As long as he lives, as long as he thrives as a coach and
amateur filmmaker, Steve Mariucci will remember the drive. More
daunting than the fourth-quarter march that propelled him to his
first significant victory as the rookie coach of the San
Francisco 49ers--a 17-10 triumph over the Dallas Cowboys at 3Com
Park on Sunday--was the 17-mile trip that Mariucci made in his
Mercedes two months earlier from his home near San Jose to the
Niners' Santa Clara training facility. On the day after San
Francisco opened its season with a 13-6 loss to the Buccaneers
in Tampa Bay, Mariucci was still shell-shocked from having
experienced the most devastating debut since New Coke. The
fallout was stunning: Jerry Rice, owner of every significant NFL
receiving record, was about to undergo reconstructive knee
surgery. Steve Young, a five-time league passing champion and
two-time MVP, was reeling from a concussion that put his career
in jeopardy; with Young's backup, Jeff Brohm, out because of a
fractured finger in his throwing hand, that meant rookie
signal-caller Jim Druckenmiller would have to start Game 2.
Mariucci could have used a couple of Percodans--or a pat on the
back. Instead, as he drove through San Jose, Mariucci saw
motorists shaking their fists at him. One zealous fan even
flashed his middle finger. "Let's just say I made sure to lock
my doors," Mariucci recalls. "It was scary. I make that drive
every day, and now people smile and give me the thumbs-up sign."
When he drove to work this week, in the wake of the 49ers'
eighth consecutive victory, Mariucci should have gotten a
ticker-tape parade. With an 8-1 record that matches the Denver
Broncos' as the league's best and with a dominant defense that
has yet to allow a rushing touchdown, Mariucci has the Niners
positioned to make a run at their sixth Super Bowl title. Not
bad for a guy who was so rattled during his first postgame
speech that he practically had an out-of-body experience on that
hot afternoon in Tampa. Says Mariucci, "I remember everyone
looking right at me--Jerry Rice, [team president] Carmen Policy,
the doctors--with expressions that said, All right, Coach, now
what are we going to do? It was like a Kodak moment. I don't
remember what I said, but I remember thinking, How the heck can
I make this O.K.?"
That the 42-year-old Mariucci shook off his rocky start is
testament to his composure, optimism and sense of humor, not to
mention good fortune: The roster he inherited from George
Seifert, the coach with the highest winning percentage in modern
NFL history, is full of talented and motivated players, and the
people who hired Mariucci know a bit about organizational
prosperity. Under the guidance of owner Eddie DeBartolo, the
49ers have been at or near the top of the league for 16 years.
DeBartolo's previous two coaches during that span, Hall of Famer
Bill Walsh and Seifert, endured their share of crises but never
experienced so much adversity with so little goodwill in the
bank. "I was concerned at first," DeBartolo said last Thursday.
"Things were a little shaky. But he responded well, and he's
done a great job of relating to our veterans."
Mariucci's players say they were won over by his mixture of
enthusiasm and focus in the wake of the disaster in Tampa. With
Druckenmiller thrust into the lineup against the Rams in St.
Louis, Mariucci asked the defense to carry the Niners. It did,
recovering four fumbles in a 15-12 victory. To help compensate
for Rice's absence and to take pressure off Young, who returned
in Week 3, Mariucci emphasized the running game, and San
Francisco now is the top rushing team in the NFC. Most
important, Mariucci remained calm. "You always, in some ways,
take on the personality of your coach, and some coaches waver in
times of crisis," says strong safety Tim McDonald, who
intercepted a Troy Aikman pass with 37 seconds remaining to seal
Sunday's win. "To see him stand firm meant so much."
The victory over the Rams launched a seven-game spree during
which the 49ers won by an average score of 29-12. But because of
a scheduling quirk, each of those victories came against NFC
West opponents, which is like winning a series of beer-chugging
contests against the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Cowboys,
despite their 4-4 record entering Sunday's game, represented the
49ers' first real test since Tampa Bay. (The always enticing
matchup received its official stamp as a big game last Thursday
when Niners officials, already burdened by a slew of luxury-box
schmoozers, denied Farrah Fawcett's request for tickets.)
Since taking over for the distant Seifert, Mariucci has
displayed a playful streak that has helped keep the 49ers loose.
During San Francisco's bye week in early October, he called for
a practice in full pads before allowing the Niners a three-day
break. The players wanted a less intense send-off, and a group
of veterans that included guard Kevin Gogan and linebacker Gary
Plummer interrupted Mariucci during a TV interview and gave him
an ultimatum: Either let the team practice without pads or be
thrown into the team pool. "We're going in pads," Mariucci said,
shortly before getting dunked. Somewhere, the ghost of Vince
Lombardi recoiled in disgust.
Mariucci can take a joke, but he can dish out zingers as well.
He has become somewhat of an auteur, working feverishly to
produce entertaining highlight-clip packages for his players to
view on Saturday nights following victories. Everyone is fair
game, and so far the easiest target has been Druckenmiller, who
missed the 49ers' charter flight to Atlanta on Oct. 17 because
he went to the wrong terminal at San Francisco's airport. In
homage to the oblivious rookie, the following week's film
included clips of Pee-wee Herman, Jeff Spicoli and the grand
finale from Liar, Liar, in which Jim Carrey chases a departing
aircraft while driving a movable stairway.
Last Saturday's film wasn't quite as uproarious, but it did get
two thumbs-up from most of the 49ers, who were amused by
comparisons of secondary coach Jim Mora's hairstyle with that of
Little Rascals hero Alfalfa. After the film ended, Mariucci told
his players, "We're well-prepared, we had a good week of
practice, now go out there and have fun. Enjoy every minute."
The first 30 minutes, however, belonged to Dallas. The Cowboys
took a 7-0 lead into halftime, at which point San Francisco
halfback Garrison Hearst had only five carries. Gogan was, he
said later, "salty as hell" and lobbied Mariucci on behalf of
the line for more running plays. Though Dallas often brought
safeties Brock Marion and Darren Woodson close to the line of
scrimmage, the 49ers wore the Cowboys down, as Hearst finished
with 104 yards on 22 carries.
Still, San Francisco's biggest strike was an aerial one, and it
went to an unlikely target. Trailing 10-7 and facing
second-and-11 from the Dallas 30 with six minutes remaining,
Mariucci, who calls the offensive plays, sent wideouts Terrell
Owens and J.J. Stokes on "go" patterns down each sideline. Young
chose Stokes, who in Rice's absence is finally living up to the
potential that made him the 10th pick in the '95 draft. With
cornerback Kevin Smith a half step behind him, Stokes extended
his arms and made a lunging catch just short of the goal line,
setting up William Floyd's game-winning touchdown run.
As usual, however, it was the Niners' top-rated defense that
levied the most decisive blows. Bryant Young, who missed his
second consecutive game with a sprained right foot, is probably
the league's best defensive tackle, but teammate Dana
Stubblefield is closing the gap. Briefly removed from the nickel
defense after San Francisco's late-August signing of 1996 NFC
sack leader Kevin Greene, Stubblefield has become a terror. He
sacked Aikman twice, increasing his team-leading total to nine.
"I'm getting my pride back," says Stubblefield, who slumped in
'96 after having made the Pro Bowl in the previous two years. "I
don't want offensive coordinators to think they can handle me
with one blocker."
The 49ers' defense came up big throughout the second half. In
the third quarter free safety Merton Hanks, not known for his
hitting, stopped Dallas running back Sherman Williams's leap for
the end zone with a midair collision at the goal line, and two
plays later the Cowboys settled for a field goal. Cornerback Rod
Woodson, the Niners' prize free-agent signee, shadowed wideout
Michael Irvin all afternoon and matched him shove for shove.
With 54 seconds to go and the ball on the San Francisco 39,
Aikman threw to the end zone, and Irvin, who had a step on
Woodson, was tripped as he went for the ball. Back judge Bill
Lovett threw a flag indicating pass interference but then was
overruled after field judge Scott Green deemed the contact
Cowboys coach Barry Switzer wasn't thrilled by the call, but he
has much bigger worries. Like DeBartolo, Dallas owner Jerry
Jones can't stomach losing, and this is the first time the
Cowboys have been under .500 in the second half of the season
since 1990, when they finished 7-9. Over the weekend a story in
The New York Times detailed an informal team gathering last
month in which Switzer reportedly told players he had been up
"partying all night" and defended his lifestyle. On Sunday Jones
downplayed the story, saying earnestly, "What Barry actually
told them was he had been up all night thinking about how to
stop the losing."
Still, Switzer's margin for error is slimmer than Kate Moss.
"Somehow, someway, we've got to find a way to win our last
seven," he said after the game.
Switzer was considerably more chipper in 1994, when in his first
year with the Cowboys he won eight of his first nine games. Now
Mariucci is the one soaking up the good vibes. With Rice saying
he plans to return for the Monday-night showdown with the
Broncos on Dec. 15--something that Niners doctors think would
make medical history but aren't ruling out--the despair of early
September is but a faint memory.
As Mariucci left the locker room following Sunday's game, he
spotted Woodson, gave him a big hug and exclaimed, "Was that fun
or what?" When Mariucci ventured to the Niners' parking lot, San
Francisco fans erupted, yelling comments like, "Lookin' good,
Coach!" and, "That's how you do it, Steve!"
He was grinning as he got into his car. There was no need to
lock the doors.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Stubblefield was a big reason that Williams and the Dallas running game went nowhere in the second half. [Sherman Williams being tackled by Dana Stubblefield]
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE When the Niners put Hearst to work after halftime, he picked up 81 of his game-high 104 rushing yards. [Garrison Hearst]
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Stubblefield's first-quarter sack of Aikman helped push the Cowboys out of field goal range. [Dana Stubblefield tackling Troy Aikman]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER An underachiever before this year, Stokes set up the go-ahead TD by extending himself against Smith. [J.J. Stokes catching football in front of Kevin Smith]