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On October 28, 2001 The San Francisco 49er’s went to Soldier Field in Chicago to battle a team that they literally demolished just last season in their final home game of the 2000 season. A game in which 49er wide receiver Terrell Owens set a NFL record with 20 receptions in one game.
Little did we realize that it would be Terrell Owens that would have the Chicago bulls eye painted on his forehead as we lost this game due to Terrell Owens bobbling a pass from Jeff Garcia in overtime in a 37-31 loss.
This game would carry great implications for the 49er’s, not only from a loss statement but also from a feud that would erupt between the team’s premier playmaker and it’s very own head coach.
Never have I seen such blatant vulgarity and irrational accusations spelled out as I have seen in the case of Owens vs. Mariucci. On Wednesday following the game Owens expressed his frustrations with the 49er’s 37-31 overtime loss at Chicago, in which they blew a 19-point lead. His comments directed at Steve Mariucci were demeaning and damaging to Mariucci’s character as a leader and a coach.
“Hopefully the coach will change his mentality about us destroying teams now,” Owens said. “It’s funny. His buddy system with all the coaches around the league. I think he tries to spare them sometimes. He doesn’t want to embarrass a team. Bit you’ve got to understand if you’re trying to win a championship, sometimes you can’t spare feelings.”
In essence Owens suggested that Steve Mariucci was throwing the game in favor of sparing his friend Bears head coach Dick Jauron a defeat at home. Owens did take responsibility for the dropped pass in overtime in which safety Mike Brown picked it off and sprinted into the end zone for the killing score.
That is where this should have ended right then and there, his sentiments and anger about the loss is shared by many, including his teammates. All were dealing with it in their own manner, but Owens felt compelled to lash out. The comments were at first ignored by Mariucci, but as they made headlines in the Bay Area and on the radio and television, he became enraged at the careless accusations made by his top playmaker.
“The statements about the outcome of the game having to do with an association of mine across on the other sidelines, in my 23 years of coaching, is maybe the most utterly ridiculous statement I’ve ever read. And they are completely void of any deep thought,” Mariucci told reporters a day afterwards.
How did Owens comments effect the rest of the team, were his teammates in anyway responsible for his outburst? Do they feel the same or different? Was Owens way out of line?
“Terrell Owens is the utmost competitor. It affected him deeply,” Garcia said of the loss. “It affected the whole team, but it affected him to the point where he wanted to say something about it. We don’t take it as a slap in the face.”
49er veteran guard Ray Brown laughed, and walked away from reporters after discussing the subject with them and yelling: “Remember, this is fun. It’s not that serious.”
“On any team you’re going to have personality clashes, guys who want to run more, guys who want to pass more. Winning makes it all better. Win and you appease everybody.”
Certainly this is a case of a player dealing with personal demons from his childhood right up to his successes on the playing field. Owens represents all that is good about a child struggling to find his own identity against all odds. He grew up in very difficult circumstances his grandmother practically raising him.
He is a man trying to find a caliber of success that he can hang his hat on and be proud of, he already is probably the best wide receiver in the league right now, at least in terms of overall production. In maturity and as a public relations spokesperson he is probably the worst you could have.
I understand and I accept the very realization that Terrell Owens is our best playmaker, when all is on the line he is the one to make things happen. He makes critical plays and he wins football games. He also can lose football games as demonstrated against St. Louis with dropped passes and bobbling passes just recently against Chicago.
Still beyond a shadow of any doubt he remains the greatest offensive threat on the team, and probably in the NFL right now. He has a knack for making a play out of nothing and fighting his way through extraordinary tight coverage for a score when he needs to.
Mariucci though certainly does not deserve an attack publicly on his character suggesting that he throw games to appease his friends. He has been accused of being too conservative, and that is natural when players are so determined to take risks in order to win. But to be accused of losing to obtain long lasting friendships is outrageous to fathom.
Many players have had complaints; it is very natural for a player to vent frustration and anger towards a coach, hell even Jerry Rice the greatest receiver of all time has been seen ranting and raving on the sidelines and confronted Steve Mariucci on the sideline and in the office. But to go out and entertain the media behind Mariucci’s back, and say what he said without first saying it to the accused, is crossing the line.
“I have an open-door policy. Players can come to me and se me anytime, day or night,” Mariucci said. “If anyone of them ever wants to be involved in the game planning, they can have say; as long as they show up at 5 or 6 in the morning and stay until after 11 at night, every night for seven months.”
The endless time a head coach puts in and the extenuating length of time day in and day out is unbelievable. Putting his family on hold almost every single day seems to be a norm in many aspects of being a head coach. Mariucci is no different, and I firmly believe he is the best damn head coach we could possibly have in directing this team.
Mariucci has acknowledged that quarterbacks do have say in the game plan because of their unique knowledge of the offensive system. But he also implied that players need to have much more respect for the coaches that put in the time, studying opposing defenses and tendencies.
“As far as implementing the plan, evaluating the plan, judging the plan, unless you’re there, learning schemes and tendencies, knowing what we know, you play the game, period,” Mariucci said. “Unless they do that, they roll up their sleeves, pack up their lunch pails and come to work.” “That won’t change. That’s how you coach. That’s the way it is everywhere.”
The history between the 49er’s and Terrell Owens is a storied tale, it is also one that continues to be talked about and changed the way the game is celebrated on the field. Just one year ago, Mariucci suspended Owens for conduct detrimental to the team after the Pro Bowl receiver twice ran to midfield at Texas Stadium to celebrate touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys.
This sparked renewed national consensus about the nature of sportsmanship in all of professional sports. Owens was fined a week’s salary of more than $24,000; an amount that was later lowered in the off-season after Owens filed a grievance through the NFL Players Association.
Mariucci has not exercised this time disciplinary action; many have called for severe punishment even suggesting that Owens be traded. This kind of absurdity has damaged the overall image of the 49er’s, pitting a receiver against the head coach in some kind of shootout at the O.K. corral. This is something that can be worked out through management counseling and compromise; I honestly believe that Owens and Mariucci must come forth and try to find common ground with one another.
When answering about his commitment to defeating the Bears, he had no problem with doing so just last season, in the final home game of the season in which we defeated Dick Jauron’s Bears. In fact it was Mariucci who kept calling for pass plays to Owens in order for him to break an NFL record in that game.
“Being that I’m involved in the offense, I decide how much we run, how much we pass, if we go for it with 20 seconds left before the half. I decide that,” Mariucci said.
“I decide if a person is going to catch 20 passes in a football game. That’s up to me alone and I chose to go for that record because it’s so hard to attain.”
Needless to say this is not the first time Mariucci has had to deal with such an unpleasant situation, he has handled many of them in his tenure, as the 49er’s head coach. But damage control too often can take a wear and tear on one’s own psychological senses.
“It’s out there. Terrell said what he said,” left guard Ray Brown said before a practice. “Its not like you can reel it in and stuff it back in hi mouth.”
“It’s not something that’s going to tear this team apart,” Brown said. “We’re going to crack on him and clown him to bring him down a notch. This is a team sport and we can’t allow some things to surface. Now that it’s above ground, we have to deal with it.”
Mariucci became friends with Bears Coach Dick Jauron during their tenure as Green Bay Packers assistants from 1992-94. They have had a long-standing friendship. Mariucci is as competitive as they come; no one would imagine such a plot as to throw a game over a mere mutual relationship.
“When I read the newspapers this morning and heard KNBR, my first reaction was misquote, misprint, misunderstanding,” Mariucci said. “Then when I saw the same thing in 37 different newspapers, I gave you guys (the media) the benefit of the doubt.”
In a weekday meeting with the players he addressed the flurry of media activity Owens had created, but he ever came out and chided Owens for his blasting statement. He did on the other hand explained how often the media expands and fabricates on statements and makes them more damaging then they seem to be.
“This thing we’ve got going for us is we’ve got a head coach that knows how to handle that stuff,” defensive coordinator Jim Mora said. “He does a great job of handling any type of distraction that there is in the locker room. He’s great at it, so we’re lucky.”
“He does a really a good job of addressing problems without offending or putting anyone down,” linebacker Derek Smith said. “But he takes care of the situation at the same time.”
Certainly we need a veteran to speak to Owens in short term; this is when you marvel at how Jerry Rice would have reacted to this outburst, or a Ronnie Lott. Owens must set the standard; he must pick up the team and carry it forward. He is the player that all the young talent on this team admires and wants to duplicate.
Some may say that Owens was merely deflecting the spotlight on his dropped pass in overtime that gave the ball to safety Mike Brown, and ran it to the end zone. In all essence it is that very play that cost the game. Not Mariucci’s conservative approach to the game as labeled by some.
I am in firm conviction that Mariucci is striving to bring this team back to its glory days of old. Nothing is more weight bearing than an emotional loss in an overtime game. This game generated immense pressure on everyone involved especially the ones that could have made a difference in the outcome.
By making outspoken statements and tearing at the very fabric of this organization. Owens puts himself in a peculiar predicament in the locker room. Does every player accept this kind of behavior? Do they side step him and alienate him for his comments? Or do they try and fit the pieces back together and move on?
One great aspect of Terrell Owens is his honesty and integrity to admit when he is wrong, in the Sept. 23rd game against St. Louis he admitted he was wrong in multiple dropped passes. In the Oct. 28th game against Chicago he admitted he was responsible for that overtime dropped pass.
What really set Owens off though on the Chicago incident, is that the 49er’s should have won the game before going to overtime. It was the performance of the offense in its final three full possessions of regulation. On it’s most productive drive, the 49er’s moved 71-yards and settled for Jose Cortez’s 40-yard field goal.
After taking a 28-9 lead with 8:18 remaining in the third quarter, the 49er’s ran 22 offensive plays. Nine of them were running plays and 12 were passes, with Garcia taking a knee from the 49er’s 27-yard line with 22 seconds remaining to force overtime. Of those 12 passes that were called, Garcia threw eight times, was sacked once and he scrambled three times.
In comparison in the first half, Garcia dropped back to pass 21 times and the 49er’s attempted 13 runs, not including once when the quarterback knelt down to run out the clock. The incapability to make points on the final three drives and the inability to protect Jeff Garcia ruined their chances of winning in regulation.
“I think we lost all the way around the board,” Owens said, “offense, defense. Special teams the coaches. I know they’re probably beating themselves over the head, as well. I’m not going to get over this until next Sunday. The week is going to be slow for me.”
And so it was too slow causing Owens to spew so many unethical remarks about his head coach and causing self imposed damage on to his own team. There is every indication that Owens is having a difficult time dealing with the fact that he is the team’s No. 1 offensive weapon. The weight of that responsibility has challenged him in every degree imaginable.
“I try to put myself in Jerry’s shoes,” Owens said. “I know he had a lot of pressure that he had to shoulder and I’m like, 'How did he handle it?’ It’s very evident I’m a vital part of this offense. You take me out of this offense and it’s like you miss production. I take pride in being part of that.”
When he thinks back on the Chicago game, he demanded the blame be put on him, he sat in front of his locker for about 90 minutes after the game was over. But this time it was different from his St. Louis experience. Although he should have caught the ball, he said his concentration problems have been shored up since that Rams game.
“It was just a mishap,” said Owens, who immediately came back to the team’s practice facility to watch the film and said he determined that his knee popped the ball loose up into the air. “I mean, up until that point, I was feeling good about catching the ball. I’m catching the ball well. I can honestly say it wasn’t a flat out drop.”
“I’m one to be honest with myself. I’m one to admit my feelings. If I did something to really let the team down, then I’m going to admit that. I did that after St. Louis. This was just a mishap.”
As the fallout continued all week concerning Owens and his statement, criticism became a common ground aspect of his time. Many still believe that Owens should face fines or even suspension, but the 49er organization continues to show no ill will towards Owens.
“I took a lot of criticism this week,” Owens said, “and no matter how bad the coach makes me look, or no matter how bad the media tries to make me look, I talked to my family, as long as I got my family on my side, my teammates, and the Lord on my side, it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m gonna play as hard as I can, go out and that’s gonna be my attitude the rest of the year.” When he was questioned as to how the coach might make him feel bad he responded: “I don’t want to even get into it,” Owens said. “You know what I mean. I mean, I look at TV this morning, everybody criticizing me for standing up for just wanting to win. If wanting to win real badly is wrong, then I don’t even wanna be right.”
In the following Sunday on Nov. 4th as the 49er’s hosted the winless Detroit Lions and their former offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, the tension between the coach and receiver was as thick as it ever has been. The 49er’s had three turnovers in this game, a game that was very important in the aspect that the 49er’s had just come off from a horrific overtime loss. And now they faced a starving team that was struggling for its very first win of the season, they almost got one.
But it was Terrell Owens who put this game away as he caught two second half touchdown passes from Jeff Garcia, winning 21-13 that Sunday. Owens caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Garcia early in the third quarter to put the 49er’s ahead for good. He added a seven-yard scoring catch early in the fourth quarter to cap an 87-yard drive.
By defeating Detroit the 49er’s improved their record to (5-2). But before, during and after the game the Cold War between Mariucci and Owens continued.
“We flopped around for awhile, but we did the things we had to do to win this game,” Mariucci said. “I had a sense in the first quarter there was a hangover from the week before.”
When Owens wasn’t on the field playing, he sat alone at the end of the bench, covering himself with a hooded jacket. After the game, Owens tersely answered “No,” when asked if things would ever again be good between him and his coach.
Mariucci was very sparse on words as well when mention of Owens came up. Of the nine catches, 125-yard performance, the coach said: “He played well. That’s what you want to see.”
Whatever you think of this episode turned feud between a player and his coach, you have to weigh all the possibilities and scenario’s. Owens was clearly out of line with his comments; there is a forum where he could have presented his case to Mariucci himself. He chose not to do that and publicly embarrass the coach, the team and himself. I believe that was punishment in itself as he is the one that is left to answer all the questions.
Owens popularity in the locker room is anything but upbeat, there are many that view him as a spoiled rotten player that is arrogant and very conceited. And there are teammates that believe he is still struggling to find his own identity, plus take on the role as a leader in the offense.
Mariucci has already called on Owens for a truce to the conflict, and I am confident that he will work very hard to be acceptable to Owens, and at least be civil to one another. Maybe with time Owens will realize and understand that Mariucci has all his best interests at heart.
“Turn the page,” Mariucci said Monday at the conclusion of his 30-minute weekly press briefing. “This football team is 5-2. That should, in itself, be quite a story. And I know that this whole thing might seem a little juicy to you guys. Maybe your editors would like you to keep stirring it up a little bit, because it’s different. But cut the guy some slack.”
“We have some similarities, believe it or not,” Mariucci said. “In some ways we’re alike, because when he comes to work, he gives us a full day’s work, which I hope I do too. He wants to win. We both have the same goal in mind for this football team. We may happen to view things differently.”
However the mood did not change much as Owens admitted his relationship with Mariucci is less then ideal, and does not expect it to change. “It’s been that way since he’s been here, since we’ve been together,” Owens said. “Four or five years, it hasn’t changed. I don’t think it’s going to change.”
But what must be emphasized is that it must change for the sake of the team and for the sake of stability within the offensive ranks. Mariucci has also sounded with mixed feelings as to how to go about repairing the relationship that is purely contract related.
“I don’t know if there’s anything that I can do, personally or one-on-one, to alter any of his feelings or his beliefs,” Mariucci said. “He has some strong feelings one way, and I may have some strong feelings the other way.”
What is the most important factor is that both must acknowledge that they have to coexist for the benefit of the team, especially if they are to make any post-season run at anything. Both bring a substance that is unmatched to this team, at the same time Owens must come to accept the decisions of the head coach and live by them.
Mariucci seems to be trying to reach out and make some kind of attempt to establish a connection, but the bitter feelings will be difficult to suppress. The coach in regards to his authority has been questioned and the backlash has been hard to deal with.
“Of course I don’t like having my integrity challenged,” Mariucci said. “But on the other hand, you got a lot of different personalities on this team. It takes all kinds to make the world.” “Some people express themselves differently than others and better than others. If it were a situation where he just shut it down and quit playing for this organization, that would be a different story. That has not happened.”
One of the handicaps this team will face is resolution of this problem, even though Owens is signed right up to 2006, it is paramount that some sort of compromise and understanding is made of the standing tensions these two have of each other.
I go on record as do many that Terrell Owens is an athlete still trying to understand his real role on this team, he has had to grow up very fast with the departure of Jerry Rice. He has had ample time to prepare but he is obviously still having great difficulty in executing what is expected of him, he has allowed outside emotions and frustrations to fester within himself and has broke the cardinal rule in blasting everyone including the head coach to the media.
I believe Terrell must be brought into the main office and told of his behavior and its devastating effects on the organization as a whole. Mariucci is the undisputed teacher of this team, he must be adhered to and it must be done with a reverence of respect. Owens at the same time must be given the time, to say how he feels in a private forum using the chain of command.
Getting back to last Sunday’s victory over Detroit, I must say that I am again proud of Quarterback Jeff Garcia and his incredible ability to overcome adversity. Wearing a knee brace after his injury in Chicago he went out on the field last Sunday and he still completed 26 of 35 passes for 296-yards and three touchdowns in a 21-13 victory over the Detroit Lions.
His limited mobility posed a feeding frenzy for the Lion defense and they were able to make penetration and feast on him. He ran for only seven yards on five carries and gave up a crucial fumble in the fourth quarter. This play I must add was totally unnecessary and career threatening as he ran up the middle to obtain yardage headfirst.
Believe it or not Garcia entering this game was the 49er’s third leading rusher with 213-yards and three touchdowns. After injuring his right knee he was listed as questionable for this particular game.
The 49er’s in turn changed their format of play calling for this game to allow Garcia to stay in the pocket more and throw the ball. He was stubborn though in allowing the staff to totally change their philosophy in the way they usually advance the play calling.
“It was a little bit restricting,” Garcia said. “This is new to me. I didn’t feel like I had my usual mobility. But the brace and the tape did the job, my leg really held up well.”
“He did OK and he didn’t re-injure himself,” 49er’s Coach Steve Mariucci said of Garcia. “We asked Jeff if he wanted us to limit the plays involving him running the ball. He told us, 'If I’m feeling OK jut dial a few up.’ He seemed to be OK.”
Garcia did throw two interceptions, including one in the first quarter that was returned by Robert Bailey 74-yards for a touchdown that gave the Lions a 7-0 lead. He also lost the ball at the Detroit 34 with 9:34 left in the game; with the 49er’s clinging to a 21-13 lead.
But the Garcia and Owens connection came into place; Garcia made enough plays to offset his mistakes. His pinpoint 30-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens in the back of the end zone with 10:21 left in the third quarter put the 49er’s ahead to stay. He connected with Owens again on a 7-yard scoring pass that gave the 49er’s a 21-13 lead 38 seconds into the fourth quarter.
It was a victory that came with learning from mistakes made, it was a dangerous game to say the least because you really didn’t know what Lions team was going to show up on the field. Being without a win and hungry made this game that ominous from the beginning.
This was yet another game that was proof of what Terrell Owens brings to this game; he clings to the notion that no matter what as long as he has his family and God he will prevail. Those are great sentiments to live by, and I commend him for his efforts.
I just pray that somehow he will be accepted into the 49er family with open arms and an open mind as he continues his journey with us, hopefully into a post-season playoff berth.
It would be genuine and comforting if recognition would come via both coach and player as the season wears on. I hope I am able to see it, I also hope Owens realizes the consequences of his verbal tirades and looks inside himself and practices what he preaches for the victory will come for his team.