Carried all day by halfback Garrison Hearst, who finished with 128 yards on 22 carries, the Niners' offense now needed Young and his trio of talented receivers, Owens, Jerry Rice and J.J. Stokes, to win the game. The situation appeared grim: Young, shaky from the start, had thrown two interceptions, including a horrible floater to linebacker George Koonce that had killed a scoring opportunity late in the first half; Owens had fumbled away his first reception and had three blatant drops, one in the end zone and another that would have extended a potential game-clinching drive; and then, on the final drive, Rice fumbled after making his only catch of the day. Green Bay recovered the ball, but an official ruled that Rice was down. Throw in some poor clock management and a near interception by Packers cornerback Craig Newsome on the play preceding Owens's spectacular catch, and the Niners looked more like dust than destiny.
The whole stadium inhaled. Mariucci called Three-Jet All-Go, and four receivers bolted for the end zone. Owens, from the right slot, faked outside, froze Butler and cut back to the post. Some Niners couldn't bear to watch; they weren't alone. In a perfect metaphor for San Francisco's management void, DeBartolo, whose view of the Catch had been blocked by a police horse, left his luxury box to go to the bathroom. Either the man is astonishingly nervous, or when he's got to go, he's really got to go. Then, bedlam: Owens caught the ball and burst into tears. Young danced, McDonald dropped to his knees. Gayle Mariucci bolted from her luxury box and headed toward the field, where she would eventually hug her husband. And DeBartolo kept right on peeing. "What, you want me to screw up my prostate?" he said later.
No one was more relieved than Mariucci, who, despite a 26-8 record, spent the early part of last week worried sick about his job. "It just beats you down," he conceded last Friday. "It gets old, constantly defending myself and my team, but that's how it is around here." Mariucci is under contract through 2001, but when negotiations for an extension stalled in mid-December, rumors abounded that Holmgren, a former Niners offensive coordinator, was in line to take over—especially if the Packers beat San Francisco again. Worse for Mariucci, there was no one in the Niners' front office available to quash the speculation. Acting owner Denise DeBartolo York was in Italy, acting president Larry Thrailkill was in Tennessee, and DeBartolo, who in November pleaded no contest in Louisiana to a felony charge of failing to report a serious crime, has been told by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to remain in the background.
On Monday, Mariucci finally got his vote of confidence. Reached at his Brentwood, Tenn., law office, Thrailkill said, "Steve Mariucci is our football coach. We're not looking for anybody else to coach our team, and the game on Sunday had nothing to do with that."
The moving vans, for now, will have to go elsewhere.