San Jose Mercury

49ers can do better than Mariucci
January 14, 2003
By Skip Bayless
Mercury News Staff Columnist

Steve Mariucci had a pretty good season. Under orders, he repaired his relationship with Terrell Owens. He beat the Raiders in their stronghold. His 49ers clinched the NFC West with three games to go.

They achieved a goal of taking at least one more postseason step. But this wasn't just any old playoff win. For a week, fans reveled in the incredibility of the second-greatest comeback in playoff history, from 24 down to the New York Giants.

No doubt Mooch is a pretty good coach.

But as long as he remains with the 49ers, he'll be just good enough to get them beaten in playoff games. When his team needed him most Sunday, Mariucci did his poorest job of the season. Tampa Bay led 28-6 at halftime on the way to a 31-6 laugher.

If I owned the 49ers, and money was no object, I'd thank Mariucci for all he has done through the cap-strapped rebuilding and send him on his way. I'd risk having to pay him $2.25 million for next season, if he didn't take another job, and I'd gladly spend $4 million to $5 million to hire a coach I knew could win me a Super Bowl.

I'd take the public relations beating from the many media members who love good-guy Mooch. I'd trust they'd eventually realize I was right. My players would threaten mutiny because they love playing for a coach who's always so upbeat and supportive. But players don't always know what's best for them.

Think the Dallas Cowboys are looking forward to getting their tails chewed by Bill Parcells? No, but they'll eventually savor the reward.

I'd hire a Parcells. I'd send a message to my restless fans and to a league that no longer fears the 49ers that I'm finally serious about restoring the aura of a top-five franchise.

I'd try to pry Mike Holmgren out of Seattle -- rumors have swirled that he could escape his deal because he has lost his general manager power. If not Holmgren, I'd consider Jimmy Johnson, Dennis Green, maybe even Oklahoma's Bob Stoops -- someone who would make the NFL say, ``Uh-oh.''

But I'm not the owner, and money appears to be an object for John York. He doesn't want to pay much more than he's paying Mariucci, and Mariucci doesn't want much more to stay in a place his wife and four kids love. Mariucci almost sounded Monday as if he'd take less.

You get what you pay for.

York knows Mr. and Mrs. Mariucci don't want to leave their South Bay social circles for, say, Jacksonville, Ga. Yes, Jacksonville is barely in Florida, but it feels like Georgia or Alabama. For his new G.M., Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver is leaning toward Tom Modrak, a hard-nosed product of the Pittsburgh Steelers. After years around Bill Cowher, Modrak wouldn't be sure if Mariucci was a football coach or a Scout leader.

So Mooch will go nowhere but back to work in Santa Clara, with a token raise and a couple of years added to his contract. He also has repaired his relationship with York. York's wife, Denise, appears to have a soft spot for Mooch, who's all hugs and air kisses with her after home wins. Mooch is a blue-eyed charmer.

York doesn't want Mariucci's blood on his hands. And even if Mooch did take another job, York probably would go cheap by elevating an assistant from a lightweight staff. Even I would prefer Mariucci over, say, defensive coordinator Jim Mora.

Excuses are always easy to make for media-friendly Mooch -- some legitimate. This season, all four starters in the secondary were hurt at various points. So was an emerging star at linebacker, Jamie Winborn, and kick returner Jimmy Williams. Yet didn't the Raiders survive injuries to their top three corners and top two kick returners?

The 49ers' six Pro Bowl players were second only to Philadelphia's seven. Fullback Fred Beasley and safety Tony Parrish could have made it. Yet the 49ers didn't perform as consistently well this season as last, when they at least made a game of it in their playoff loss at Green Bay.

They slightly regressed. But they benefited from injuries to St. Louis' top three quarterbacks, and their overtime win at Oakland was the Raiders' fourth of four losses in a row. The comeback against the Giants had very little to do with Mariucci, who had no choice but to unleash Jeff Garcia in the no-huddle offense made for his frantic pace. A debacle turned into a miracle.

Mariucci should have ridden that emotional wave and attacked Tampa Bay's defense with the no-huddle. He should have immediately gone after Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson with the blitzes that bothered him after the game was out of hand. But bold and clever Mariucci is not.

Mariucci provides no dynamic leadership. He should have challenged the 14-3 touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius, who failed to control the ball before getting both feet down in the end zone. With his offensive weapons, he obviously shouldn't have surrendered at the end of the half, down 28-6. What if Garcia had pulled a TD pass and two-point conversion out of his helmet? He's capable.

Mooch doesn't have enough refuse-to-lose or go-for-the-throat for pro football. His rah-rah approach has always been better suited for an NCAA team. His 49ers don't really fear losing because they know Mooch will always clap his hands and say, ``It's OK, men. We'll get 'em next week!''

Mariucci is pretty good. The San Francisco 49ers deserve better.

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