The Oakland Tribune

Don't blame Mooch for 49ers shortcomings
January 03, 2003
by Monte Poole

THE POPULAR THEORY suggests a 49ers loss this weekend cancels any talk of a contract extension for coach Steve Mariucci and might even result in his dismissal.

This theory is said to be popular within the team's executive offices, where we find the folks who sign the paychecks and assemble the roster.

The folks who, for some inexplicable reason, choose to ignore the Niners' many warts as they prepare for their NFC wild-card playoff game Sunday at Candlestick against the New York Giants.

And many warts there are, and would be -- even without tormented rookie Mike Rumph.

For this Niners team simply is not a great Niners team, and it's vastly inferior to all of San Francisco's previous Super Bowl championship squads.

These 49ers don't have several sure first-ballot Hall of Famers.

They don't have a dangerous playmaker at split end. They don't have a frightening pass rush.

They don't have a steady, confident quarterback. They don't have the good luck of excellent health.

And, admittedly, they don't have the kind of head coach who tilts the field in his team's favor.

Mariucci surely has his faults. He is no expert in clock management. He sometimes relies too much on conservative play-calling. He may not inspire among the troops the kind of healthy fear that can keep a team motivated.

Mooch, in short, has not proved to be the second coming of Bill Walsh.

But I don't believe even Sir Bill could take these Niners to the NFC Championship Game unless he had reliable transportation and about 45 tickets.

Same goes for general manager Terry Donahue, who spent his entire coaching career at the college level.

Walsh may have been a better head coach than Mariucci currently is, but Walsh also had better players than those he and Donahue have handed over to Mooch.

For these Niners are as their record (10-6) indicates. They are barely very good -- and only that when wideout Terrell Owens is effective and the defense is healthy and intact.

Yet the burden of expectation seems to fall on the well-coiffed head of the coach. Is it possible Walsh and Donahue and owner representative John York are so focused on their head coach that they can't see the players?

Has Donahue seen Bryant Young lately? If he has, the GM should identify the defensive tackle to the rest of us. We haven't seen B.Y. in years. If Young were great, instead of being formerly great, the defense would be instantly improved.

In other words, Young is not the Young of old. He is merely aged.

Has Walsh reviewed the work of wideout Tai Streets? He's a good receiver, an upgrade over perennial heartbreaker J. J. Stokes. But Streets is not exceptionally big, not exceptionally fast, not exceptionally shifty and not exactly threatening.

In other words, Streets is no John Taylor. On an outstanding team, Streets is the third receiver.

On the Raiders, Streets is the fourth receiver.

Has Donahue paid close attention to the San Francisco secondary? Many players have been broken, many others simply abused.

Safety Zack Bronson, unseen for months because of injury, will try to return this weekend. Cornerback Jason Webster is hobbling, which could force Rumph into starting. Ouch.

Then there is this: Sir Bill's personal project, quarterback Jeff Garcia, has been maddeningly erratic.

Garcia has been by turns terrific, ordinary and awful. And that's the problem. You never know which Jeff will show up. His 85.6 rating in 2002 is his lowest since 1999, his introduction to the NFL as a starter. The Niners were 4-12 that season.

For the 49ers, more than most other teams, the quarterback's play provides insight into the reasonable possibilities -- and honest limitations -- of the team.

Garcia has been a decent quarterback; the Niners have been a decent team. Decent teams rarely enjoy a rousing postseason.

Nobody knows this better than Walsh, who lately has implied Mariucci should feel secure in his position.

Well, he should.

But he doesn't.

He can't. Not when his future is a such a frequent topic of speculation. Not when none of his superiors will go on record expressing contentment with the achievement of the team.

Not when the bosses seem more concerned with the coach than the players.

Walsh, Donahue and York have every reason to be pleased with some players, notably Owens, left tackle Derrick Deese and a group of linebackers generally sound against the run.

But that's hardly enough to carry a team to the top.

Have the bosses heard Garcia is disappointed with his play? Do they realize running back Garrison Hearst was less effective this season than last? Have they prayed for special-teams help? The 49er pass rush spent most of the season in hibernation.

The 49ers are at least two impact players, possibly three, away from making a serious championship run.

If the folks at the top simply want to replace their coach, it's their prerogative. They probably could find someone better.

But if those folks cite disappointment with the team's achievements in 2002 as their reason for firing Mariucci or postponing extension talks, it will sound an awful lot like a convenient excuse.

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