For all of their celebrated clashes, coach Steve Mariucci and star wideout Terrell Owens share a remarkably similar vision of the 49ers' prospects: After an impressive reclamation project lifted San Francisco from salary-cap hell to a 12-4 record and a playoff berth last season, the only thing that could keep the Niners from bigger and better things is a continuation of this perplexingly petty player-coach feud.
Quietly, the franchise that was the first to win five Super Bowls and that put together the best record in each of the past two decades has snuck back into the league's VIP room. The 49ers have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Jeff Garcia, a formidable ground game keyed by inspirational running back Garrison Hearst and a fast, young defense that continues to improve. In Owens they also have a passionate, moody and rebellious game-breaker who may be the NFL's best receiver.
"We're getting our mojo back, and we have a chance to do some exciting things," Mariucci says. "The chemistry is great; I felt it was very important to keep this team together. When it comes down to it, TO and I want the same things—to move past this and try to win a championship."
Thus the team's most significant off-season move came in April, when Mariucci flew to Atlanta and had a lengthy conversation with Owens in an airport hotel conference room. Their clear-the-air meeting, if not compelling the two to buy matching friendship bracelets, at least produced the promise of a peaceful coexistence. "The way I look at it is, he and I will be together for at least another year and a half," Owens says. "I can stick that out, because I know how special this team can be."
In the wake of the Niners' 25-15 loss at Green Bay in the first round of the playoffs last January, it seemed likely that either Owens or Mariucci—or both—would leave San Francisco. Owens was embittered after catching just four passes against the Packers; a long Garcia throw that could have given the Niners a go-ahead score with five minutes remaining was tipped away from Owens and intercepted at Green Bay's seven-yard line. "In my mind," says Owens, "however many inches short that pass was, that's how close we were to maybe winning it all."
After the game, according to The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, center Jeremy Newberry told Owens to shut his mouth or risk physical harm. Owens confirms a USA Today report that he called his agent from the locker room, saying he wanted out of San Francisco. (The team declined agent Dave Joseph's subsequent request to make Owens available in the expansion draft.)
Mariucci, meanwhile, flew to Tampa a few days after the playoff loss to talk to the Bucs about their coaching job. Though Tampa Bay ended up prying Jon Gruden from the Raiders instead, the fact that Mariucci's employers gave him permission to pursue the job spoke volumes. Mariucci has two years left on his contract, and owner's representative John York says he won't discuss an extension until after this season. "I love coaching this team," Mariucci says. "I love these players, and there's so much more work to do."
What kind of bargaining power the coach enjoys will depend upon both how many victories and how much harmony he can achieve. Niners fans, after all, aren't the only ones sick of the sniping between Mariucci and Owens. "All that bitching and moaning hurt us as a team," says one offensive player. "After a while we were saying, 'I wish those two would stop crying.' "
Much of the conflict centers on ball distribution: Owens, despite catching 93 passes including an NFL-best 16 touchdowns in 2001, would like a more wide-open offense. Mariucci, noting that the 49ers had the league's second-ranked rushing attack, believes Owens can be productive within the "natural flow" of a balanced offense.
"If you're a smart enough coach, you know your playmakers," Owens says. "If you're really zoned in on winning, you go to the people who impact the game. Just like Phil Jackson—he knows the ball has to go through Shaq. I'm not so dominant, but I want them to make me the person you either win or lose with. You'd just have to be ignorant not to do that."