January 03, 2003
Why they can win the Super Bowl
1. The Owens factor
The 49ers have one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. Receiver Terrell Owens can single-handedly turn a game with his ability to run through defensive backs like a slalom skier busting through gates. Despite sitting out the final two games of the regular season, Owens caught 100 passes for 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns. If the 49ers get him the ball on a consistent basis, that will also open things up for the running game and some other targets in the passing game, such as Tai Streets and Eric Johnson. Owens is the one player on offense that opposing defenses fear, and for good reason. He can do it all. He can catch short passes and turn them into long gains, as well as intermediate and deep throws.
2. Motivated team
OK, so maybe Steve Mariucci is not coaching for his job, but his players do not know that. A little uncertainty could go a long way in motivating the 49ers for a long run in the postseason. Almost all of his players love playing for Mariucci because of his amiable nature. Mariucci is not the kind of coach to berate a player for a mistake, nor is he the type to dwell on negatives. Heck, after the 49ers' biggest blowout loss of the season -- a 38-17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles -- Mariucci did not even show the game film to the team. He wanted to forget about it as much as the players did. A lot of coaches would have used that performance to come down hard on their teams and make practices extra difficult. The 49ers' players realize they have it pretty good and they want Mariucci to return with a contract extension.
3. Putting it together
The 49ers have played a couple of stinkers and they've played a whole lot of average games. But they still haven't put it all together for any stretch. Some teams peak early in the season. They 49ers have not played to their capabilities. That, in itself, gives them reason to hope that they can put it all together for one three-game stretch to end up in the Super Bowl. And everybody knows what happens once the 49ers get into a Super Bowl. The 49ers will be getting some injured players back for the playoffs. Owens is rested and ready, and quarterback Jeff Garcia should not be overwhelmed this time by the enormity of the playoffs. The 49ers head into the postseason after blowing a 17-point fourth-quarter lead against the St. Louis Rams. They should be ready to play at a much higher level now that the stakes have increased.
WHY THEY WON'T
1. Dink-and-dunk offense
Something serious is ailing the 49ers' offense. Those in the know say it is a combination of a conservative offensive approach and Garcia's even more conservative execution. Garcia does not have the strongest arm and when he doesn't set his feet, which is often, he has a difficult time making certain downfield throws. So, as a result, the 49ers are not able to get many "chunk" plays. They have to string together long drives and convert a lot of third downs. Against playoff-caliber defenses, it becomes a lot more difficult to convert on third downs. Thus, the 49ers will be more apt to go three-and-out than to string together a handful of first downs just to get into field-goal range.
2. Woeful special teams
As much as any team in the playoffs, the 49ers have to rely on field position. They certainly haven't been getting it from special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven's unit. With the loss of return man Jimmy Williams, the 49ers don't have anyone even decent in the return game. If punt returner Cedrick Wilson merely avoids turnovers, the 49ers will be happy. The kickoff returners run tentatively. The 49ers failed to start a drive past their own 19-yard line after five kickoffs in the finale against St. Louis. Moreover, first-year punter Bill LaFleur has been a significant downgrade from Jason Baker, who was released after 11 games. Rookie kicker Jeff Chandler has been bothered by a strained leg muscle that appears to have hampered his kickoffs. Chandler has just six games of NFL experience, so the 49ers are hoping they aren't faced with a situation in the final minute when they need a field goal for a victory.
3. Nickel defense
This is the most vulnerable aspect of the defense, and it's the area in which the 49ers have sustained critical injuries. The 49ers are hoping to get playoff contributions from free safety Zack Bronson and linebacker Jamie Winborn, but it is uncertain how effective they can be after missing most of the season. The 49ers will not know until just prior to game time whether cornerback Jason Webster can play against the New York Giants with a left ankle sprain. Without Webster, rookie Mike Rumph would draw the starting assignment and second-year player Rashad Holman would enter the game as the nickel back. The 49ers continue to struggle against teams that put three or four decent receivers on the field at the same time. And, compounding the problem, they haven't been able to get enough of a pass rush to take the heat off the secondary.
-- Matt Maiocco
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