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
"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."
Can't you feel the love? --M.S.
COLOR PHOTO: MICKEY PFLEGER (49ERS) [INSIDE COVER] NFC WEST HOW THE 49ERS CAN STEP UP JEFF GARCIA
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER When push comes to shove, Owens may be the best receiver in the league.
COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS PARRISH
--When you play the Rams twice a year, you can't have too many
quality corners, so even though the 49ers got good play last year
from Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster, they used their first-round
draft pick on Mike Rumph. Webster starts for now, but in the
nickel, Rumph will line up at right corner and Webster will match
up against slot receivers.
ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the 49ers
"The Niners are one of the most impressive teams I've seen on
tape, especially on defense.... The kid who jumps out at you is
Zack Bronson. He's fast, he'll hit you, and he's always around
the ball. Plus he's smart. All he does is make plays.... Tony
Parrish is very physical, like Lance Schulters [now with the
Titans] was. To me, they're the same guy, though Parrish may be
less erratic.... Neither Ahmed Plummer nor Jason Webster is a
great player, but both are steady, mature guys with a great work
ethic.... Jeff Ulbrich is like a Hacksaw Reynolds--his first step
is remarkable, and he's got a great nose for the ball.... Andre
Carter got better as last season went on. I think he'll be a
premier pass rusher.... I don't care what anyone says: When he's
healthy, Bryant Young is still a bear. A couple of times last
year, nobody could block him.... On offense they really need a
No. 2 receiver to complement Terrell Owens. J.J. Stokes and Tai
Streets aren't getting it done.... I thought Jeff Garcia stunk
when he first started, but the guy's got a lot of moxie and makes
things happen outside the pocket--sort of like a poor man's Brett
Favre.... I can't believe they paid as much as they did for Ron
Stone. He's a decent pass blocker, but he's lousy in the running
game.... The tight end, Eric Johnson, is like Brent Jones--a fast
route runner who's a real good receiver. But he can't block
Sept. 5 at N.Y. Giants (Thur.)
29 Open date
Oct. 6 ST. LOUIS
14 at Seattle (Mon.)
20 at New Orleans
Nov. 3 at Oakland
10 KANSAS CITY
17 at San Diego
25 PHILADELPHIA (Mon.)
Dec. 1 SEATTLE
8 at Dallas
15 GREEN BAY
21 at Arizona (Sat.)
30 at St. Louis (Mon.)
NFL rank: 3
Opponents' 2001 winning percentage: .543
Games against playoff teams: 5
PROJECTED LINEUP with 2001 statistics
COACH: Steve Mariucci; sixth season with San Francisco (47-33 in
2001 RECORD: 12-4 (second in NFC West)
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): offense 2/14/4; defense 9/19/13
OFFENSIVE BACKS PVR*
QB Jeff Garcia 3
504 att. 316 comp. 62.7% 3,538 yds. 32 TDs 12 int. 94.8 rtg.
RB Garrison Hearst 17
252 att. 1,206 yds. 4.8 avg. 41 rec. 347 yds. 8.5 avg. 5 TDs
RB Kevan Barlow 239
125 att. 512 yds. 4.1 avg. 22 rec. 247 yds. 11.2 avg. 5 TDs
FB Fred Beasley 328
23 att. 73 yds. 3.2 avg. 16 rec. 99 yds. 6.2 avg. 1 TD
RECEIVERS, SPECIALISTS, OFFENSIVE LINEMEN
WR Terrell Owens 8 93 rec. 1,412 yds. 16 TDs
WR J.J. Stokes 109 54 rec. 585 yds. 7 TDs
WR Cedrick Wilson 157 0 rec. 0 yds. 0 TDs
TE Eric Johnson 135 40 rec. 362 yds. 3 TDs
K Jeff Chandler (R) [N] 280 46/48 XPs 19/22 FGs 103 pts.
PR Vinny Sutherland 377 21 ret. 7.0 avg. 0 TDs
KR Vinny Sutherland 377 50 ret. 22.8 avg. 0 TDs
LT Derrick Deese 6'3" 289 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Dave Fiore 6'4" 290 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jeremy Newberry 6'5" 310 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RG Ron Stone [N] 6'5" 325 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RT Scott Gragg 6'8" 315 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LE John Engelberger 29 tackles 4 sacks
LT Bryant Young 31 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
RT Dana Stubblefield 26 tackles 4 sacks
RE Andre Carter 39 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
OLB Julian Peterson 37 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Derek Smith 78 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Jeff Ulbrich 63 tackles 1/2 sack
CB Ahmed Plummer 58 tackles 7 int.
SS Tony Parrish [N] 56 tackles 3 int.
FS Zack Bronson 57 tackles 7 int.
CB Jason Webster 67 tackles 3 int.
P Jason Baker 69 punts 40.8 avg.
[N] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 98)
"Bryant Young is still an absolute bear. A couple of times last
year, nobody could block him."