San Jose Mercury

Mariucci cuts 49ers' offense loose -- finally
January 06, 2003
By Skip Bayless
Mercury News Staff Columnist

It finally happened because Steve Mariucci had no choice. He finally was forced to do what so many players and front-office staffers and tired-of-Mooch fans have longed for him to do. He finally let his offense turn back into a 49ers offense.

Finally, full-throttle.

Mariucci finally took the wraps off because he was getting his doors blown off. Rookie Jeremy Shockey, who was threatening to rip Candlestick Park off its moorings and heave it into the bay, finally dropped a 3-yard pass that would have given his New York Giants a 41-14 lead with about five minutes left in Sunday's first-round playoff game. Still, a chip-shot field goal made it 38-14.

Imagine: The 49ers defense turning the scoreboard-challenged Giants into Montana's 49ers.

Yet what felt like an insurmountable lead to many among the 66,318 present -- some booing, some silently stewing -- finally sent Mariucci tumbling end over end into the desperate straits that saved his job. For some fans, that surely was the bittersweet irony of the second greatest comeback in playoff history. Only an unimaginable deficit forced the changes that probably won Mariucci a contract extension beyond next year.

If Shockey had hung onto the 41-14 catch, the 49ers almost certainly would have been finished psychologically. There's just something about staring up at 40-something points that kills the will. If Shockey holds on, 41-14 easily could have wound up 50-something to 20-something -- and Mariucci easily could have been fired.

After all, the Giants had dragged his team into broad daylight and exposed it as a playoff fraud. The 49ers were getting their noses bloodied in both trenches. Their secondary was getting torched. A coach who struggles to instill a fear of failure or create a lose-and-lose-your-job urgency was rather helplessly watching what appeared to be his last wet-wick game at Candlestick.

His team was finally getting what it didn't pay for. A hit-and-miss December for his San Fran-schizo 49ers had robbed them of their confidence and momentum. A team that was never quite sure what it was looked lost. No urgency. No chemistry. No hope.

Finally, no huddle. Suddenly, no problem.

Mariucci had to let Jeff Garcia do what he does best -- wing it literally and figuratively. With 4:27 left in the third quarter, Mooch let the offense attack without huddling. Snap, crackle, pop.

Garcia, skittering, pumping, firing. Seven plays, six passes -- the final covering 26 yards to the baddest receiver on the planet, Terrell Owens. Only 2 minutes, 24 seconds were spent covering 70 yards.

Finally, urgency born of desperation. A two-point conversion pass to Owens cut the lead to 38-22 with what suddenly seemed like two long minutes left in the third quarter. Hmmm.

Garcia, who long has lobbied for a more wide-open attack, very tactfully said: ``When you're trying to maintain a balanced attack and be methodical, and it isn't working, it's time to change. . . . There was no holding back, no tomorrow. . . . It woke the crowd. . . . We finally got into some kind of rhythm.''

Finally, our bugging eyes feasted on what a lot of us kept waiting to see all season -- sustained firepower. No more of this, ``Hold on, folks, we've got to run for no gain on second down.'' Mariucci could no longer coach like a man trying not to lose his job.

Of the no-huddle, Mariucci said: ``I think that energized the crowd and the team.''

No kidding.

The Giants suddenly heard an awakening giant -- Candlestick's crowd. My ears haven't been bombarded with such decibels since the Rally Monkey was loosed on San Francisco's Giants in the seventh inning of World Series Game 6. Maybe, for fans who bleed orange as well as 49ers red, this was a small payback.

``Our crowd created a difficult situation for the Giants,'' Garcia said. Forget the budget crunch, John York. Game balls for every customer.

Five seconds into the fourth quarter the lead had shrunk to 38-30. The Giants, who don't substitute much in their defensive line, couldn't at all under the no-huddle onslaught. Pass rushers were reduced to heaving blobs of sweat. Defensive backs were sucking wind, too, chasing Owens. Garcia's no-huddle blew the Giants back on their heels, and they couldn't regain their balance.

Finally, Owens was option No. 1. Unleashed, Garcia was 22 of 33 for 220 yards in the second half. For the game he ran for 60 yards -- 33 more than Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow combined. Surely no stat satisfied Garcia more. Who needs to establish the run when he can do that on the fly?

In his second truly great game this season, Garcia did to the Giants exactly what he did to the Raiders. He wore them out with his frantic scrambling. Just watching him makes you tired. Laugh if you will, but Garcia's first-step quickness is right there with Michael Vick's. Now you see him, now you don't know how he escaped for a first-down run or fling.

Up his tempo, increase your extension, Mooch. The momentum Garcia fueled was so devastating that the offense almost overcame the deficit too soon. With a minute left, the defense found itself trying to protect a 39-38 lead.

The Giants' second botched field-goal attempt of the fourth quarter preserved Mariucci's escape. Yes, Mooch used his eighth and ninth coaching lives. He finally went for the throat only because the Giants were squeezing his.

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