Sacramento Bee

Not a legend yet, but getting there
January 06, 2003
By Mark Kreidler -- Bee Sports Columnist

SAN FRANCISCO -- They were cheering the quarterback late on a Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park, and stop me if you've heard this one before. They were thrilling to the comeback, and they were savoring one of the most delicious feelings in sports, a victory in the playoffs, and if they had a brain in their collective head they were contemplating the historic nature of what they'd just seen.

But significantly, they were cheering the quarterback. And it's only news because it happened now.

Jeff Garcia didn't graduate Sunday, but the man made one hellacious move for the podium. In a football biosphere in which the casual standard of record is Joe Montana (with a side helping of Steve Young), Garcia presented a post-season performance that will take a place on the shelf.

He passed for 331 yards and ran for 60 more, and he found not only Terrell Owens -- which he was professionally obligated to do -- but also Tai Streets and Eric Johnson and (heaven help us) J.J. Stokes, which he was absolutely driven to do.

Garcia engineered the drives that created the 25 consecutive second-half points that elevated this wild-card match with the New York Giants from desultory spanking to instant classic, a 39-38 logic-defying finish that quite literally came down to the last play.

And when it was over, after Garcia had accepted the wild embrace of his mother and the bear hug of offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, after he had had his handshakes and his quickie TV interviews, he turned to jog off the field and saw something that had to have astonished him: Perhaps 40,000 of the 66,000-plus assembled fans still there, waiting him out, hanging on long enough to give him one final, utterly solo round of applause.

"When has Joe ever played a better game?" asked Bill Walsh, the man who brought Montana, Young and Garcia into the San Francisco fold. "When has Steve ever played a better game?"

Right: The Catch comes pretty quickly to mind, to say nothing of the Young-to-Owens play that beat the dread Packers four years ago this month. But, not to put too fine a point on it, that's missing the picture by half.

The picture is this: Jeff Garcia, four years into his life as the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, grew into the job Sunday. It was only obvious to everyone in the place.

Garcia wouldn't have much of it afterward, but then you seldom turn to the man in his own moment for any smidgen of perspective. Garcia knew what he had done, no question about it. He understood the magnitude of things. He just didn't have the energy to register it.

"There is so much more for me to accomplish as far as being the quarterback and one of the leaders on this team," Garcia said. "Obviously, the Lombardi Trophy (for winning the Super Bowl) is what we're after -- and until that situation takes place, I really believe that my legacy is still going to continue to build."

It built a little on Sunday, and if that's all anyone can grant Garcia, then so be it. It built a little in the third quarter, when the 49ers responded to a 38-14 deficit by shifting to a no-huddle offense and basically never shifting out again.

"That's been the success of our offense all year long," said Owens, whose 26-yard touchdown catch from Garcia capped a 70-yard scoring drive on the first no-huddle sequence. "Jeff's a better quarterback when he's on the run."

But it was more than that. It got straight to the good stuff, now that you mention it. It got down to the fact that Garcia was the coolest guy on the field, the most composed player on the sideline. It got down to the fact that when the Giants finally began addressing the problem of the irrepressible Owens, the quarterback found three other receivers and hit them all -- including Streets, the third option on the play, for the 13-yard touchdown that won the game.

It got down to the fact that Garcia could find Streets or find Owens or call his own number, as he did for a 14-yard touchdown run that made the score 38-30.

"If he doesn't do it with his arm, he does it with his feet," said Giants linebacker Dhani Jones. "The man's quite a player."

And nobody believes in ultimate breakthroughs around here anymore, of course.

The 49ers are too far along in their evolution for that. Last year's 12-4 surprise begat this season's 10-6 up-and-down campaign, and perhaps only once, in that overtime victory against Oakland, did Garcia remind anyone of Montana or Young leading the charge.

"As far as legacies are concerned," said Garcia, "I'm still trying to find my way out of a hole sometimes."

Duly noted. But look: They cheered the quarterback on Sunday at Candlestick Park. You could call it a start.

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