The Oakland Tribune

Coach watch begins down at 49ers Central
January 13, 2003
TAMPA, Fla. -- The San Francisco 49ers weren't supposed to be here. And they pretty much weren't.

But for once, nobody could hang their disappearance on Steve Mariucci. Better and more accurate to blame the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for being thoroughly unforgiving and unrelenting hosts in a 31-6 playoff thrashing that couldn't have been much more thorough.

The 49ers' season is very over, and that means the Mariucci Watch is very much on. Mariucci haters probably started getting in their digs right before halftime, when the 49ers, down 28-6, sat on the ball instead of trying to force a late score. That'll surely prompt some pathetic radio talk-show banter and some equally lame e-mails.

Face it, Finster and Fiona. The game already was way over at that point. It was over from the point the 49ers forced a turnover on the opening drive yet couldn't get any points out of it. It was over from the point Ahmed Plummer, the Niners' last experienced healthy cornerback, went down with a separated shoulder in the first quarter. It was over from the point Tampa scored touchdowns on two of its first three drives for a 14-3 lead.

And here's the real truth, since you didn't ask: It was over from the point the 49ers' charter landed Friday night.

Yes, that was an incredible victory last week against the New York Giants, but these Niners simply weren't ready for this significantly bigger and more hostile stage. They're simply too young, too undermanned, too injured. They also may have one of the worst special teams units in NFL history, and proved it again Sunday with a 14-yard punt, a fumbled kickoff return and another long return allowed.

What's more, once the 49ers quickly fell in a hole, it should have been obvious the Buccaneers weren't going to burp on their shoes as the Giants did at Candlestick Park.

"They beat us in every aspect of the game," said 49ers cornerback Mike Rumph. And hey, if a rookie could make that astute observation, imagine how the older, wiser eggs were sizing it up.

"It's a fatigued team with a number of injured players trying to play and a number of injured players not playing," 49ers executive emeritus Bill Walsh said. "When you get that combination right at the end of the year, you are doomed."

Ah, well, as grim as it got Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the 49ers and their fickle faithful shouldn't feel too grumpy or growly. They got about as far as they could, and realistically, probably further. There's a lot of reasons, but one big one was their head coach, and you kept waiting afterward for someone with 49ers ties to say that unequivocally.

Unfortunately, ownership -- namely John York -- didn't. Management -- namely, Bill Walsh and Terry Donahue -- didn't. Players? Not even quarterback Jeff Garcia was very effusive about what Mariucci has meant to the team after an 11-7 season that included the first division title since 1997 and a playoff win. And Terrell Owens? He wasn't talking to anybody about anybody. So there.

Fortunately, though, someone finally did have the good sense to lay a big smooch on Mooch. And wow, are you going to love the kisser.

Try Jon Gruden.

Yep, besides overseeing one impressive whupping by his completely superior Buccaneers, Gruden made some special quality time to offer some weighty words in support of Mariucci. He not only lauded his former coaching comrade, but seemed to empathize with his situation, which is effectively the same as his own last year with the Oakland Raiders. He's entering the final year of his existing contract with uncertainty hanging over his 49ers future.

"I don't comment on people's personal matters, but this guy (Mariucci) has done a fabulous job," Gruden said. Chucky was just getting warmed up.

"I used to live 30-40 minutes from him for four years," he continued. "And what the 49ers have done, in my opinion -- and I certainly don't matter much -- through the draft, a lot of hard work and coaching, and re-establishing themselves as a force, is an unbelievable coaching job.

"I not only think of him as a friend," Gruden summarized, "but a great coach."

With heavy emphasis on the "great," Gruden cocked the classic Chucky eyebrow at no one in particular. But clearly it was directed toward a 49ers organization that has lost sight of what he believes it has in its coach.

Mariucci, for his part, took the high road in surveying what his future might hold in the wake of this defeat.

"What we need to do is just get home, take a look at where we are and let this thing settle down," he said.

But if one thing was evident after this latest 49ers' setback, it's that the words not being spoken were more revealing than the ones that were. York, pressed directly on Mariucci's job performance, offered a backhanded compliment about how he wasn't going to "throw rocks" at a coach who guided the team to a division title.

My, what a ringing endorsement. York continued to dance around the issue by saying that keeping the coach is part of maintaining continuity. Walsh added that while the 49ers need to keep getting better by upgrading personnel, he said "nothing wholesale" is necessary.

Presumably, he's counting Mariucci and his coaching staff in his assessment. Or maybe he isn't. If only the coach's future were as clear as Sunday's outcome, we could be convinced this team is still on the right track.

Gruden's gushing not withstanding, it's too hazy to make that call right now. Maybe they should listen to a guy who doesn't mince words.

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