Tampa Bay puts the hurt on shorthanded 49ers
January 13, 2003
Brian Murphy, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tampa, Fla. -- A week ago, everything looked and felt and even smelled differently for the 49ers. Then, it was musty, but joyous Candlestick Park, bursting at its creaky seams, awash in noise and hysteria for the Comeback Kids. This, instead, was total defeat, total domination, with no hint of a rousing finale.
In a gleaming new stadium on Florida's west coast, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended the 49ers' season two ways: gradually, and then suddenly.
Tampa Bay controlled nearly everything -- the ball, the tempo, the fates -- and did not stop until the final score was Bucs 31, 49ers 6 in an NFC divisional playoff game.
When the Bucs did stop, their fans drank it all in, waving red and white flags back and forth at the final gun, saluting a home team headed to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship Game and making for a picture dripping in Tampa Bay energy and cheer.
There was no mystery at Raymond James Stadium on this day. The 49ers encountered a better team, a more rested team, a motivated team -- and, as happens to the inferior team in January, had their season terminated in short order. The 49ers had the look of a team that went as far as it should go, to the NFC divisional round, and no further.
"They took the game," 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia said, "from the get-go."
There could, conceivably, be talk of the 49ers' battered defense enduring another painful injury, losing starting cornerback Ahmed Plummer on the game's 13th play from scrimmage, leaving the maligned unit with both starting cornerbacks out, and ripe for Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson's picking.
But all involved said that injuries are part of the nature of this swift and violent game, and by the close of 60 minutes of play, the 49ers' defense had been beaten so thoroughly, and their offense suffocated so convincingly, that there was not much left to say.
Said Bucs coach Jon Gruden, refusing to allow 49ers' injuries to detract from his team's arrival at the NFC Championship Game: "That's the way football is. . . . Pros are paid to play, and the best team wins."
A week ago, Garcia ran the liberated and confident run of the best player on the field. This week, he was not. The fast and furious Tampa Bay defense, statistically the NFL's best, did not let him scramble once, and intercepted him three times.
"You didn't think you were going to see that, did you?" said Tampa Bay's All-Pro defensive tackle, Warren Sapp. "Wrong stadium, wrong team, wrong coast.
That's on the other coast that that works."
A week ago, the 49ers' defense rode a second-half wave of energy to stifle New York's attack. This week, lining up rookie Mike Rumph and seldom-used Rashad Holman at corners, using bottom-of-the-roster corner Duane Hawthorne in nickel, and with starting safety Zack Bronson limited by his still-healing injured foot, that defense was a sieve, too generous and too easily beaten.
It allowed four Tampa Bay touchdowns in the first half alone. That defense could not pressure Johnson, nor could it cover his receivers, nor could it stop the Bucs on third down, when the normally weak Tampa Bay offense converted eight times in 10 tries in the first half.
Tampa Bay ran 43 plays to the 49ers' 21 in the first half, held the ball for 19:51 of the first half, crushed the 49ers' will in the first half.
"You can't win," tight end Eric Johnson said, "without the ball."
Said Tampa Bay safety John Lynch, who watched from the luxury of the sidelines as the Bucs' offense asserted its dominance: "So much credit goes to our offense. . . . We weren't on the field at all."
Those rare times the 49ers had the ball, even the great and explosive receiver Terrell Owens was rendered mute. The Tampa Bay zone defense swung Owens' way all day, and when Garcia wasn't under extreme heat -- he was sacked four times, tying a season-high -- he could not find No. 81 anywhere in the sea of Tampa red and pewter.
Owens caught just four balls for 35 yards, his worst game since September. Last year, after a playoff loss in Green Bay, Owens spoke harshly about his lack of opportunities. This year, he did not speak to reporters, leaving the Bucs to crow about shutting down the flamboyant player who gives the 49ers so much energy.
"We had their man bracketed. . . . T. O. was not open," Sapp said. "He was looking for places to go, and there was nowhere to go."
The numbers do not lie. Those who believed the 49ers could run on the Bucs, or control the Bucs with short passes, can look at the assorted stats. The 49ers' 228 total yards was a season low, the 49ers' time of possession (23:14) was a season low, and Garcia's zero yards rushing is the only time he has been blanked all season.
"Jeff was under duress," coach Steve Mariucci said. "Facing the league's best defense when we weren't quite as sharp; we had more pressures and hits on our quarterback than we usually do. And when they get ahead, they get in their track stances on defense. It gets rough."
The Bucs have shut down mobile quarterbacks before, notably beating Atlanta's Michael Vick in both meetings this season. Garcia said he would run around to the edges and find nothing; he said he would try to look for rushing lanes to scramble, and never found them. He was stymied.
"That team speed, and they're very disciplined," Garcia said. "I wasn't able to create anything. There really weren't any lanes to run to. I couldn't beat anybody around the corner or find anyone open. . . . That's the difference between the Giants' defense and Tampa Bay's defense."
There was, maybe, a time very early the 49ers had a chance. Holman intercepted Johnson on the game's first series, giving the 49ers the ball on the Tampa 40 and an opportunity to scare the Bucs. Instead, on a 3rd-and-5, Garcia saw a blitz coming and tripped over center Jeremy Newberry's foot. He fell down. The 49ers punted from the Tampa 40, and it went 14 yards. Call it foreshadowing.
Three plays into the Bucs' drive, Plummer went down with a dislocated shoulder, and the 49ers were reeling. Johnson went after them, and the drive ended with fullback Mike Alstott scoring from the 2. On the sideline, Sapp and the defense glowed. Asked when the defense had its comfort zone on the 49ers, Sapp didn't blink: "At 7-0," he said.
The game still was young, and Garcia put together some effective short passes, then hit Tai Streets on a catch-and-run for 30 yards to the 4. Here, the 49ers could answer. Instead, Garcia threw high for J. J. Stokes, running back Kevan Barlow lost 2 yards, and Garcia was forced into an incompletion out of the end zone. Jeff Chandler was summoned, and it was 7-3.
"To end up with three points," Garcia said, "in the long run, that haunts you."
The game slipped away. Johnson found third receiver Joe Jurevicius from 20 yards out against a flailing secondary, and it was 14-3. Another 49ers drive stalled at the 22, and Chandler made it 14-6, but no matter: Johnson forced safety Tony Parrish into a 36-yard pass-interference call by throwing deep, then hit a wide-open Ricky Dudley from 12 yards on a rollout. Tampa Bay led 21- 6 and the 49ers would not answer.
When Garcia, harried, threw into double coverage for an interception to Derrick Brooks, the outcome was a formality. Alstott ran in again from 2 yards out, and the 28-6 score was more than daunting -- it was poison.
Grim stuff for a team that met more than its match, it met the end of a stop-and-start season that left the team groping for definition. Some tried to find good things in the season, pointing to an NFC West title, the first since 1997, and a playoff win -- the first since the 1998 season.
"'It's a tough way to end it, certainly, and I'm sure it will stay with us for a while," said Mariucci. "But this team has got to know that we made progress."
Garcia called the season "a step forward," and perhaps, in some analyses, considering reams of defensive injuries, it was. But for the fifth consecutive season, a 49ers organization that judges campaigns by Super Bowls and not by "steps," did not reach the NFC title game.
It was that sour feeling that hung in the air. Garcia showed as much when he briskly left his locker at the end of a tiring session with reporters, body language tense, and slammed a paper cup forcefully into a garbage can on his way to the team bus.
Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay was the fourth time the 49ers have been held to less than seven points in a playoff game. The 49ers' fewest points in a playoff game:
-- N.Y. Giants 49, 49ers 3; divisional playoff on Jan. 4, 1987, at East Rutherford, N.J.
-- N.Y. Giants 17, 49ers 3; wild-card playoff on Dec. 28, 1985, at East Rutherford, N.J.
-- Dallas 14, 49ers 3; NFC Championship on Jan. 2, 1972, at Dallas.
-- Tampa Bay 31, 49ers 6; divisional playoff on Jan. 12, 2003, at Tampa, Fla.
The 49ers' 25-point loss to Tampa Bay was the second-worst playoff loss in the team's history:
-- 46 points -- N.Y. Giants 49, 49ers 3; divisional playoff on Jan. 4, 1987, at East Rutherford, N.J.
-- 25 points -- Tampa Bay 31, 49ers 6; divisional playoff on Jan. 12, 2003, at Tampa, Fla.
-- 21 points -- Green Bay 35, 49ers 14; divisional playoff on Jan. 4, 1997, at Green Bay, Wis.
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