ballast before Sunday's game, and was elevated to Topic A when the Giants went ahead 35-14. He was, by most sober assessments, tagged and bagged when New York's Tiki Barber walked into the end zone on a slow-developing 6-yard run five minutes into the third quarter for the Giants' fifth touchdown.

I mean, you can't get smoked by three scores before the home customers and not expect to hear rumblings about a tailgate party with a slightly noose-y theme.

That was before what might be fairly called the finest single hour of football in 49ers history -- and when we say "hour," we mean a 60-minute stretch of concentrated poise, calm and confidence in a situation that demanded none of those things.

The 49ers went to their no-huddle offense in a desperate attempt to get back in the game, which isn't a stroke of tactical genius by any means but sure beats Fred Beasley for three line plunges and a 32-yard punt by Bill LaFleur.

It worked, if not better than any no-huddle offense ever, then certainly longer.

For that, the players line up first at the credit trough. This was surely Garcia's finest moment, and tight end Eric Johnson's, and second wideout Tai Streets', and the oft-maligned defensive line's, and even cornerback Ahmed Plummer's, if you remember only the way he broke up the pass to Amani Toomer that could have given the Giants a game-winning chip-shot field goal and ignore the first 35 minutes in which he helped the Giants amass that imposing lead.

None of them, though, had termination as a potential reward for a bad result, and by the rules of the game, credit in times like this should be applied with the same devotion as blame. Most coaches, and players for that matter, would have given off that unmistakable "Well, fellas, looks like we're screwed today" vibe.

Instead . . .

"So we go on," as Mariucci said in a postgame press conference highlighted by the presence of 49ers owner's representative John York, standing off to the side but listening intently for any signs of excessive coachly preening.

There was none. Mariucci wanted no part of any discussion about his own situation, and bent over with a gymnast's gift to deflect credit to those who truly had earned it. He didn't even bite when it was suggested that his being removed as a point of discussion might be helpful in the days to come.

"They don't think about that," he said of the players. "They don't have time. We don't have time. We're spending 100 percent of the time trying to win a football game, to do our jobs."

He was, however, quite thankful not to be Giants coach Jim Fassel, whose own bilious assessment ("This is about the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life," from a man who was the offensive coordinator for Stanford when it lost at Cal on The Play in 1982) would under most circumstances have been Mariucci's.

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