The Oakland Tribune

Niners must maintain offense on full throttle
January 10, 2003
ELEVEN YEARS ago this month, a strong University of California football team went into Florida for the Citrus Bowl against a Clemson club that boasted one of the stoutest defenses in the country, particularly against the run.

Things didn't look all that favorable for the Bears, frankly, considering their offense centered around tailback Russell White. But Cal had a big surprise for the Tigers ... an offensive laser show. The Bears came out winging it from get-go, challenging down the field and establishing a downright nasty tempo.

The tempo was so nasty, in fact, it was 17-3 Cal after the first quarter en route to a 37-13 final. Clemson was thoroughly flummoxed by a game plan that was bold, diversified and ingenious.

The author of that Cal game plan? A young up-and-comer named Steve Mariucci.

That's right, the same man a lot of San Francisco 49ers fans believe is an offensive nincompoop once was as aggressive, audacious and attack-minded as they come.

In the throes of despair and desperation last Sunday against the New York Giants, however, Mariucci showed he still knows how to kick it up a gear -- maybe even a few gears -- when it comes to play-calling on the fly. For once, the 49ers looked like a bona fide offensive force. Footballs were flying everywhere, and out of a no-huddle, no less. It was beautiful to watch, and revealing for an offense that had become so stale it was starting to grow mold.

Memo to Mooch: Don't reel it back in now. Time to script some serious dj vu into your game plan, both recent and distant. In short, you're going to Florida again this week. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you're going to be facing one of the toughest defenses in the country. You are not favored. Revert to Republican now, and you'll be Warren Sapp's lunch.

It says here the 49ers have one chance in Sunday's game: Start it as if they're 24 points down again. Start it as if they finished last week, going after the opponent as if there's no tomorrow and jobs are on the line. If they don't, there won't be a tomorrow for San Francisco.

When the game ends, the 49ers will be 24 down ... let's just say 31-7 if they go back to the way they were doing it for the first 16 weeks.

But the Niners can beat Tampa if they just leave the throttle open. Stay in that no-huddle. Design plays that allow Jeff Garcia and Terrell Owens to free-lance and do what they do best. Be daring and, at the same time, daunting. If necessary, Mooch, get out that old Citrus Bowl film and copy down some notes. It could work again.

The Bucs are good, but they can't play shootout football. Their M.O. is to get on top of opponents and pummel them and eventually smother them. If you can get on top of them, though, you put Jon Gruden's team in a hell of a predicament, because it simply doesn't have much comeback capability.

But forget the Bucs. This is all about the 49ers. I like Mariucci as much as any coach I've ever encountered, but the criticisms of his offense the past couple of years and particularly this year have been completely justified. Somewhere along the way, he got predictable, overcautious and boring.

For instance, there has been a running joke all year involving those who report on the 49ers regularly. Except in red-zone and hurry-up situations, the offense could be counted for a running play -- and almost always off-tackle -- when it was second down-and-10 after an incomplete pass. Sure enough, when I started observing that pattern, darned if it wasn't true ... and even more alarmingly, almost always with poor results.

That isn't the Mariucci I once knew. The guy I knew back in the Cal days might be inclined to run a hook-and-ladder on third-and-1, let alone second-and-10. But something happened. Maybe it was the job pressure. Maybe it was having Bill Walsh acting like an old know-it-all uncle who won't get off your back.

Whatever it was, Mooch snapped out of his creative coma in those magical second-half moments against the Giants last week. Maybe he saw what all of us saw, that Jeff Garcia, a decidedly unconventional quarterback, can play spectacularly when he is allowed to play unconventionally.

Walsh was right about one thing. For a moment, you could see that Montana glimmer in Garcia's eyes after finally getting the handcuffs off.

Then there's Terrell Owens. With apologies to Tampa receiver Keyshawn Johnson, just throw T.O. the damn ball -- or at least threaten to -- on every play. Move him around. Slot him. Put him in motion. Put him in the backfield if necessary. Just involve him in everything you do, because the guy is an incredible force. And the best part of that is he wants to be.

When Garcia and Owens are allowed to do their thing, other things open up. You get Eric Johnson being left wide open down the sideline. You get Tai Streets singled up in favorable situations. Criminy, you get J.J. Stokes involved. Then maybe you follow up with the run, which is what Mooch did in that Citrus Bowl way back when once Cal jumped out front.

Time to go back 11 years, Mooch. Or at the very least, seven days. Show us it wasn't a fluke.

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