San Jose Mercury

Half-ending strategy meets with dissent
January 13, 2003

By Dennis Georgatos
Mercury News

TAMPA, Fla. - With 50 seconds and two timeouts left in the first half and trailing badly, the 49ers sat on their hands.

The decision by Coach Steve Mariucci to run out the clock and try to regroup at halftime didn't go over well with players who wanted to keep trying to score.

Whether it would have made any difference is open to debate. The 49ers were down 28-6 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and wound up losing the divisional playoff game 31-6 Sunday.

After Tampa Bay converted an interception into its fourth touchdown, Vinny Sutherland returned the ensuing kick 25 yards to give the 49ers the ball at their 31. Garrison Hearst began the possession with a run that advanced the ball to the 40, but no move was made to stop the clock.

Mariucci said his mind was made up before the 49ers took the field for the final possession of the first half.

``We had to make some adjustments,'' he said. ``We had to find players who were healthy enough to continue. We needed to get this team settled down. Momentum was shifting big-time the other way. We just chose to get out of there and receive the opening kickoff in the second half.''

Tackle Matt Willig and wide receiver Terrell Owens appeared visibly upset by that strategy.

Owens didn't talk to reporters after the game.

``My opinion was we should have went for it,'' Willig said. ``We should have tried to get something. But I think at that point, maybe Mooch and'' offensive coordinator ``Greg Knapp just thought we could get in and get the half over with.''

Quarterback Jeff Garcia said he thought Hearst's run might have improved the 49ers' field position enough to warrant a final shot downfield.

``But the decision of the coaches was to play it somewhat conservative and just go in at halftime without making any more mistakes,'' Garcia said. ``That's their decision and I live with it.''

Special-teams problems

The 49ers' failures on offense and defense were compounded by special-teams problems that included a lousy punt, a fumbled kickoff return and a penalty negating a big runback.

Bill Lafleur's 14-yard punt denied the 49ers a chance to pin Tampa Bay deep in its territory in the first quarter. Midway through the second quarter, Sutherland fumbled at the end of a 31-yard kickoff return. Sutherland, re-signed Jan. 2, saw a 31-yard, third-quarter punt return negated when Mike Rumph was flagged for an illegal block in the back.

The breakdowns were characteristic of the special-teams problems that plagued the 49ers throughout the season.

``We made every attempt to fix it as we go,'' Mariucci said. ``We changed kickers, punters, holders, return men, cover men.''

Better in second half

49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora said the main reason his defense buckled down in the second half was a decision to turn loose some blitzers instead of laying back in a safer zone.

Tampa Bay scored only three points after halftime, and those came on a drive started at the 49ers' 37-yard line after Garcia threw an interception on the first play of the third quarter.

Granted, the Bucs were protecting a big lead and didn't throw downfield much. But the effort showed that his defensive players still had fight left in them, Mora said.

``At the end of the first quarter, the thought process is, `OK, I need to protect these guys,' '' Mora said, referring to replacement cornerbacks Mike Rumph and Duane Hawthorne.

``So you play some zone. Then we said, `You know what, that's not working, let's go after him.' '' Mora said of Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson. ``And that was probably the better philosophy, because they didn't handle our pressure very well.''

`A fabulous job'

It's safe to say Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden thinks Mariucci deserves a contract extension.

``He's done a fabulous job,'' Gruden said. ``What the 49ers have done, in my opinion, through the draft and through hard-working coaching, to re-establish themselves as a force is an unbelievable coaching job. I not only think of him as a friend but as a great coach.''

Mariucci's extension is not the only contract issue awaiting the 49ers. Two starters -- defensive end Chike Okeafor and wide receiver Tai Streets -- are eligible for unrestricted free agency. Director of football operations John McVay has said the team will try to re-sign both.

There is also some question about J.J. Stokes' future with the team. Stokes was supplanted by Streets this season as the No. 2 receiver, and he might be too pricey to keep as a backup. Stokes is due to make $2.25 million next season.

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