Well, maybe bitter isn't the right word. On Sunday afternoon, one day after his team had defeated the Minnesota Vikings 38-22 and 30 minutes after Green Bay had beaten the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-7 in the divisional playoffs, Steve Mariucci asked a reporter to hold his fire while the San Francisco coach checked his voice mail. As Mariucci cradled the receiver to his ear, a grin flashed across his game-show-host face.
Without benefit of a speakerphone, a shouting voice was audible: "Moocher! The Pack against the 49ers! We're coming!" The Klaxon-voiced caller was Andy Reid, the Packers' quarterbacks coach, which, incidentally, was Mariucci's title during his four-year stint with Green Bay from 1992 through '95. During that time Mariucci made plenty of friends, none closer than Favre, who lived a block away and whose daughter, Brittany, rode the bus with Mariucci's son, Stephen, to the Catholic school where they were first-graders. In the fall of '95, a few weeks after Mariucci's wife, Gayle, gave birth to their daughter, Brielle, Favre stopped by for a visit, nuzzled the infant, then, holding her high in the air, said, "Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, 'Why the long face?'"
"Every time I see Mariucci, I tell him that joke, and every time he laughs," Favre said after Sunday's game. "I'll walk up to him on the field before the game this week and tell him that joke, and I promise you, he'll laugh."
Forgive Mariucci if that laugh is forced. The tension at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara will be higher than usual this week. It is all well and good that Mariucci's squad went 13-3 in his rookie season as an NFL coach, and bully for him for winning his first playoff game. But Mariucci knows better than anyone"it was unstated, but understood," he saysthat Sunday's game at 3Com Park is the one he was hired to win.
You didn't have to see Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and his bodyguard rough up two Packers fans outside Lambeau Field last JanuaryGreen Bay had just beaten Eddie D's boys for the third straight time, knocking them out of the playoffs for the second consecutive seasonto know that the 49ers' owner was in a bad mood. Twelve days later coach George Seifert was nudged out in favor of Mariucci; offensive coordinator Marc Trestman was likewise whacked.
San Francisco's other off-season changes were surgical, not sweeping. The team's most notable free-agent signings were running back Garrison Hearst and 6'7", 325-pound guard Kevin Gogan. Quarterback Steve Young was informed that he would be handing off more than at any other time in his career. There has been no arguing with the results: After suffering a concussion in the opener, Young, 36, made it through the season unscathed, partly because he threw lessonly two NFL teams attempted fewer passes than San Francisco did this seasonand partly because he has curbed his machismo. He finally realizes there is no shame in avoiding tacklers by sliding to the ground or stepping out of bounds.
Before cracking his left clavicle at the end of a 45-yard run against the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 30, Hearst became the first 49er to rush for more than 1,000 yards since Ricky Watters did so in 1992. "I'm ready to go, they just won't let me play," groused Hearst after a practice last week. (Doctors had said that if Hearst played against the Vikings, he had a 50-50 chance of reinjuring his collarbone.) Turns out the Niners didn't need him because backup Terry Kirby was terrific. Kirby, who doesn't hit the hole as fast as Hearst but who is a better outside runner, rushed for a career-high 120 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries last Saturday. Hearst, who underwent an X-ray on Monday and was scheduled to have a CT scan on Thursday, is all but certain to start against Green Bay.
Hearst's return should help San Francisco sustain clock-consuming drives, thus idling a certain Mississippian. "We want to keep Favre off the field," says 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer. "The best defense is the one standing on the sideline."
Will Mariucci's familiarity with Favre give the Niners an edge in trying to shut down the three-time league MVP? Believe this: The guys who hired him were counting on it. "I don't think it matters one bit," says Favre. "I mean, I don't know what I'm going to do out there. How would he?"
After seeing some of the slapstick stunts the San Francisco secondary pulled against Minnesota, it isn't hard to guess what part of the Niners' defense Favre will attack. There was Vikings wideout Cris Carter scoring the first of his two touchdowns on a 66-yard first-quarter bomb after free safety Merton Hanks bit hard on a play-action fake. There was Jake Reed pulling down a 53-yard bomb over 5'11" nickelback Tyronne Drakeford. What's more, cornerback Marquez Pope, who missed 11 games with a foot injury, has been rusty since his return five weeks ago, and corner Rod Woodson, who strained his left calf against the Vikings, has been repeatedly flagged for pass interference and holding. While San Francisco expected Woodson to be a team leader when they signed him last June, the club didn't know he would be a leader in penalties. The 32-year-old, seven-time Pro Bowl player has been penalized a dozen times this season, including once for interference on Sunday.
"He's not as agile as he once was," says 49ers secondary coach Jim Mora Jr. "He's got to hold and grab a little bit more, and he's getting caught some." Mora also believes Woodson's "belligerence" toward the officials over the course of his 11-year career, the first 10 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, may be working against him. "I think [the officials] are pissed at him a little bit."
"There's no question you can move the ball on these guys," Carter said after Saturday's game. "But you have to be able to run and pass. You have to do a better job of keeping them off balance than we did."
Two San Francisco defensive players in particular are determined to keep their balanceand prevent Green Bay running back Dorsey Levens from gashing the Niners the way he did the Bucs (112 yards and one touchdown). Tackle Bryant Young, slowed by an ankle injury this season, is now close to full strength. His colleague Dana Stubblefield had 15 sacks this season, a huge number for an interior lineman, and was named the NFL's defensive player of the year. Unlike Green Bay's solar-eclipsing noseguard, Gilbert Brown, both Stubblefield and Young have the stamina to play the whole game.
In their emotional 34-17 Monday-night win over the Denver Broncos on Dec. 15, the 49ers threw off John Elway's timing with uncharacteristically frequent blitzes. Do they draw up a similar game plan for Favre? Mariucci was lukewarm to the idea. "If you have a real sharp quarterback who audibles well and hits his quick throws well, like Brett, then you think twice about blitzing." Defensive coordinator John Marshall hedged, saying he never goes into a game "planning to blitz a lot." Don't believe it. Look for the Niners to blitz their brains out.
A pair of plays on Sunday served as reminders of how futile it is to plan for Favre's out-of-pocket freelancing. On Green Bay's first scoring drive, Favre looked left, only to find that primary receiver Derrick Mayes had been knocked down. Favre pumped in that direction anyway, then spun around. As he rolled to his right, he threw a 26-yard strike to Antonio Freeman. Four plays later Favre was flushed from the pocket before rifling a bullet to tight end Mark Chmura for the game's first touchdown.
Most Packers opponents spend the week before the game talking about the importance of keeping Favre in the pocket. San Francisco strong safety Tim McDonald refuses to buy into it: He's too smart. "People talk about it, but then they can never do it," he says. "He's going to break the containment. You have to try to make him one-dimensional"by taking a big early lead or stopping the run, or both.
Or you can hope that his receivers drop the ball, as happened five times against Tampa Bay. But Favre was partly to blame because he's throwing serious gas these days. "The week off really gave my arm life," he said of the Packers' first-round bye while inhaling toasted ravioli in a Green Bay restaurant last Friday night. "I tore up Derrick Mayes's thumb in practice the other day. And I threw a ball that went right through [linebacker] Seth Joyner's face mask and bruised his eye." Which prompted coach Mike Holmgren to ask Favre, "Are you trying to kill our players?"
After Sunday's game Joyner marveled at Favre's arm strength. "Imagine how hard he must be throwing for the nose of the ball to come through my mask and [for the ball to] compress enough so the point hits me in the eye. I was in a lot of pain. I thought there was permanent damage." He pulled his helmet out of his locker. "See, I put a new cage on it, with more bars," he said. "Favre's not going to do that to me again."
Favre's not going to do that to me again. You couldn't have blamed Mariucci if he'd made an identical vow around the time of his second Thanksgiving as a Packers assistant. While Favre acknowledges that Mariucci has a keen football mind, he also points out, with glee, that his friend and former position coach "is the only person in NFL historyand this is a coach we're talking about, not some rookiewho's fallen for the Thanksgiving turkey trick twice. The one where you leave a notice for the rookies that there's a free turkey for them at the grocery store, and they show up and the store has no idea what they're talking about. Mooch fell for it one year, and when we did it to him again the next year, he fell for it again!"
When these friends meet at midfield after the game this Sunday, there will be no need for the winner to ask the loser, Why the long face?
Issue date: January 12, 1998
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