The Press Democrat

Believe it, 49ers really did improve
January 14, 2003

Highlights, lowlights and insights from the 49ers' 31-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in an NFC divisional playoff game:


BIG PICTURE: The 49ers improved for the third consecutive season. They went 4-12 in 1999 to 6-10 in 2000 to 12-4 in '01. Although they won two fewer games in the regular season, the 49ers won the NFC West and the franchise's first playoff game since the 1998 season. It would be wrong to think that the 49ers underachieved this season. They only had so much talent and not a lot of depth.

SECOND-HALF 'D': Sure, the Buccaneers were just protecting a lead and did not attack offensively in the second half, but the 49ers defense at least stopped the bleeding. Defensive coordinator Jim Mora started calling more blitzes and it seemed to do the trick against the Tampa offense. Mora credited the play of corners Mike Rumph and Rashad Holman, both of whom played relatively well with Jason Webster and Ahmed Plummer injured on the sideline.


OFFENSE: Quarterback Jeff Garcia, who looked so poised and confident in rallying the 49ers back from a 24-point deficit a week earlier against the New York Giants, did not look like the same guy. He was indecisive in the pocket and had one of the worst days of his career. His three interceptions were his most since his second NFL start in 1999. And where was Terrell Owens?

DEFENSE: Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson often had to decide which wide-open receiver to hit in the first half. The 49ers were hamstrung with the loss of Webster and Plummer, and safety Zack Bronson never fully returned from a broken foot. The depleted secondary did not get much help from a sorry pass rush.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Bill LaFleur's 14-yard punt was the kick-start the Bucs needed to score their first touchdown of the game. Return specialist Vinny Sutherland fumbled a chance to give the 49ers great field position when they still had a chance. Another good return was negated by Rumph's illegal block in the back.

COACHING: Steve Mariucci sent the wrong message to his team when he decided to run out the final 35 seconds of the first half with the ball on the Tampa 40-yard line. The 49ers, who were trailing 28-6 at the time, had two timeouts remaining. Several offensive players showed their disgust on the field, while the Bucs were whooping it up. It appeared as if Mariucci was waving the white flag.


AREAS OF NEED: General manager Terry Donahue has many gaps to fill. The 49ers have the No. 26 selection in the draft. They will also have to cut approximately $8 million in salary cap spending. The 49ers clearly need help at receiver, defensive back and the offensive and defensive lines. Most of the roster will remain intact, with receiver Tai Streets and defensive end Chike Okeafor as the only starters scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Receiver J.J. Stokes will have to be released, unless he agrees to play for the minimum salary.

COACHING STAFF: The Mariucci situation is not the only issue. Seven assistant coaches have contracts that expire the day after the Super Bowl. The team would like to keep most of the staff together but certain changes undoubtedly will be made. Team management might request Mariucci take more power on offense from coordinator Greg Knapp. The 49ers would love to keep receivers coach George Stewart, but don't be surprised if he ends up with Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts.


OFFENSE: Vacant.

DEFENSE: Vacant.



Owner John York plans to call Mariucci today to touch base and perhaps schedule more talks about the direction of the franchise.

The question is not whether York plans to offer Mariucci a contract extension, it's whether the sides can agree on money and contract length. Mariucci, set to make $2.2 million next season, was asking for $3.5 million annually a year ago. Something has to happen in a hurry, or the 49ers could lose assistant coaches.

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