San Jose Mercury

January 06, 2003

By Mark Purdy
Mercury News Staff Columnist

They claimed that they never once thought about losing. They were lying.

Are you kidding? The 49ers were behind by 24 points with less than 20 minutes to play. Unless they were metal-brained robots or members of a screwhead cloning cult, they weren't thinking about perpetrating the second-biggest NFL playoff comeback in history. The atmosphere was too gloomy for that.

``I noticed it was pretty quiet in the stadium,'' Coach Steve Mariucci said.

``Things weren't necessarily going in the direction we wanted them to go,'' quarterback Jeff Garcia said.

Yes, that was one way to put it. With 4:27 left in the third quarter Sunday, the 49ers were losing their first-round playoff game to the New York Giants 38-14. The giant sucking sound was not just the season going down the commode. It also was the sound of life being drained from Candlestick Park. Mariucci was correct about the quiet. The joint was so somber, you could practically hear . . . well, the toilets flushing.

Mariucci had to think about something in the silence. So he thought it would be a good idea to turn loose the 49ers' two-minute, no-huddle offense to try to catch up as fast as possible. And Mariucci thought about two-point conversion plays.

Why? Mariucci was doing the calculations. He knew his team would have three, maybe four more possessions. With the 49ers behind by 24, they would have to score three touchdowns for six points each, plus three two-point conversions. Mariucci began going over which plays might work best.

And then a funny thing happened. Mariucci needed those plays.

``Wow,'' he said later, in a trenchant and detailed analysis of the final 19:27 on the clock.

``It's just hard to fathom right now, what happened,'' Garcia said.

What happened was Candlestick became a ridiculous, soaring, howling, come-from-behind Burning Man festival. No one who was there will ever be the same. And it all started when the 49ers sent Garcia onto the field to begin flinging and flying. The 49ers scored, and scored again, and scored again, and scored again. They scored three touchdowns, a field goal, plus two of those two-point conversions.

And they won 39-38.

``I swear to you,'' said 49ers receiver J.J. Stokes, ``when we were behind by 38-14, George Stewart, our wide receivers coach, came over to us. He said, `Hey, let's just keep playing. We're going to win this, we're going to score 42 points and win the game. Let's go.' I guess we fell short of 42 points. But we won the game, damn it.''

One reason we watch professional athletes put themselves on the line is to witness stuff the rest of us can't do. That's what the Buffalo Bills were doing in 1993 when they rallied from 32 points behind to beat the Houston Oilers. And that's what the 49ers did Sunday.

``The bottom line is, you just play hard,'' defensive tackle Bryant Young said. ``You just keep going hard on every play.''

The 49ers kept playing hard, and suddenly the stadium was not quiet. It was really, really, really not quiet. Suddenly, the Giants were trying to hold back a wall of noise, and a wall of Garcia and Terrell Owens and Tai Streets, and a wall of momentum, and a wall of doubt that caused two bad punts and one missed field-goal attempt.

``Once we got 20 points on the board and made that first two-point conversion, they were back on their heels a little bit,'' Owens said.

Then, on their final, desperation drive, the Giants botched a potential winning field goal. Long snapper Trey Junkin, signed last week, skidded the ball across the ground to the holder. Who made the decision to hire Junkin? Who didn't make sure he had practiced enough with the holder and kicker? You would have to guess it was Giants Coach Jim Fassel, who called Sunday's defeat ``the worst loss I have ever felt in my entire life.''

The 49ers' long snapper, for the record, was flawless. Maybe that will save Mariucci from being fired. In some quarters, he was coaching to save his job Sunday. But that notion was preposterous -- and remains so.

All season long, with some validity, Mariucci has been taking hits for being too conservative. So Sunday, what happens? He becomes Mr. Tightrope, Mr. Daring. And initially, it backfires. On the first series of the second half, Mariucci ordered the 49ers to go for it on fourth-and-one at the Giants' 46 -- and the Giants stuffed the play, then quickly drove for a touchdown. On defense, Mariucci allowed coordinator Jim Mora to take more chances with blitzes -- and again, many blew up in the 49ers' faces.

But if pros keep playing, then coaches keep coaching. Mariucci's decision to turn Garcia loose was his best of the season. The no-huddle went over so well, partially, because the Giants don't like to substitute defensive linemen. So while the 49ers were hurrying up, the biggest Giants defenders were slowing down, running on fumes. And the 49ers overtook them in the passing lane.

``What happened to that lack of killer instinct everyone was talking about?'' 49ers center Jeremy Newberry asked. ``Today showed the killer instinct that we aren't supposed to have.''

In point of fact, the man who first floated the ``no killer instinct'' charge was a 49ers player -- Owens. But it turns out to be totally the wrong phrase. With Garcia and his comeback touch, the 49ers have more of a thriller instinct than a killer instinct.

``I'm proud to be their coach,'' Mariucci said, ``because they give me their heart and soul, every day.''

Every day for one more week, anyway. Or maybe longer. Because here is some advice for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers' next opponent: You had better try getting a 25-point lead in the third quarter Sunday. Because a 24-point lead won't do you any good.

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