December 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM
The most significant sign of the 49ers emergence as a complete football game came from Steve Mariucci moments before the kickoff on Sunday. Asked by a sideline reporter about the Jeff Garcia’s injury, Mariucci stated that the 49ers would play conservative on offense.
“This will be a low scoring game,” he said.
That statement would never have been uttered last year or even early this year. You can only play conservative on offense if you know that your defense will control the other team. In so many words, what Mariucci was really saying was, “Our defense will have to win this game for us.”
That’s exactly what happened Sunday, no more so than on the goal line stand in the fourth quarter that denied the Eagles the endzone despite seven plays from inside the three-yard line. Derek Smith’s interception not only denied Philadelphia a chip shot field goal, but created the first major momentum swing of a low scoring, prodding game. The offense rode that momentum 80 yards to the game’s first touchdown – courtesy of two big plays from Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia.
Jeff Garcia performance was nothing short of courageous – even more so if John Madden’s contention (that Garcia was playing with a cracked rib, not torn rib cartilage) is true. The offense was very conservative early, but it made enough plays to win. Hearst and Barlow had another solid effort.
It sounds like the enmity between Steve Mariucci and Terry Donahue is real, although Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com reported that it shouldn’t lead to Mooch splitting town before his contract. Mariucci desires more power over personnel matters – like his former coaching partner in Green Bay, Andy Reid. He is also a little bitter over the lack of appreciation and praise from the 49ers’ brass for the teams’ suprising playoff run this year. However, Mariucci is very attached to this team, and the feeling is that he has every intention of riding out this rebuilding project. Hopefully, he will.
Besides Jeff Garcia’s entire right side, the 49ers have a few more injuries to address in the final two games. Terrell Owens is having foot problems, Fred Beasley has a broken hand, and Chike Okeafor has a broken leg. John Engelberger is also banged up.
There is a good chance that the 49ers may rest all of them the next two games. Look at it this way: even without the injured starters, the 49ers should beat Dallas. That would leave them 12-3. Then, the worst the 49ers could finish would be 12-4. The NFC West crown is out of reach – the Rams would have to lose both of their remaining games against inferior teams. Won’t happen. Of the wildcard teams, only Green Bay could match a 12-4 record. And to do so, they would have to win both of their remaining games against Minnesota and the N.Y. Giants. Could they do it? Sure. But I’d rather play at Green Bay with a fully healthy team than at Candlestick with a banged up one. Garcia is so banged up right now that he is playing at less than 50 percent, and we need him healthy to have any chance of making a playoff run.
If the news that Garcia has a cracked rib is true, it is disheartening, because that will not be 100 percent by January 13, no matter what Garcia does the next two games. But it certainly will not help to expose him to any more hits before the first playoff game.
I say: rest the team for the next two weeks, and hope that we have enough left to beat Dallas. We should.
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