San Jose Mercury

49ers have talent but not leadership
January 05, 2003
By Skip Bayless
Mercury News Staff Columnist

First, allow me to tell you why the 10-6 49ers should reverse an alarming season-long trend of astonishing inconsistency and beat the 10-6 New York Giants in today's playoff game at Candlestick Park.

Then I'll tell you why they won't.

They should win because they have six Pro Bowl players to the Giants' two. Fullback Fred Beasley and safety Tony Parrish should have made it, and safety Zack Bronson almost certainly would have if he hadn't broken his foot on Oct. 14. The 49ers clearly have more talent.

Bronson finally is back to help stabilize a defense that is the NFL's worst at stopping teams on third down. Bronson can be the 49ers' Rod Woodson, directing traffic and making ball-magnet plays. Bronson should help offset a staggering stat: The 49ers have been outscored 146-79 in the fourth quarter.

Of course, that numbing number was inflated by the 28 allowed in Monday night's final-quarter collapse at St. Louis. But several backups were playing by then, and several starters requested unsuccessfully to return to the game. One was center Jeremy Newberry, who was so steamed after watching a 17-0 lead dissolve into an early New Year's celebration in St. Louis that he told reporters his team was going to kick the Giants' butts.

Ah, percussion to your ears. This wasn't Terrell Owens predicting he would sign his name on the forehead of every Giants defensive back. This was maybe the team's toughest guy basically saying: ``Enough of this 49ers class-and-character stuff. Put it in headlines: We are better than the Giants and we are going to back it up.''

Light a fire, Jeremy. Counterbalance Coach Kumbaya, Steve Mariucci. As Newberry told me the other day: ``Hey, we were running the ball down the Rams' throat.''

Were they ever. The 49ers should win because Kevan Barlow continues to emerge as a near-future Pro Bowl back. You win games with Garrison Hearst. You could win playoff games with Barlow.

The 49ers should win because Jeff Garcia, the one-man fire drill, should be able to escape and operate where he's most dangerous, on the run on third down. That's because the 49ers have the antidote for Pro Bowl pass rusher Michael Strahan. Tackle Scott Gragg, who battled Strahan in practice for five seasons, snuffed him as the 49ers won the opener 16-13 at Giants Stadium.

The 49ers even have the antidote for tight end Jeremy Shockey, the fearless rookie who has lit up the Giants like Times Square on New Year's Eve. Linebacker Julian Peterson, who earned his first Pro Bowl trip by shutting down Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez, is spoiling to shock Shockey.

For once, I appreciated Mariucci's relentlessly resilient rah-rah coming off Monday night's letdown. I appreciated General Manager Terry Donahue saying, ``With so much parity, why can't we get hot and win it all?'' I even appreciated team president John York trying to take some pressure off Mooch by telling our Mark Purdy that a contract extension will be discussed after the playoffs.

But all this sounds suspiciously like whistling toward the graveyard.

The 49ers will lose because they have run up against a team that has found what they haven't -- themselves. The Giants, winners of four in a row, came together while Mooch's team kept threatening to come apart. The San Fran-schizo 49ers haven't played a complete game since the best game of Garcia's career -- the overtime win at Oakland on Nov. 3.

Since then, they nearly blew a lead to Kansas City. They did blow one at San Diego. They got blown out at home by Philadelphia. They barely held off Seattle. Garcia saved them with a last-ditch drive against sorry Dallas. They fell behind another team that ran away with a bad division -- Green Bay -- and fell short at home. And without Owens, they barely escaped awful Arizona and couldn't get out of St. Louis fast enough.

Something is still missing. Killer instinct. Dynamic leadership from the coach or the star receiver.

Mariucci sometimes coaches with no more imagination than a man just trying to keep his job. The once-mighty 49ers offense has turned into a nickel-and-dime ball-control outfit.

Rookie nickel back Mike ``Waldo'' Rumph became a ``Where's Waldo?'' liability. Now he will probably start for injured cornerback Jason Webster. A pass rush that looked pretty strong on paper has looked pretty invisible when it mattered. The kicking game is often directed by Wes Craven.

Troy Aikman, who will analyze this game for Fox, told ``Yes, backups were playing Monday, but I think there are some concerns about how they lost that game and how they're playing as a team. It creates a little doubt. The Giants come in knowing they're playing great football. They're a much better team than they were on Sept. 5. I don't know how much better the 49ers are.''

And Bill Parcells told ``The team that's a little shaky heading into the playoffs is San Francisco. They just haven't played consistently well throughout the season, and their schedule hasn't been as difficult as some of the playoff teams. I'd give the Giants a good chance.

``Confidence is born of demonstrated ability. That's why momentum teams have such an advantage.''

The 49ers should win. But now they pay for what they couldn't build. The momentum team will reverse the opening-night score. Giants 16-13.

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