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Mariucci says close-calls are OK



Published: Wed, November 21, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By TOM WILLIAMS

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

You'll pardon San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci if he feels he's been auditioning for the lead in the next Indiana Jones cliffhanger adventure

That's because the 49ers' last eight games have all been nail-biters, something Mariucci says he's never experienced.

"Eight in a row down to the wire -- we've never seen anything like it," said Mariucci, calling Tuesday from the 49ers training headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.

"It's a change for us because in the last couple of years we've been losing those [types of] games."

Not this year. The 49ers (7-2) have won five of their last six games to remain in the hunt for the NFC West title. The one loss came three weeks ago in overtime in Chicago.

Sunday, the 49ers were down to the last second of regulation before tying the Carolina Panthers and winning in overtime.

A loss would have put the 49ers two games behind the St. Louis Rams and all-but-shattered their hopes for a division title and homefield advantage in the postseason.

How to succeed: With the 49ers picked by many to be a .500 team, Mariucci said his young team is succeeding because "we've been finding a way by making plays at the end of these games on both sides of the ball."

Two years after the 49ers purged themselves of high-priced players then hit the bottom of the NFC West standings with a 4-12 record, San Francisco trails only the division-leading Rams for the NFC's best record.

They've come a long way since July 31, 2000 when the 49ers were shut out by the New England Patriots at Canton's Fawcett Stadium in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game.

"I remember walking off the field that day and thinking we'll go 0-16," Mariucci said of his young team that would go on to finish 6-10.

The key to the turnaround has been the play of quarterback Jeff Garcia, who engineered the last-second scoring drive in Carolina.

"He's come so far in such a short period of time," said Mariucci of his team's league MVP candidate. "He's been making improvement every week."

Garcia became the 49ers quarterback when Steve Young suffered his final concussion two years ago in a game at Arizona.

"We've been pleased with his development as a leader and the resiliency he's shown in this transition period," Mariucci said.

"We knew about his athleticism, his escapability and some of his physical attributes," Mariucci said of Garcia, who played several years in the Canadian Football League before landing in the NFL.

"What we didn't know was how mentally tough and how smart he would play, how he would handle defeats, success, the ups-and-downs, the pressure situations," Mariucci said.

They know a lot now.

With 2 minutes, 19 seconds to go against Carolina and the 49ers trailing by five points, Garcia was picked off by Panthers lineman Brentson Buckner.

Mariucci says his players didn't give up.

Encouragement: "We came off the field and our offense cheered our defense to hold them to a field goal," Mariucci said. "If we did, we knew we still had hope although it would be rough sledding."

Garcia marched the 49ers downfield and connected with wide receiver Terrell Owens for a touchdown with one second remaining.

He then found tight end Eric Johnson in the end zone for the overtime-forcing conversion points.

This week's game in Indianapolis could be another wild shootout "between two great quarterbacks," Mariucci said. "The Colts' offense is up there with the Rams as some of the league's most explosive, and it starts with Peyton Manning."

Mariucci said the mid-week holiday really isn't a disruption.

"We'll still meet and practice on Thanksgiving Day, but we'll meet earlier and try to condense things," Mariucci said. "It's still a work day for us, but we try to get the players home early to be with family and friends.

"But in the NFL, you work on Thanksgiving through Christmas and New Year's," he said. "Sometimes the time to celebrate holidays comes later."

williams@vindy.com




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