By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
After playing five preseason NFL games in 26 days, San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci says his 49ers are more than ready for the regular season to begin, even if it means starting three days ahead of the rest of the league.
From Aug. 3-28, the 49ers of the reconfigured NFC West have been to some of the world's most exotic (Osaka, Japan) and bizarre (Oakland's Network Associates Coliseum) locales in preparing for the 2002 season.
"Playing three games in 10 days is unusual -- we are tired of preseason games," said Mariucci, speaking from the team's headquarters in Santa Clara, California. "We're anxious to play games that are real."
Mariucci was referring to San Francisco's games at Denver on Aug. 19, at Oakland on Aug. 24 and at home against the San Diego Chargers last Wednesday.
Mariucci said he could tell his troops were ready for the real stuff during Thursday's practice that was conducted minus pads.
"Let's just say things got a little feisty, and that's good," Mariucci said. "I think we're ready to go."
Season opener Thursday
Thursday, the 49ers, which are owned by John and Denise DeBartolo York of Canfield, will open the NFL season at 8:30 p.m. by playing the New York Giants at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., just across the Hudson River from where the World Trade Center stood. ESPN will televise the NFL's first weeknight league opener to a national audience.
"I think this game is going to draw a one of the largest audiences [for a cable-televised game]," Mariucci said. "I like that this game has been set up [as a NFL showcase]. It's an honor to be playing in it."
The game is one of San Francisco's three prime-time appearances this year, a reward for the team's turnaround in 2001 from 6-10 to a 12-4 wild-card playoff team.
The Niners also have two dates on "ABC's Monday Night Football" -- Oct. 14 at Seattle against the new-to-the-NFC West Seahawks and Dec. 30 at St. Louis against the Rams, who have won the NFC Championship Game twice in the past three years.
Crossing the country and losing three hours on the way shouldn't pose a problem.
"After you've flown to Japan, every other plane trip seems short," Mariucci said.
The Niners were one of four teams that played five exhibition games in August. The rest of the league participated in four.
Because San Francisco is returning 20 of 22 starters on offense and defense, Mariucci said this training camp was about determining who will be the backups.
"More than anything, we just tried to survive those five games, hoping not sustain too many injuries," Mariucci said. "We're feeling our nicks, but I think we got some good things accomplished, mostly in evaluating the youngsters trying to make the team.
Ready and fairly healthy
"Getting ready for the regular season and staying healthy is the trick to a successful training camp," said Mariucci, who is beginning his sixth season as head coach.
One thing the 49ers worked on was to give third-year backup quarterback Tim Rattay plenty of snaps.
The 49ers also plan to give second-year running back Kevan Barlow out of Pittsburgh more chances so as to spell starter Pro Bowler Garrison Hearst, the NFL's comeback player of the year in 2001.
"We're fairly healthy considering how much hitting we've been through in August," Mariucci said.
Two starters won't play against the Giants: third-year linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, who hyperextended his knee on Aug. 24 and right guard Ron Stone, who hurt his left elbow in Osaka on Aug. 3.
Stone joined the 49ers as a free agent during the offseason after playing three years with the Dallas Cowboys and six years with the Giants. He replaces 39-year-old Pro Bowler Ray Brown, who was released in June.
Although the 49ers spent five days in Japan getting ready for the American Bowl and experienced some of the Far East's culture, Mariucci said nothing quite compares to playing in Oakland, where the fans' number-one role model is Darth Vader.
"You can't believe that crowd," Mariucci said of the Raiders' faithful. "It's like a Halloween party, with all those costumes."
So did any of the 49ers' family members encounter problems.
"No, we didn't let most of them go with us," Mariucci said.
An exception was Mariucci's 17-year-old son Tyler, a high school senior whose attracting attention from college football scouts.
"Tyler was one the sidelines with us and naturally, he was a target for some of the taunts," Mariucci said.
San Francisco's early NFL start contains two benefits for Mariucci. First, the team will have nine days to prepare for its Sept. 15 home game against the Denver Broncos.
And Mariucci will enjoy a rare Friday night off watching his son's game as the team will fly home after Thursday's game.