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Article Title: Squeezing a win from an old friend
Article Date: October 10th 2003
By Sydney

Former head coach Steve Mariucci and his Detroit Lions blew into 3-Com Park Sunday with some hints of retribution for their new found coach, but only came up empty and long winded after the San Francisco 49ers defeated them 24-17 in a pivotal game that created a scab over a very sore wound. After losing three straight games the 49ers under Dennis Erickson knew that a win was just the antidote to a long and reoccurring hangover of losses.

Controversy and back biting in and outside the locker room has been the front-page news around the Bay Area and throughout the sports world in regards to the San Francisco 49ers. Questions about team unity and Dennis Erickson’s ability to quell the turmoil that Terrell Owens created by making generalized negative comments to the press regarding the team as a whole have rocked this franchise to its very core.

Having lost to the St. Louis Rams in Week Two and then to go on a slippery skid into the National Football Conference Western Division cellar has been an experience that no one in their right mind thought would’ve happened, at least not in this stage of the season. The Cleveland Browns slapped reality back into her heads as they came from nowhere and defeated us right in our own backyard.

And the Minnesota Vikings proved that their defense and offense are for real this year despite having to turn to a questionable back-up quarterback. Truth is known all 49er fans are still dizzy with a hangover from that loss as Randy Moss proved to the world that he is the real deal in this league in terms of being a legitimate playmaker.

Was this victory a stunning victory? Or was it a victory that came just in the nick of time because we were teetering on the brink of disaster? I have to believe it was the later of the two because I see tremendous problems that still exist in the framework of this franchise.

I see a team that is struggling to become healthy and to stay competitive. I see a team that is not being led in the right direction in terms of play calling and in terms of direct involvement. I see a team that has lost a fire on the sideline that accepts the status quo versus fighting all odds and coming from behind to snatch victory from defeat.

Steve Mariucci instilled such ideals and principles into this team. Dennis Erickson looks lifeless on the sideline almost too stoic for comfort as I observe his antics and movements up and down the sidelines. Steve showed genuine interest in his former teammates that he never had the opportunity to say goodbye to after the game was completed. I cannot get the vision out of mind seeing Steve bite his lip and greet players he had been through battle with and force himself to maintain his composure.

It had to be one of the most difficult things he has had ever had to do in his life outside of having children and maintaining a family that lives on the road on a constant basis. I saw a Steve that remembered what it was like to stand in 3-Com and share the moment. I saw a Steve that was once proud to wear the colors of the red and gold and to serve them with all his being.

Did he have has faults Lord knows he did and he admitted them on occasion. But let me tell you something fans, I saw a Steve that was fighting back those same tears he had when he left the Santa Clara complex forever.

Loyalty and service have got to mean something folks. Owner John York has a barrier set up when it came to this in my opinion. If someone even hints that they are dissatisfied or expresses an opinion in contrast to his he remembers it and holds it against you. His handling of the Steve Mariucci situation is far from being forgotten and certainly not forgiven in my book.

As much as I complained about Mariucci being about too conservative, I always knew he was a player’s coach that loved each and everyone of his teammates. He was a man of class and character, and he always strove to be ahead of the game in making sure that his presence was felt and revered.

If you want to compare a San Francisco 49er team with Mariucci in charge or a San Francisco 49er team with Erickson in charge, the two are similar in some fashions but like night and day on so many other things. We as fans had a difficult pill to swallow when Steve left and some were very optimistic including myself that things could become even better under Erickson. But looking at what I see now and what I know now I am regretful to say that I was wrong, and that I see the San Francisco 49ers struggling to keep their heads above the .500 mark this season.

A disciplined team is necessary in order to stay competitive and stand a chance of winning on a consistent basis. This 49er offense is in a state of emergency my friends and you cannot sit back and say that it isn’t. If not for two interceptions that helped set up favorable field position, the offense would’ve looked even more anemic than it really was. This San Francisco offense produced just one touchdown on it’s own without any help, that is something that just isn’t acceptable in most 49er fans today.

And check this out on five of 13 possessions, the team failed to make even one first down? And this is against the Detroit Lions folks; let’s not forget who is up next in the Seattle Seahawks playing great football and the World Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The play calling on this offense comes under intense scrutiny in my opinion and Greg Knapp needs to be held more accountable as does Dennis Erickson who shows little substance of interfering or getting at least more involved in the play calling of a game. Erickson after the Minnesota loss vowed to become more involved in the play calling aspect along with Knapp but so far that hasn’t changed.

The problems though on this team go far deeper though than what is happening out on the field, they go right into the very fiber of the team as division has crept in and jealousy takes hold.

Positional status has become an issue, putting an “I” in team is being proclaimed by our star wide receiver. Fighting and discontent are still evident between a star fullback and its running back. Ability to manage is seen as a question mark with Bill Walsh fading into the sunset and Ownership looks at a budget hotel now instead of a Marriott for its future players.

Dennis Erickson is not the man we thought he’d be and injecting so many assistant coaches on to the staff has done us more harm than good. Moving a team from an open training camp forum to a closed to the public forum has been hazardous to fan morale and going to 49er games in a rusty old stadium with prices on the rise begins to weigh heavier on a fans mindset. Mediocrity is starting to take hold in the 49er framework folks. We are not the elite team we once were and we are not imitating a playoff caliber team to say the least.

Our quarterback is struggling not only with his health but also with his own personal performance, as his accuracy is way off the beaten path of acceptability. Our offensive line has broken down like a vehicle with four flat tires waiting for a toe truck, not only because of injuries but because we lack discipline and penalties are so common that we should be throwing flags out of our back pockets as well.

This team is in a state of emergency despite winning this game against the Detroit Lions and we cannot turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to any of it. This is but a few of the things that I see and I know that my fellow fans have seen the same things. I’m not trying to paint a doom and gloom picture but I am painting a picture that this team needs a reality check from the owners on down.

What is the essence of being a San Francisco 49er? We all know the answer to that and that is winning championships and holding your head up high because you are a fan of one of the most renowned franchises in NFL history. We are a team that set the bar way higher than most and we are a team that is distinguished from others because of our professionalism and courtesy to its players and its fans.

It was the 49er defense that assisted in this victory right from the get go when Detroit Lions quarterback Joey Harrington on a slant intended for rookie star wide receiver Charles Rodgers, was intercepted by San Francisco 49er cornerback Ahmed Plummer which set them up at the Detroit 23-yard line. It was from here that Jeff Garcia managed to fling a six-yard touchdown pass to fellow wide receiver Terrell Owens in a reminder that the two need each other.

On the second interception, safety Tony Parrish came in on a fourth-and-2 play in which he correctly read the route that Joey Harrington was going to throw to and intercepted the ball and returned it for 49 total yards to the Detroit 38-yard line. It was a pivotal moment in the game because the Lions were at that time threatening to tie the game with the score 17-10. On top of that it helped set up Jeff Garcia’s 1-yard touchdown run to make the score 24-10 San Francisco.

What is even more interesting in the secondary is that second-year player Mike Rumph played a critical role in the first interception by taking away the slant route by shading Az-Zahir Hakim to the inside. It is something worth recognizing given the fact that the cornerback has struggled so hard to cement the opposite side of the field.

“Mike recognized it, and they had to come back with their second read,” Mora said. “It was great recognition by Ahmed. You look at it, and it was a great play by Plummer, but I knew immediately Mike had done a great job, or Plummer never makes that play.” Parrish said on his interception, “I just had a feeling they were going to run the slant-and-go. So I stepped back a step and got over there.”

What is even more inspiring about the San Francisco defense is that it held Detroit on third down conversions, holding Detroit to 2-for-11. Even more the 49ers were able to stop Detroit from a fourth quarter comeback in which Detroit had the ball twice in the final 9:48 left to play. They gained just two yards on the first, starting at their 41-yard line and then had to punt with Parrish breaking up a third down pass at that.

On the second drive, with 3:54 left to play, Detroit started at its 27-yard line and ended up punting from its 23-yard line after a holding penalty was called on them. This is a testament to a defense that has been demised in the past and is finally coming into its own.

“We made plays when we needed to make plays in the fourth quarter,” Mora said. “That’s the key thing. It shows your evolving as a defense. You’re maturing and getting better.”

Overall Game Statistics

The San Francisco 49ers can take some positives from this game as they really tried to stick to a running game that had some bite. The 49ers ran for a total of 142-yards with 74-yards coming from Garrison Hearst on 19 carries and 35-yards coming from Jeff Garcia on 11 carries as he continued to run for his life. Jeff Garcia completed 15-of-27 passes for 192 yards with two touchdowns and one interception with a quarterback rating of 87.3%.

Terrell Owens redefined himself and found a comfort zone by receiving five passes for 79 total yards and one touchdown. Tai Streets had four receptions for 21 total yards and rookie tight end Aaron Walker had one reception for 14-yards and one touchdown.

Of course the biggest assets to the game in my opinion were Ahmed Plummer and Tony Parrish who each had an interception that helped the offense score when it was most needed. On the punting side Bill LaFleur had a 41.3 average on six punts and Jimmy Williams had four punt returns for an average of 7.5 yards and on kickoffs 18.5-yards.

There were still way too many mistakes by San Francisco as being able to execute and staying focused seem to be reoccurring problems that coaching must address sooner rather than later. The 49er fumbled a total of three times and was penalized four times for a loss of 45-yards. The San Francisco 49ers did have a third down efficiency rating of 40% going 6-for-15 on those attempts and held Detroit to 18% going 2-for-11.

San Francisco dominated time of possession in large part due to their willingness to run the ball having the ball for 34:23 compared to Detroit for 25:37. Red zone efficiency was greatly enhanced also with the 49ers scoring while in the red zone 3-out-of-4 times for 75% efficiency.

Although the secondary of the 49ers played well the pass rush did not as many time Joey Harrington had way too much time to throw the ball. Our pass rush has suddenly fallen off the planet so to speak since the Minnesota game and needs to be more of a factor with huge games coming up against top of the line contenders in Seattle and Tampa Bay.

Newfound kicker Owen Pochman also failed for the first time with 3:54 left to play in the game on a 37-yard field goal that was affected by the swirling winds that inhabit 3-Com Park. It could have been a very important score had it not been for the San Francisco defense that held Detroit at bay the rest of the game.

First Quarter Highlights

On the first drive by Detroit, Joey Harrington throws a pass intended for Charles Rogers that is intercepted by San Francisco cornerback Ahmed Plummer that is returned for four yards. Jeff Garcia drives the 49ers from the Detroit 23-yard line down to the six yard line where he connects with Terrell Owens to make the score 7-0 San Francisco.

On San Francisco’s second drive of the quarter starting at their own 37-yard line Jeff Garcia drives the 49ers down to the Detroit 30-yard line where a fumble spoils their attempt at a touchdown. Owen Pochman is brought in for a 48-yard field goal in which he makes to make the score 10-0 49ers at the end of the quarter.

Second Quarter Highlights

With the first drive by San Francisco starting at their own 44-yard line the 49ers get some help on a defensive pass interference call and Jeff drives the 49ers down to the Detroit 14-yard line. From here Jeff connects with rookie tight end Aaron Walker for a 14-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-0 49ers.

On Detroit’s second possession in this quarter Joey Harrington drives the Lions down to the 49er 10-yard line where the San Francisco defense hangs tough forcing them to kick a 28-yard field goal to make it 17-3 49ers.

On the next 49er drive Jeff Garcia attempts to pass to Terrell Owens from the 49er 20-yard line but is intercepted by Lion cornerback Dre Bly. This sets up the next Joey Harrington drive from the 49er 34-yard line where they end up on the 49er six- yard line and Harrington finds Michael Ricks for a six- yard touchdown to make it 17-10 49ers.

Third Quarter Highlights

A very quiet third quarter right up until 2:24 left in the quarter with Jeff Garcia driving after Joey Harrington is intercepted by 49er safety Tony Parrish. From the Detroit 38-yard line Jeff gets down to their one-yard line where he runs it in for a touchdown to make it 24-10 San Francisco.

Fourth Quarter Highlights

The Detroit Lions came right out of the gate firing from their 40-yard line where Joey Harrington drove the team down to the 49er two-yard line where running back Olandis Gary converted a two-yard touchdown run to make it 24-17 49ers.

On San Francisco’s second drive of the quarter Jeff Garcia started on his own 33-yard line and drove the team down to the Detroit 19-yard line. Penalties killed the drive from reaching its full potential with offensive holding called twice on this drive. Owen Pochman attempts a 37-yard field goal but it goes wide left before a stunned crowd of 49er faithful.

The Detroit Lions with 3:54 left in the game try to get a drive going but they are held to several pass incompletes that force them to punt where San Francisco retains the ball and eventually runs out the clock for the long awaited victory.

Overall Game Analysis

San Francisco would not have won this game without the defense that’s a fact worth noting. Jeff Garcia again was not his 100% self in my estimation as his performance continues to be a problem behind a line that is degraded and is unable to adjust to its injuries and missing starters. Certainly pass protection has been a key in Jeff’s scrambling for his life with 11 carries for 35-yards too many.

Jeff needs to feel secure in the pocket and needs to have that reliability back in order to improve upon his overall statistics, but he can’t do that if all of his options are covered and he is not allowed sufficient time to get rid of the ball. Derrick Deese was back in the lineup but you have to consider he has been out all of the regular season and played rather rusty. Eric Heitmann continues to be out and Jeremy Newberry continues to play with torn ligaments in his ankle and has to have some bearing on the line’s woes.

A pass rush was nonexistent in this game, as pressure was not applied at opportune times on Joey Harrington. The 49er pass attack yielded no sacks this game but Jeff Garcia was sacked twice to a questionable defensive line in the Detroit Lions. Certainly Jeff’s problems stem because he is not getting ample amount of time to find targets and has contributed to his interceptions as of late on a whole.

Healing of the wounds was evident between Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia and was a welcome sign after the touchdown pass to Owens that featured them acknowledging each other’s efforts. The Detroit Lions held our running game in check to under 4.0-yards average per carry and was able to limit our passing game with constant pressure on Jeff Garcia.

Certainly Steve Mariucci had a plan when he came into 3-Com knowing the team inside and out and playing schemes that revealed the teams weaknesses as a whole but the team was able to counter in large part. One has to also acknowledge that Steve played this game the best he could with the personnel at his disposal, he gave us an interesting game in which we need to sit down and learn by.

The San Francisco secondary in my opinion really has matured since opening day and has come together collectively as an effective unit. However they certainly need some assistance from the front four in applying a pass rush so that they aren’t left out on an island so often. Great offenses in Seattle and Tampa Bay will pick us apart should we not be able to get to their quarterbacks.

If the offensive line can’t protect Jeff Garcia then it certainly can’t generate an effective running game either. I really believe that the lines problems are our real problems as we’ve been unable to establish a running game dominance and have failed to give Jeff Garcia enough time to make impact plays.

The line has to come together and gel and has to get healthy and execute better. Offensive line coach Pat Morris needs to challenge this line more in the next coming weeks and assist them in refining their execution and get back-ups in Kwame Harris and Kyle Kosier better in a hurry or we’ll be in real trouble come mid-season.

“Hey man, this is the NFL,” tackle Derrick Deese said. “Some games are going to be beautiful and your going to dominate your opponent. Some games are going to be ugly. But the bottom line is that you can put this one in the right column. It’s a “W” and we’ll take it.”

Losing is always harder to accept especially when you’re a 49er faithful. I know frustration and stress just as all of you do. I may get down and dirty and tear the team apart and reveal weaknesses but I love this team with all my being. I honestly wish that this game would be a turning point or a rallying call for us to jump start from.

The Detroit Lions are a rebuilding team, beating them is good but we also have to consider that there are so many other teams that we are going to play that are contending teams. We need to be a contender and not a rebuilding team.

I think we’ve overcome that the past two years and are on course to take a shot at the big one. But we aren’t on the right path and several factors have to change as noted earlier if we are to get there any time soon.

Dennis Erickson must play a bigger part in this equation and he must participate more in play calling if we are to succeed, he must have a firm hand on getting penalties reduced and he must create a atmosphere that all the players feel comfort and enjoyment all in one.

He has assembled a great cast of assistant coaches, so let’s get our money’s worth out of this staff while we can. If injuries are barring us from greatness and from winning games we must address the problem through aggressive rehabilitation and free agent acquisition.

We want to win and that is what matters most to all of us. If we get beat legitimately so be it we accept that and move on. But we need to establish some form of dominance and we need to be feared at least on occasion, right now I can’t honestly say anyone feels fear when they hear the San Francisco 49ers.