The Press Democrat

Mariucci dives into playoff preparations
January 01, 2003

SANTA CLARA -- Steve Mariucci didn't sleep a wink on the plane ride home from St. Louis, and not because of the 49ers' fourth-quarter collapse in a Monday night loss to the Rams.

A combination of turbulence, uneasiness and excitement kept Mariucci wide awake until the plane touched down at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday in the Bay Area. He then went straight to his office at the 49ers' training complex. By midafternoon Mariucci, unshaven and dressed in a sweatshirt and shorts, was immersed in preparations for Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the New York Giants.

In perhaps the most important week of his six years with the 49ers, Mariucci doesn't have a moment to waste.

"That's just part of the deal," Mariucci said. "Coaches don't sleep well and never will, never have. You've got to love it. ... I've been doing this for 24 years. Loved almost every moment. It's so challenging."

With just one year remaining on his contract, Mariucci is the coach of an up-and-coming team with a potent offense and a rapidly improving defense. He also knows that the standards set by Bill Walsh in San Francisco are incredibly high -- and perhaps only a playoff victory can prove Mariucci's team is on track to reaching those standards.

Team owner John York insists Mariucci is not under a win-or-else edict entering Sunday's game, but rumors about Mariucci's job security have bounced through the organization ever since the coach wasn't given a long-term contract extension during last season.

The 49ers are a good team with room to grow, but they've been far from dominant during a 10-6 campaign.

They're tremendously inconsistent, with an offense that struggled in almost every game of the season, but they've played well enough to win the NFC West title and host a playoff game.

Unfortunately, they drew the right to host New York -- the NFC's hottest team with a four-game winning streak and tremendous confidence.

"We're still building this team," Mariucci said. "We're still developing this team as we go. We're getting more playoff experience now, and that's a big plus. We've been in the playoffs four of the six years I've (been the coach), and that's good."

The 49ers treated their final game of the regular season as an exhibition. Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia played one series, and two more Pro Bowlers -- receiver Terrell Owens and guard Ron Stone -- didn't play at all.

But even while resting most of his important players, Mariucci's team was in position to win its 11th game of the season until a combination of uncharacteristic turnovers and bad play by defensive backups allowed St. Louis to score 28 points in the fourth quarter, sending San Francisco into the playoffs with a loss.

"The fourth quarter concerned me," Mariucci said. "I was really pleased with our first three quarters. I thought we played really dominating football. The roof caved in in the fourth quarter for various reasons.

"I wonder if when (cornerback) Jason Webster got hurt (with a sprained ankle), guys were looking around, wondering if it was going to happen to them. I'm just thinking out loud here, because I don't know what it was."

Mariucci again faced the difficult decisions that have dogged him for the past two seasons and could define his career in San Francisco. The 49ers relaxed their intensity and emptied their bench in the second half when they had a lead, and the Rams made them pay for it.

Mariucci's reasoning was sound and obvious, given the unchanging playoff picture and the health of his banged-up team. But in letting up on St. Louis, Mariucci did the same thing that so infuriated Owens and a few of his teammates on more than one occasion over the past two winning seasons.

"It was a frustrated locker room, which was good," Mariucci said. "I was tempted as a coach to keep the starters in longer, to deviate from the plan. But the plan was very well thought out. I had to stick to the plan -- for the Giants, for the next game's sake. I hoped it would be enough to play our best football, but we didn't."

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