San Jose Mercury

Mariucci's future even murkier after horrid loss
January 13, 2003
By Ann Killion
Mercury News Staff Columnist

TAMPA, Fla. - Some people call this town a vacation spot. Steve Mariucci calls it his own personal hell.

His first trip to Tampa as 49ers coach -- his 1997 debut -- was demoralizing. Sunday's visit was far, far worse. This was one of the most humiliating days in 49ers history.

And it douses Mariucci's future with a fresh gallon of gasoline, fueling speculation that he just coached his last game with the 49ers.

Waxed. Shellacked. Embarrassed. Pick your verb. That's what the Buccaneers did to the 49ers on Sunday. They smothered them 31-6. The team that could have been Mariucci's own -- given the right turn of events one year ago -- dismantled his 49ers.

Mariucci's fate seems entwined with Tampa Bay's. In that 1997 loss, stars Jerry Rice and Steve Young were injured, a harbinger of a painful transition. A year ago, Mariucci was a candidate for the Buccaneers' coaching vacancy -- a position that would have given him the kind of security he has never had with the 49ers.

After Sunday, his future is more uncertain than ever.

Unlike a week ago, there were no stirring comebacks. No shifts in momentum. No echoes of past 49ers glory.

This was, from start to finish, a story of the Buccaneers' offense exploiting the 49ers' wounded defense. And of an excellent defense humbling the 49ers' offense.

You knew the 49ers' offense was in trouble when, on its first possession, quarterback Jeff Garcia tripped taking the snap on third down, sacking himself. The mistakes snowballed from there. Though the 49ers moved the ball on their next two possessions, they were forced to settle for field goals.

And they never scored again.

The lowest moment of the lousy day was easy to pick. It came with the 49ers trailing by 22 points and 50 seconds left in the first half. The 49ers had two timeouts. On their first play, Garrison Hearst ran up the middle for 9 yards.

And, stunningly, that was it. The 49ers surrendered. They let the half expire, never taking a shot at the end zone, running into the locker room with the timeouts unused and their tails between their legs.

``We needed to regroup on offense and defense,'' Mariucci said. ``We needed to find out who was healthy enough to continue, to get our team settled down. We knew we'd get the ball back right away in the second half. We simply chose to get out of there.''

Buccaneers defensive lineman Warren Sapp applauded the move. But the 49ers players weren't happy with the turn-and-run strategy.

``I thought we were in position to work a couple of throws down field and come down with a field goal,'' Garcia said. ``But we decided to play it conservative. To go in at halftime without any more mistakes. That was their decision.''

Receiver Terrell Owens was clearly upset on the field, but he left the stadium without comment.

``That was bad,'' said former 49ers star Ronnie Lott, who was at the game working for Bay Area television. ``When you play on the road, you've got to play more aggressive.''

Was this the worst day in 49ers history? Not quite. Lott and Bill Walsh can remember a worse day.

``The Meadowlands was worse than this,'' Walsh said.

Sixteen years ago, the 49ers suffered their worst loss in playoff history, falling 49-3 to the New York Giants. Walsh was the coach. Jerry Rice fumbled away a pass. Joe Montana was knocked cold near the end of the first half.

Walsh wasn't fired after that debacle. And Mariucci won't be fired after this one.

It's hard to win on the road. In the first eight games of the playoffs, only one team -- the Atlanta Falcons -- has done it. The 49ers have won only one road playoff game in the past 32 years.

But the way the 49ers lost certainly didn't help Mariucci secure his contract extension.

``What we need to do is just get home and let this settle down,'' a subdued Mariucci said. ``There's no real hurry.''

Team director John York said he planned to talk with Mariucci on Tuesday. While York praised the progress the team has made in the past three years, he made no promises.

``I expect for us to sit down and talk,'' York said. ``We'll go forward and see how it all plays out.''

York said Mariucci could return for the final year of his contract without an extension.

``I don't think it's a good possibility, but it's a possibility,'' he said. ``I'd like to have some direction that we're going in with this team. . . . I think we'll get it worked out.''

But York's idea of ``worked out'' is likely to be different than Mariucci's. Ownership might offer Mariucci a lowball, take-it-or-leave-it offer.

Some people think he's worth more.

``Just look at what he's gone through the last six years,'' defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. ``There's one constant in this organization for six years, and that's Steve Mariucci. He's holding the rudder. . . . They ought to make him a damn saint instead of crucifying him. He's been through more than any other head coach I've ever been around.''

Garcia offered his support.

``I don't see us going in a negative direction,'' he said. ``I see us going in a positive direction. I don't see why we need an answer from outside the locker room.''

But from the moment Mariucci stepped on the field in Tampa five seasons ago, he has always been measured by impossible standards. He has never been good enough. Never been Walsh enough. In truth, he might be happier somewhere else. A year ago, he could have even found a life preserver in Tampa.

Instead, what he keeps finding here is his own slice of hell.

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