Sacramento Bee

Great expectations put burden on 49ers
January 05, 2003
Winning playoff opener becomes vital in proving their worthiness

By Mike Triplett -- Bee Staff Writer

SANTA CLARA -- There has been a lot of talk in 49erland this season -- especially this past week -- that the expectations around these parts are out of this world.

That five Super Bowl wins in the last two decades have made people bloodthirsty. Super Bowl or bust and nothing else can satisfy these hungry hordes.

Well, it's just not true. Last season, the 49ers shocked the NFL with their 12-4 record, and everyone who wasn't in Terrell Owens' immediate personal space was showering them with praise and adulation.

But as a result of that season -- not the 1981 season or the 1994 season or any in between -- you're darn right expectations were high this season.

If they could go 12-4 while losing twice to the St. Louis Rams, you're darn right it's disappointing that they went 10-6 in the year that the Rams fell off the face of the National Football Earth.

"I'd like to think our best football is in front of us," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "We need it to be."

Everything can be fixed today. The 49ers host the New York Giants in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs, and they have just enough slack left on the rope.

They can be forgiven for losing a little bit of their edge this season. After all, they ran uncontested in the NFC West with the Rams no longer a factor. And the 49ers were much less lucky with injuries in 2002 than the season before.

Plus, there's the idea that they didn't sneak up on anybody.

There are excuses. But a loss today -- at home, against a team they already beat this season and that surprised everybody by just making the playoffs -- makes this season a step backward.

There are no two ways about it.

"I think the expectations coming into the season were very high, especially after a 12-4 season," said quarterback Jeff Garcia, one of many 49ers who have never won a playoff game. "People expect you to go 14-2, so when you start to fall short of that, you're disappointing.

"I'm not necessarily disappointed by the record, because this is a highly competitive league."

Still, Garcia did allow that a victory today would validate what the 49ers have been doing the last two years.

"I think it would be large for this team," he said. "Obviously, we want to be a contender. We want to be a team that can compete with everybody within this league and win playoff games, and it's been awhile. It's been four, five years since the team has been able to achieve a playoff victory, and so that's something that we have really been working toward.

"We have come a long way over the past four seasons, and it's just one of those things where there's a lot of talk as to our coaching situation and what we need to do in order to secure that. Well, we just want to go out and play good football."

Mariucci, whose job may indeed hinge on today's result, said the 49ers have been waiting for expectations to return to this level.

For more than 15 years, the 49ers expected to be in the Super Bowl every year, and that's the way they want to enter every season.

But ironically, now that Mariucci has returned the team to that landscape, he probably has become the least appreciated member of the organization. No longer is he the young, rah-rah coach who is perfect for a young team in rebuilding mode. Now he is under the Can-he-take-them-to-the-next-level? scrutiny.

It's hard to read 49ers co-owner John York and general manager Terry Donahue. For the most part, they seem pleased with their coach and his progress. But neither of them was around when Mariucci was hired. He wasn't their choice.

So now that Mariucci has one year remaining on his contract, the organization has a chance to decide if he is truly the guy it wants leading the team for the next four or five years.

"I recognize the perception that one year remaining on a coach's contract raises some degree of speculation regarding his future," York said last week, "and because of that, we need to really think about having a coach with only one year.

"Steve and I have had a very good relationship for the last four years, and even before that, and I look forward to sitting down with him postseason to discuss our future."

It would be shocking if the 49ers fired Mariucci following this season. They aren't desperate to get rid of him. But they also don't appear ready to make a long-term commitment to him with an extension in the $3.5 million-per-year range.

Maybe, as the Raiders did with Jon Gruden last year, the 49ers would let it be known that Mariucci can be made available for the right package of draft picks.

But it's true that this one game can make a huge difference. Mariucci can go from a coach who hasn't won a playoff game in four years to a coach whose team has improved in each of the last four years.

If Mariucci takes them even further, into the NFC championship game, the 49ers might hand him a long-term extension on the following Monday morning. That would be one win from the Super Bowl, and that is where the 49ers again want to be -- in the running for a Super Bowl every year.

Mariucci said Steve Young used to say that if it's not a Super Bowl in San Francisco, it's a train wreck.

"I can see that sign over the lobby someday," Mariucci joked. " 'If it's not a Super Bowl, it's a train wreck. Love, Steve Young.'

"A standard has been set, and it gives the next people something to shoot for. Nobody has a better trophy case than the one in our building. It's pretty full right now, but there's some room left.

"Fair? Fair doesn't enter into it. That's just how it is."

Yes, this season has been a disappointment so far. But only because the 49ers haven't made anyone truly believe they can contend for a Super Bowl title.

And really, one game can change that perception completely.

"The season is for getting to the playoffs and for positioning yourself in the playoffs," third-year cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "But now, it's a new season."

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