San Jose Mercury

From big comeback to big comedown
January 13, 2003

By Ann Killion
Mercury News

TAMPA, Fla. - There would be no Joe Montana comparisons this week for Jeff Garcia. Seven days after his finest hour in the NFL, he had perhaps his most dismal.

``When I look back, it'll be one of those days that was very frustrating for me,'' Garcia said Sunday after the 49ers' 31-6 playoff loss to Tampa Bay. ``I don't think I played up to the level that I'm capable of playing.''

Garcia threw three interceptions. He fumbled three times, turning the ball over once. He was sacked four times. His quarterback rating was a miserable 35.9 -- he completed 22 of 41 passes for 193 yards. His name didn't show up on the rushing statistics.

Garcia's miseries started from almost the moment he stepped on the field. On third-and-five, on the 49ers' third snap, he tripped coming out from behind center and was tackled for a 5-yard loss.

It set the tone. The 49ers followed with their best drive of the game, moving to the 4-yard line on Tampa Bay's top-ranked defense. But they couldn't get the ball in the end zone and were forced to settle for a field goal. It was a bad omen. They never got in the end zone.

``We had missed opportunities early on,'' Garcia said. ``And we found ourselves in a deep hole against the No. 1 defense.''

Unlike against the New York Giants, Garcia couldn't get outside the pocket and hurt the Bucs with his legs. Nor could he find open receivers. The Bucs' defenders were everywhere.

``They're just fast and disciplined,'' Garcia said. ``They don't lose sight of where they need to be.''

With more than eight minutes to play in the third quarter, the Bucs led 31-6. By that time, the defenders were, as 49ers Coach Steve Mariucci put it, ``lining up in their track stances,'' ready to attack Garcia. The quarterback was hurried and battered.

``They know exactly what you're going to do,'' Garcia said. ``They can just pin their ears back and rush hard with four and drop seven. Maybe at times, we were just pushing and trying to force a big play.''

Tampa Bay was prepared to face the mobile Garcia, after playing regular-season games against elusive quarterbacks Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb. The defense knew how to contain and frustrate Garcia. And how to keep his favorite target, Terrell Owens, in check.

``This guy has seen a number of defenses, but we are something special,'' Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. ``We had their man bracketed -- T.O. wasn't open. He was looking for places to go and there wasn't anywhere to go.''

A week earlier, the 49ers' offense had worn out the Giants' defense by keeping it on the field. But Sunday the 49ers could never get anything going, thereby keeping the Bucs' defenders fresh and hungry.

As the final seconds of the game ticked off and the 49ers desperately tried to salvage a touchdown, Derrick Brooks and Sapp stood on the sideline, begging to go back in to preserve the end-zone shutout.

``We could never sustain a thing,'' Garcia said.

Including the season.

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