Rich Walcoff, host of the postgame show on the San Francisco 49ers' flagship radio station, KGO, was fielding calls in the wake of the team's season-opening 36-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. WALCOFF: "It's Bob's turn in Gilroy. Make me smile somehow, Bob." BOB: "I think people shouldn't be so negative. First, the 49ers are one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Second, they had a lot of guys hurt in the preseason and this is just the first game. We should be positive. I think the quarterback [ Jeff Garcia] did a great job. Sure, maybe he moves around a little too much, but he was under pressure. Overall, I thought he did a tremendous job."
WALCOFF: "Bob, you know your stuff. It sounds like you might be a coach."
BOB: "I am. I'm Jeff's dad."
Twelve weeks have passed since Bob Garcia called to defend his son. Jeff still cringes when asked about it. He understands his father's motivation—most of the calls that preceded Bob's included criticisms of Jeff, who, by the way, had produced decent numbers against Atlanta (23 completions in 36 attempts for 253 yards and three touchdowns with one interception). But as Jeff has reminded his father, the old man doesn't need to fight to get respect for his son. Jeff is doing a pretty good job of disarming the critics by himself.
Garcia has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NFL this season and one of the few positives on a Niners team that, even after a 16-6 win over the Falcons on Nov. 19, is 4-8. He is third in the league with 24 touchdown passes, is fourth in passer rating (98.7) and has thrown only seven interceptions. In fact, after Garcia passed for 336 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-28 loss at Green Bay on Oct. 15, Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler called him one of the top five quarterbacks in the league.
"I know people didn't expect this out of me," says the 30-year-old Garcia, "but I also know that wherever I've been, I've found a way to scratch and claw my way to being one of the better quarterbacks."
Being a good quarterback is one thing. Being a good San Francisco quarterback is quite another. Though Garcia's numbers would be relished in most NFL cities, Niners fans were spoiled by Joe Montana and Steve Young. Even 49ers coach Steve Mariucci and general manager Bill Walsh, who called Garcia the franchise's quarterback of the future when he signed him as a free agent from the Canadian Football League in February 1999, wavered in their support early this season. Mariucci benched Garcia in the fourth quarter of a 38-22 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 10 and the following day intimated that he might start Rick Mirer in that week's game against the St. Louis Rams. An irked Garcia kept his job, and over the next seven games he completed 63.7% of his passes while throwing 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
"I believe Coach Mariucci could have stopped the talk that week [about whether Garcia or Mirer should start] by sticking by his quarterback," Garcia says. "Until that point I thought I was that guy. But then there were doubts coming from the head coach, and as much as I wanted to talk to him about that, I decided I was going to go out and become a better quarterback."
At first glance Garcia doesn't appear to be anything special. He is generously listed at 6'1" and 195 pounds, and his arm strength is ordinary. "Because I look so average, people sometimes think I don't have it in me to be above average," he says. Garcia often uses his instincts and his mobility to make plays, and though he doesn't lack confidence, he doesn't exude it either. While dining in a San Jose restaurant recently, he often rambled, sounding like a candidate in a political debate who has much to say but only a short time to squeeze in everything. He competes with a similar sense of urgency.
Garcia, who grew up in Gilroy, a town 60 miles south of San Francisco, understands how quickly life can change. Thirteen months before he was born, Jeff's mom, Linda, delivered twin girls four weeks prematurely. They died the next day. On Mother's Day 1977, when Jeff was seven, Linda miscarried. Two weeks later his six-year-old brother, Jason, drowned during a family vacation in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. In July of the following year, Jeff's five-year-old sister, Kimberly, tumbled out of the back of a dump truck used in the family's gravel business and died from massive internal injuries. Linda says sometimes her son competes so hard that it appears he is trying to erase his family's pain through his play.