Sacramento Bee

Not as healthy as they wanted
January 03, 2003
By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers' plan to get as fresh as possible for their playoff opener may backfire. Not only do the New York Giants -- winners of their last four games -- have momentum, but they actually have a cleaner bill of health.

The only player on the Giants' injury report is receiver Ron Dixon, who is questionable because of a knee injury. The 49ers entered the week with nine players on the injury list -- most of whom will play. But it's not the advantage for which they had hoped.

And, in the worst news of the week, the 49ers may have lost starting cornerback Jason Webster to a sprained left ankle he suffered in Monday night's loss to the St. Louis Rams.

Webster said he will not test the ankle until Sunday morning, making him a gametime decision -- but not a promising one.

Losing Webster might erase all the benefits the 49ers were expecting from the return of safety Zack Bronson, who has been out since Oct. 14 because of a broken foot.

"I don't think so," Webster said. "Having Zack back is great. That's something the team has been looking forward to the whole year. Me getting injured doesn't take that excitement away."

The issue of momentum is a tricky one, particularly in this matchup of 10-6 teams. The Giants are one of the NFL's hottest teams, having finished the season on a 7-2 run. They didn't clinch the playoffs until last weekend, when they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 10-7 in overtime.

The 49ers clinched the playoffs four weeks ago. They started the season on a 7-2 run but fizzled with a 3-4 finish. They rested many of their starters in the final two games, including the deflating loss at St. Louis.

But the 49ers have been so pumped up for the playoffs -- so focused on finally playing a meaningful game with a finally healthy roster -- that they believe it will be easy to turn the switch back on.

"For a couple reasons," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "A, it goes up when it's the playoffs. It just does. B, players that haven't been practicing are back on the practice field (including receiver Terrell Owens, who has practiced on back-to-back days this week for the first time in months). That helps.

"Practice these last two days has been excellent. The energy level is different. You can tell it's the playoffs. They're flying around out there."

The 49ers missed out on a competitive division race this season, with none of their NFC West opponents even finishing at .500. The 49ers have seemed to put all of their eggs in one basket, the playoffs. But that might not be a bad thing. If the 49ers are truly saving their best effort of the season for Sunday, then the Giants will have their hands full.

If Webster doesn't play, rookie cornerback Mike Rumph will start in his place.

Rumph has had the most inconsistent season of any 49er, so the Giants will no doubt pick on him early and often. Maybe he, too, is saving his best performance for the playoffs.

Sutherland in, Winborn out -- The 49ers re-signed last year's return specialist, Vinny Sutherland, as an insurance policy Thursday. Sutherland lost his job in the preseason to Jimmy Williams. But Williams was lost for the season because of a knee injury last month, and backups Cedrick Wilson and Webster both turned their ankles last week, putting a scare into the 49ers.

Sutherland will return kickoffs and back up Wilson on punt returns.

"I was sitting watching the Purdue game (the Sun Bowl), and I got a call asking if I was available," said Sutherland, a Purdue alum who spent some time with the Chicago Bears earlier this season. "I didn't watch the end of the Purdue game."

To make room, the 49ers finally gave up on linebacker Jamie Winborn, who has been out since Week 3 because of a knee injury. Winborn was placed on injured reserve, ending his season.

The team was hoping he would make it back for the playoffs, but he didn't heal quickly enough. The 49ers surely would have liked to use him against the Giants.

Winborn won NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for recording 16 tackles in the 49ers' 16-13 victory over New York in Week 1.

Cornerbacks' civil war -- Rumph and third-year cornerback Ahmed Plummer will be rooting against one another tonight when their alma maters square off for the national championship. Rumph won the college title last year with the Miami Hurricanes, who will defend it against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Plummer, who is an Ohio State graduate, said he and Rumph didn't bet any money, just pride. The loser will have to spend a day of team meetings wearing the winner's college jersey.

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