The Oakland Tribune

Garcia willed Niners to victory
January 07, 2003
by Art Spander

SANTA CLARA -- A year ago the 49ers were out and the Packers were in, and we heard more than once that the reason was Jeff Garcia, while competent, while chosen for the Pro Bowl, was no Brett Favre.

And now the Packers are out and the 49ers are in, and on the Monday that Favre, one of the best, refutes the rumors he is disenchanted to the point where he'll walk away, Garcia receives the ultimate commendation for any quarterback. That he can win the big one.

This is way it is in sports, especially the last 20 years and maybe the last 120 years. Your story may be touching and uplifting, the tale of someone who overcame the limitations, who had to struggle merely to prove he belonged. But fans and writers and, yes, even the front office, are less captivated by tales of human interest than by headlines of championships.

Until Sunday, Garcia was what the British call a "nearly man," a competitor, a fighter, but in the NFL games that matter, the postseason, not a winner. He's going to Hawaii, we'd concede about next month's Pro Bowl venue, but is he, and are the Niners, ever going to get past the first round?

The demands understandably bothered Garcia. Just as the inability to return to the Dynasty Years bothered the 49ers Faithful. He wanted to be the man, and now the fans wondered if he would ever be The Man.

"Finishing 10-6 and being a playoff team," Garcia acknowledged last week, "just isn't good enough around here, and that starts to wear on you a little. You're out there trying to do your job, helping a team reach a playoff position, yet it's not good enough. I mean, what do we have to do to satisfy everybody?"

Do what they did Sunday against the New York Giants in the wild-card game. Do what he did Sunday, leading the Niners from that 38-14 deficit with 20 minutes remaining to a remarkable 39-38 victory. Do what all the memorable quarterbacks have done, get your team if not to the Super Bowl then at least one step away.

"Three Pro Bowls doesn't mean greatness yet," Steve Mariucci, the Niners coach said about Garcia, "but he's doing everything he possibly can do to become great. He's headed in the right direction, becoming a leader.

"He played a great game against the Raiders (in November). This one was even more incredible because of the deficit that we had. We couldn't punt or turn the ball over. He's won a playoff game now, which is a step for him."

He's been in two playoff games, this season and last season. And Sunday he'll be in his third. Against the Tampa Bay Bucs. Against the team Mariucci might have coached. Against the team Mariucci's friend and rival Jon Gruden does coach. Against a team with perhaps the best defense in the NFL.

Championship quarterbacks make it difficult for those destined to follow. In Pittsburgh, they're still looking for another Terry Bradshaw, winner of four Super Bowls. And you don't need a long memory to recall the impatience of Niners fans when Steve Young replaced Joe Montana.

Joe would have done this. Joe would have done that. Joe would have beaten the Cowboys. But then Steve, in the 1994 season, did beat the Cowboys and did get the Niners to the Super Bowl and was named MVP. And another legacy was established.

In a sense, Garcia, undrafted, is the accidental quarterback, chosen by the Niners as a free agent, as a backup for Young and then when Steve had one concussion too many, becoming the starter.

There was no "interim" label attached to an asterisk by Garcia's name, but in the minds of so many, Jeff was only a stopgap, a temporary replacement. After all, Jim Druckenmiller was picked in the first round.

Garcia earned the job. Now he's earned the praise.

The way he ran off the field at Candlestick, waving his index finger, reminiscent of the day Steve Young beat Dallas and raced around the field in celebration, you sensed Garcia was free of the burdens we had set upon him.

"Jeff was very efficient," Mariucci said, reiterating a word Bill Walsh applied to Montana and Young. "He did not get sacked and threw 40-something times and was in the pocket something like 52 times. We had no room for error. We could not punt and give up the ball. We could not fail."

They did not fail because Jeff Garcia did not fail. No matter what happens now, he's won a big one. A very big and bizarre one.

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