With his team trailing by 22 points and 50 seconds remaining in the first half of a divisional playoff at Tampa Bay last January, 49ers coach Steve Mariucci watched halfback Garrison Hearst run nine yards to the San Francisco 40-yard line, swallowed his two remaining timeouts and ordered his players to the locker room. Several roared their disapproval; quarterback Jeff Garcia seethed. "There was a sense of giving up," he says, recalling one of the more ignominious moments in franchise history. "It showed the blood that was starting to pour out of us, and it took away some of our hunger to come back and try to win."
Gone in 50 Seconds would have been a fitting title for the 49ers' 2002 highlight film, with Mariucci's decision to kill the clock halfway through his team's 31-6 defeat by the Buccaneers as the lasting image of a mercurial season. Gone was the glow of San Francisco's stirring 24-point comeback win in the wild-card playoff against the Giants the previous week. Gone, three days after the Tampa Bay game, was Mariucci, fired by owner John York.
No one suggested that the Niners, who finished the season 11-7 (including playoffs), would have beaten the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs had San Francisco scored before halftime, but Mariucci's passivity was fuel for the coach's critics. "It was almost like a dog getting whupped, and he tucked his tail between his legs," says All-Pro wideout Terrell Owens. "When people come up with reasons why he was fired, a lot of them refer to that game. I think now we'll be more aggressive, more creative."
That's because York and general manager Terry Donahue replaced Mariucci with former Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson, who brings a vertical twist to the West Coast offense. Erickson retained Mariucci's offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp, and kept the terminology installed by system architect Bill Walsh, who remains as a front-office consultant. Yet Erickson says there will be changes. "I'm different than Steve in terms of our personalities and some of our philosophies," he says. Consider this 56-year-old golf enthusiast's Tin Cup style on the links: "I'm not going to lay up. I'm going to try to hit it over the water every time."
Garcia is all for that approach. Though he was a Pro Bowl selection for the third straight year in 2002, Garcia had only 21 touchdown passes after having thrown 63 in the previous two seasons combined. Owens, football's preeminent receiver, had a personal-best 100 catches, but the 49ers averaged a mere 6.26 yards per pass attempt, one of the lowest figures in franchise history. "The system hasn't changed, but the emphasis has," says Garcia, who has been slowed in training camp by a bulging disk in his back. "In different ways Coach Erickson has said, Let's not be afraid to put the ball downfield, to make things happen."
Erickson says there will be more single-back sets and two-tight-end formations. He'll run the ball out of three-wideout sets and put players such as Owens and punishing fullback Fred Beasley, the key to the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack, in motion more often. Also, Garcia will be encouraged to audible, particularly when Owens gets single coverage and there's an opportunity to throw deep.
That should please Garcia and Owens, both of whom criticized Mariucci in previous seasons for sitting on leads. "I don't think any lead is safe," says Erickson, who as Seahawks coach from 1995 through '98 went 31-33 before returning to the college ranks and transforming Oregon State from a patsy into a Fiesta Bowl winner in 2000.
There's a sense of urgency surrounding defending NFC West champion San Francisco. Owens's potential free-agent departure—the outspoken star may be too expensive for York's cost-conscious tastes—is one more reason for the 49ers to force the issue in 2003. "Fans are going to see something different on the field, an aggressiveness on both sides of the ball," Garcia insists. "We want to be the killer, instead of being the one waiting around for someone to die."
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