San Francisco Chronicle

To huddle or not -- that's the question
January 08, 2003
Kevin Lynch, Chronicle Staff Writer

It occurred after Steve Mariucci made his rousing postgame speech about continuing to win in the playoffs. It happened after Mariucci's news conference, and after he lingered in the players' parking lot.

Once the 49ers' head coach climbed into his car to head home, it happened. Mariucci's wife, Gayle, hit him with the question echoed by many 49ers fans: Why didn't you use the no-huddle offense throughout the game against the Giants?

In order to maintain marital bliss, Mariucci probably gave his bride his famous eye roll and then launched into the same reasoned answer he provided reporters.

"Sometimes that sort of thing works and sometimes it doesn't," Mariucci said of the hurry-up offense that accounted for 25 points in the 49ers' 39-38 playoff victory over the Giants. "I think you've got to pick your spots."

Now the question becomes, can the 49ers use the no-huddle with success against the best defense in the league?

The 49ers venture to Tampa Sunday to wrestle the likes of Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch and a defensive staff that will look carefully at how the 49ers dismantled the Giants.

"It's not a novelty," Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said Monday when the Tampa media asked about the 49ers' no-huddle. "(The 49ers) had a lot of success in it. We'll prepare for that."

Going no-huddle against the Buccaneers, who also have the league's top- ranked pass defense, could be a no-win proposition.

Unlike the Giants, the Buccaneers substitute their defensive linemen often. The 49ers took advantage of the Giants' big and apparently fatigued defensive linemen to score on four straight second-half drives.

Also unlike the Bucs, the Giants often sneak a safety down close to the line of scrimmage. Tampa has created and nearly perfected the two-deep zone, or, as it's known around the league, "The Tampa Two."

The scheme works best against the pass, because the safeties stay back and guard against the deep throw. Conventional wisdom says the best way to beat it is with the run.

Also, Jeff Garcia's scrambling and impromptu passes might not fly in Tampa. The Bucs completely shut down Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. In Tampa Bay's first game against him, Vick threw for 37 yards on 4-of-12 passing and ran once for 1 yard.

In the second game, Vick was 12-for-25 for 125 yards, one touchdown, one interception and ran six times for 9 yards.

If the no-huddle fails, it could put undue pressure on an already shorthanded 49ers defense. Since the no-huddle uses so little time, if the drives are not kept alive, the defense would be deprived of much-needed rest.

But, of course, timing is everything, and the 49ers could use the no-huddle as a changeup. They did try it to open the game against Green Bay and could muster only 17 yards on six plays.

The mistake might have been using it when the Packers' defense was fresh. The up-tempo pass-oriented style did appeal to Garcia.

"I don't think it was so much the no-huddle offense, but I think it's the fact that we opened up the offense," Garcia said.

Using a huddle or not, Garcia would like the offensive game plan to be placed more in his hands. "I'm not going to force bad situations," said Garcia, whose 1.9 interception percentage is third lowest in the NFC. "I'm not going to do things that are out of my element. I'm going to stay within the system."

The no-huddle can wake up an offense and the 49ers could use it if Garcia is struggling.

"It really gets a quarterback into his rhythm," backup Tim Rattay said. "It's like doing layups before a basketball game. The quarterback is also calling a lot of plays, so he's calling plays he believes in."

Against the Giants, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp often didn't have time to relay the play to Garcia, who made several of his own calls.

However, used exclusively, the no-huddle could be a prescription for disaster against the Buccaneers. And if things go badly in Tampa Bay for Mariucci, it could prompt this question from Gayle after the game: Hey, why did you use so much no-huddle?


-- Pros

1. Aggressive scheme puts pressure on defense.

2. Increases ability to score many points quickly.

3. Makes it difficult for a defense to substitute.

4. Can get a quarterback in a quick rhythm.

5. Usually appeals to quarterbacks and receivers.

6. Can wear down a defense.

-- Cons

1. If unsuccessful, it can put pressure on your defense.

2. Usually eliminates the running game.

3. Minimizes the number of offensive plays.

4. Puts the offense in greater risk for a turnover.

5. Lessens ability to control the clock.

6. Puts added pressure on the offensive line.

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