San Jose Mercury

49ers could pass next big test
January 11, 2003

By Skip Bayless
Mercury News

I surrender. Never again will I use Conventional Wisdom to predict these San Fran-schizo 49ers. I vow to forget all I've been taught about a league whose initials now stand for Never Follows Logic.

Allow me to say 10 Hail Mariuccis and tell you how a team given no chance by most experts could beat Tampa Bay in Tampa.

Could, if Coach Steve Mariucci doesn't pour a vanilla malt on the no-huddle fire started last Sunday by Jeff Garcia. Could, if Mariucci lets Garcia attack the Bucs before their shark-infested defense can attack him. Could, if Mariucci rides his only-in-the-NFL momentum and goes for broke with a fastbreak offense and a blitzing defense.

Conventional Wisdom says the 49ers are just the kind of finesse team the Bucs have for 21-3 lunch. I say -- if Mariucci plays to win instead of the usual not to lose -- the 49ers will win 20-17.

On HBO's ``Inside the NFL,'' Cris Carter called Garcia's offense against the Bucs' defense a ``mismatch.'' Some are calling the Bucs' pass defense, which led the NFL with 31 interceptions, the best ever. That's why the Bucs are six-point favorites -- double the 49ers' biggest underdog spread of the year, in Oakland.

The 49ers are now mostly written off as a fun little flash in the panic. Mariucci finally had no choice but to resort to the no-huddle offense that let Garcia and Terrell Owens do what they do as unstoppably as any passing combo -- run and gun. Still, the 49ers' defense allowed 38 points in little more than 2 1/2 quarters at Candlestick Park to the same New York Giants who had scored only 10 in overtime at home against Philadelphia.

From debacle to miracle. So Conventional Wisdom says: ``Wildly inconsistent offense. Consistently pathetic pass defense. Fun while they lasted.''

But Conventional Wisdom cannot account for the not-of-this-world, not-of-his-doing phenomenon that overtook the 49ers and their coach. Who could have imagined a deficit that nearly reached 42-14 was just what Mariucci's team needed to find itself? The spark of scoring a quick touchdown and two-point conversion started what could be a raging playoff fire on a parity-pocked landscape. ``The Rally'' could be the NFC bracket's turning point.

Could be, if Mariucci humbles himself as he did when he flew to Atlanta and made peace with Owens. Could be, if Mooch forgets about credit and control. Even if he scripts the first 19 plays, he must let his redheaded flash run them without a huddle and change them on the fly.

Mariucci has laughed off this possibility, as if Garcia is a 15-year-old who got to drive daddy's Porsche around the block and now wants to enter Indy. Let's hope Mariucci is just trying to fool the Bucs the way their owners made a fool of him a year ago.

The Glazer family wanted to hire Raiders Coach Jon Gruden, but Al Davis was asking for enough compensation to start a new franchise. So, hoping to bluff Davis, the Glazers asked for permission to interview the boy wonder across the bay. Mariucci expressed serious interest because he wanted leverage for a contract extension and raise. The 49ers granted permission because Mariucci hadn't proved himself and Tampa Bay was offering two first-round choices and two seconds.

The Bucs interviewed Mariucci for the first time on a Sunday afternoon. That night the Glazers called Davis, who called their bluff. They mostly gave in to his demands of two firsts, two seconds and $8 million. Mooch got played like a kazoo.

Now Mariucci could make the Glazers look foolish for paying that much for Gruden. ``The Rally'' almost certainly won Mariucci his extension, so why coach carefully? Close to the vest only exposes the throat against these guys.

Bite the sharks, Mooch.

Conventional Wisdom says the teams that beat the Bucs -- New Orleans twice, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- did so by pounding the ball behind offensive lines that overpowered the Bucs' undersized front. But as Bill Parcells told ``I don't know that San Francisco has the power running game to go at Tampa Bay.''

So do the unimaginable. Go right after their ``best ever'' strength with yours -- Garcia and Owens. Fight speed with rpm.

On the run, Garcia has a passer rating of 109.7. In the pocket, he's 85.6. New Orleans quarterback Aaron Brooks hurt the Bucs by buying time with his feet while receivers uncovered. Garcia is quicker than Brooks. Garcia and Owens are in such run-all-day condition that they can wear out pass rushers and defensive backs.

So hit the Bucs with a lung-burning tempo they can't quite match after two weeks off. Mix in some slashing dashes by Kevan Barlow. Jump out to a lead over a team whose offense can be as ordinary as the 49ers' defense.

Then throw some high-risk blitzes at quarterback Brad Johnson, whose bad back kept him out of the final two regular-season games. His receivers are slower than palm trees. Keyshawn Johnson, Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell are almost like having J.J. Stokes times three. Here are guys even Mike Rumph can cover. Here's an offense the 49ers can hold under 20.

Moments after Sunday's comeback, Mariucci told his team: ``We're going to walk softly and carry a big stick.''

Go, Mooch, go. No more Teddy-bear offense. Hit 'em right between the eyes with some Teddy Roosevelt.

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