Shortly after he hired 41-year-old whiz kid Steve Mariucci as
his new head coach, 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo was asked how
long he would give Mariucci to grow into the job.
"Two weeks," DeBartolo said.
It was a joke, but it underlined the sense of urgency that has
gripped San Francisco. Just ask Mariucci's predecessor, George
Seifert, who was forced out after going 11-5 and 12-4 the past
two seasons. With two straight early exits in the playoffs and a
core of players who are quickly growing creaky, the 49ers are
facing a critical year as they seek to return to their
accustomed spot atop the NFL. Charged with invigorating the team
is Mariucci, who has been a head coach for all of 12 games--all
at the University of California, all last season--and who was
last seen losing to Navy in the Aloha Bowl. The defeat dropped
his career record to 6-6.
"It's a roll of the dice," says DeBartolo, "but you can't stay
The Niners haven't. They have six new coaches in addition to
Mariucci, and the game plan has changed. "You're going to see a
little bit different style of offense," says Mariucci. "We may
attempt to be more physical with a bigger, stronger offensive
line and a more productive running game." Mariucci, a disciple
of the West Coast offense who worked for four years as
quarterbacks coach under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, adds, "I
love to wing it, but there's part of me that loves to wear
Last season it was the 49ers wearing down, particularly
35-year-old quarterback Steve Young, who had two concussions,
plus injuries to his ribs and groin. When he was healthy enough
to throw the ball, it was usually for a short pass. Mariucci
says he sees no value in using Jerry Rice, who averaged a
career-low 11.6 yards per catch in '96, as a short-yardage
To facilitate the pocket passing game, the offensive line has
been revamped. Only left guard Ray Brown is in the same position
he was in last season. Harris Barton has moved from right tackle
to left, making room for eight-year veteran Kirk Scrafford. And
free-agent pickup Kevin Gogan has stepped in at right guard,
bumping veteran Chris Dalman to center. That gives the 49ers
lots of beef on the line. "We're going to bury the opponent
physically," says Mariucci.
If the 49ers hope to improve their ground game, they'll need a
better running back. While the versatile Terry Kirby was a nice
acquisition last year, his meager 559 rushing yards made it
clear he was not the answer. Enter free agent Garrison Hearst
from the Cardinals, who is a tantalizingly explosive runner,
though you wouldn't know it from his 3.8 yards per carry and
one rushing touchdown over the past two years. Still, he has
gained 1,917 yards over that span, and San Francisco is
expecting big things from him. "Garrison offers us a real
threat," says Young. "We need the perception of a strong running
game." The question is, are Hearst's talents real or perceived?
The defense is more settled. The line, led by young tackles Dana
Stubblefield and Bryant Young, remains one of the league's best.
Look for the pair to wreak even more havoc this season--each of
them is in the final year of his contract.
Ken Norton, coming off a stellar season during which he led the
team in tackles, will again be the heart of the linebacking
corps. He will be charged with chaperoning outside linebacker
Kevin Mitchell, who started three times last season and has
bumped 37-year-old warrior Gary Plummer to special teams.
The secondary has to be shored up in a big way, as inconsistent
Tyronne Drakeford will move over for seven-time Pro Bowl
cornerback Rod Woodson, who was all but signed at press time.
Woodson's knees have been balky, but he'll get some relief
playing on the grass at Candlestick. The rest of the crew,
anchored by strong safety Tim McDonald, has been solid.
It is a critical year for the whole team. The 49ers have won 12
division titles in the past 16 seasons, but they have been
unseated by Carolina, which swept the teams' two meetings last
year. The Niners have also been coming out on the short end of
their budding rivalry with Green Bay, which has bounced them
from the playoffs two years in a row.
San Francisco has much to prove, and no one knows it better than
the new coach, who is in the same boat. According to Mariucci,
DeBartolo told him just two things when he took over.
"Congratulations" was one. The other? "Just win championships."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER COVER [REGIONAL] Call to Arms Can Steve Young rally the 49ers back to the top?
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH With uncertainty on offense, the sure defense of Pope should be a blessing. [Marquez Pope in game]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 12-4 (second in NFC West)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 115.4 (10) 228.7 (7) 344.1 (6)
DEFENSE 93.6 (5) 197.8 (11) 291.3 (7)
The Ones Who Got Away
Five 1996 49ers made it to Honolulu in February. But San
Francisco had more former players selected to last season's Pro
Bowl (six) than any other team (Miami and Philadelphia were
second, with four apiece). That is not so much an indictment of
the 49ers' front office as it is evidence of how difficult free
agency and the salary cap have made it for teams to retain star
Former 49ers Selected to the 1997 Pro Bowl
Year(s) Mode of
Player Position in S.F. departure 1996 team
Eric Davis CB 1990-95 Free agency Panthers
Bill Romanowski LB 1988-93 Trade Broncos
Deion Sanders CB 1994 Free agency Cowboys
Wesley Walls TE 1989-93 Free agency Panthers
Ricky Watters RB 1991-94 Free agency Eagles
Alfred Williams DE 1995 Free agency Broncos
PLAYER TO WATCH
The heir apparent to Jerry Rice may be sophomore Terrell Owens,
like Rice a small-school (Tennessee-Chattanooga) product with an
exemplary work ethic. Owens's Velcro hands and fearlessness
across the middle have earned the 1996 third-rounder his
teammates' respect and a spot ahead of the disappointing J.J.
Stokes on the depth chart. A foot injury that at times slowed
Owens has healed, and, says coach Steve Mariucci, "He looks like
he's full speed ahead." The same can be said of the youngster's
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Steve Mariucci
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Steve Young 8[*] 316 att. 214 comp. 67.7%
2,410 yds. 14 TDs 6 int.
RB Garrison Hearst 73[*] 225 att. 847 yds. 3.8 avg.
12 rec. 131 yds. 10.9 avg.
FB William Floyd 222[*] 47 att. 186 yds. 4.0 avg.
26 rec. 197 yds. 7.6 avg.
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Jerry Rice 6[*] 108 rec. 1,254 yds. 9 TDs
WR Terrell Owens 106[*] 35 rec. 520 yds. 4 TDs
WR J.J. Stokes 259[*] 18 rec. 249 yds. 0 TDs
TE Brent Jones 115[*] 33 rec. 428 yds. 1 TD
PK Gary Anderson[A] 268[*] 40/40 XPs 5/29 FGs 115 pts.
KR Iheanyi Uwaezuoke 335[*] 1 ret. 21.0 avg. 0 TDs
PR Terry Kirby 154[*] 1 ret. 3.0 avg. 0 TDs
LT Harris Barton 6'4" 286 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
LG Ray Brown 6'5" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Chris Dalman 6'3" 285 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Kevin Gogan[A] 6'7" 325 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Kirk Scrafford 6'6" 275 lbs. 6 games 1 start
LE Roy Barker 32 tackles 12 1/2 sacks
LT Bryant Young 76 tackles 11 1/2 sacks
RT Dana Stubblefield 33 tackles 1 sack
RE Chris Doleman 53 tackles 11 sacks
OLB Lee Woodall 55 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
MLB Ken Norton 127 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Kevin Mitchell 16 tackles 0 int.
CB Tyronne Drakeford 56 tackles 1 int.
SS Tim McDonald 98 tackles 2 int.
FS Merton Hanks 63 tackles 4 int.
CB Marquez Pope 67 tackles 6 int.
P Tommy Thompson 73 punts 44.1 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)