San Jose Mercury

Watching Jeff, you also saw Joe, Steve
January 06, 2003
By Ann Killion
Mercury News Staff Columnist

The game was over, but the old stadium was still shaking. And when the quarterback in the red jersey turned on his spindly legs and jogged off the field, more than 66,000 fans roared their adoration into the January night.

If you blurred your eyes just right, and ignored the skateboard fashions and the signs, you may have believed you were transported 21 years back in time.

Back to the start.

``When you're in the park with your buddies, you try to be like the great ones,'' Jeff Garcia said. ``You try to be Joe Montana, and you try to be Steve Young. Maybe there's somebody in the park now trying to be Jeff Garcia.''

Bet on it. Today, in the parks and the schoolyards, there are hundreds of Garcias, bootlegging, scrambling, finding the receiver in the end zone. Making history.

New history.

Sunday was Jeff Garcia's moment. His ultimate 49ers moment. His Montana moment. His Young moment.

But Garcia managed to do something even King Joe never pulled off. He orchestrated the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history. He brought his team back from a 24-point hole. Back from the dead.

The 49ers were down 38-14 with 4:27 to play in the third quarter. They were flat-lining. The fans were booing. The coach's future teetered at the brink. And if you took a quick poll of the Faithful in the stands, they would have said Garcia was tarnishing the great legacy of San Francisco quarterbacks.

Then, everything changed.

The 49ers got the ball, and Garcia told his teammates there still was a lot of time. ``We've been in more difficult situations,'' Garcia announced to his offense. ``We came back against Dallas with less time.''

That was a levelheaded thing to say. Something Joe Cool might have uttered, if he couldn't spot John Candy in the stands. But it was an absolute lie. Last month in Dallas, the 49ers were 10 points behind with seven minutes left, against a mediocre team with nothing on the line. That's far different than having just 20 playoff minutes to make up a demoralizing deficit against the swaggering New York Giants.

But his teammates bought it. They buy everything Garcia says in the huddle.

``Jeff's always the same,'' tackle Scott Gragg said. ``Preseason, regular season, postseason. He's a leader, a hard worker; he focuses on who's got what routes. He's not a rah-rah guy. It's true. It's real. It's who he is.''

The 49ers went to a no-huddle offense. They abandoned the run, and Coach Steve Mariucci handed his future to Garcia. Twenty minutes of football later, Garcia returned it, intact and polished to a new glow.

Garcia was cool. He was calm. He didn't make any mistakes. He marched the team downfield, riding on the back of the league's best playmaker. Terrell Owens caught a touchdown pass, then another pass for the two-point conversion, and at 38-22 it was a two-possession game.

``Then momentum was wearing a red jersey,'' Mariucci said.

Momentum stayed in red. The defense held the Giants to their first three-and-out drive, and New York's special teams drew a 15-yard penalty on the punt.

The 49ers got the ball at the Giants' 27. Three plays later, Garcia ran around left end for a touchdown. He was screaming, high-stepping in the end zone. He could smell it now. His pass to Owens for the two-point conversion pared the Giants' lead to 38-30.

``There wasn't a sense of panic,'' Garcia said. ``There was just a sense of doing our jobs.''

After another New York three-and-out, he again led the 49ers downfield, this time for a Jeff Chandler field goal.

``I don't think there's anybody in the league that can run a two-minute drill like Jeff Garcia,'' center Jeremy Newberry said. ``He's awesome when he's under pressure. I wouldn't want anybody else in the league at crunch time.''

With three minutes to play, Garcia took the field for the final time. ``He was poised every time he came to the sideline,'' Mariucci said. ``It was an exhibition of that great 49er quarterback poise.''

Garcia marched toward the end zone, converting two third downs and running for 12 yards. (Garcia finished with 331 yards passing and 60 rushing, accounting for two-thirds of San Francisco's total on the ground.)

``People talk about Michael Vick and his mobility, but I'll take Jeff Garcia,'' 49ers consultant Bill Walsh said. ``Michael Vick will become very good, but Jeff Garcia is ahead of him right now.''

Garcia ended his day with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets that gave the 49ers a 39-38 lead. Thanks to one last Giants breakdown, that was the final score. The official version of the 49ers' amazing day.

``Plain and simple, Garcia made the plays when they count,'' Giants linebacker Dhani Jones said. ``If he doesn't do it with his arm, he does it with his feet. The man's quite a player.''

These are the moments that create reputations. The greatest comeback in 49ers history -- back in 1980 -- still belongs to King Joe. But the second-greatest belongs to Garcia, though he eschews any comparisons.

``I'm still trying to build a legacy,'' Garcia said. ``I'm still trying to find my way out of a hole.''

Garcia isn't sure where he was Jan. 10, 1982, when Montana, his childhood idol, tossed the ball high to Dwight Clark. (``Though I know I wasn't in a bar,'' he said.) But he remembers the feeling.

``All those things that were taking place with the 49ers,'' he said. ``Where they had come from and what they accomplished.''

These 49ers came from the bottom -- an awkward, ugly 4-12 season in 1999. Garcia was an undrafted nobody, a player the NFL didn't want, who wasn't expected to slip into the shoes worn by 49ers legends.

Looks like the shoes might fit. Garcia made history Sunday. And if you blurred your eyes just right, you could see the spot where the past and the future meet.

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