Promising year grounded by wave of injuries
A depleted secondary contributed to Sunday's playoff loss to the Buccaneers.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
TAMPA -- The San Francisco 49ers' season began with a promising 4-1 start.
But an injury wave knocked the team for a loop, creating a roller-coaster finish that resulted in a 10-6 record.
Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, the 49ers' postseason came to a halt with a 31-6 rout at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Despite the final score, the 49ers -- when healthy -- are one of the NFC's better teams with a lot of young players.
Their defense, which was most affected by injury, has talented players like defensive end Andre Carter, linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerback Jason Webster, who are about to enter the prime of their careers.
The offense is loaded with talent -- quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receiver Terrell Owens and running back Kevan Barlow.
San Francisco's special teams, however, need an upgrading.
Locker room dash
The most telling moment of how beat up the 49ers were came in the final minute of the first half.
Just moments before, Garcia was intercepted by Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks. The ensuing touchdown produced a 22-point lead for Tampa Bay.
After the kickoff, the high-powered 49ers offense ran one play, then retreated to the locker room even though they had two timeouts.
"I thought that we were in a position to work a couple of throws down the field and potentially come away with an attempted field goal," Garcia said. "But the decision of the coaches was to somewhat play it conservative and just go in at halftime without making any more mistakes."
Work to do
Coach Steve Mariucci called the loss "a tough way to end it, certainly. I'm sure it will sit with all of us for a while.
"We've got to know, and I think we do, that we made some progress winning the division and winning a playoff game," Mariucci said. "And also, we know that we've got work to do."
The first task is for Mariucci to sit down with owner John York to discuss a contract extension. Mariucci has one year remaining on the five-year deal he signed not long after York, and his wife, Denise DeBartolo York, assumed control of the team in 1999.
If an extension can't be reached, the Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be interested in hiring Mariucci to replace Tom Coughlin.
For the 49ers, expectations have grown considerably in the past 18 months. Last year's 12-4 team surprised many.
When the season began on Sept. 5 with a 16-13 defeat of the New York Giants, San Francisco executives were hoping to be competitive against the St. Louis Rams in the NFC West.
The 49ers' 4-1 start, combined with the Rams' 0-5 stumble, brought a new goal: home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
Then the injury wave crashed.
Four of the team's five offensive linemen -- center Jeremy Newberry, tackle Derrick Deese and guards Ron Stone and Dave Fiore -- were injured. Substitute Eric Heitmann broke a bone in his hand.
And by the time Sunday's playoff game ended, three starting defensive backs -- cornerbacks Webster and Ahmed Plummer, and safety Zack Bronson -- were out.
"They can take some well-needed rest because I know they've been playing through pain," Mariucci said.
Whether or not Mariucci returns, the nucleus of the team will as 21 starters on offense and defense are signed for 2003.
Among this season's highlights were a 5-1 record against NFC West opponents, an overtime victory over the Raiders and comeback wins against the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys.
But after the Oakland game Nov. 3, the 49ers couldn't put together a dominating effort in a game that mattered.
"I don't know if we played four great quarters in one game," Mariucci said. "We played a helluva second half last week [against the Giants]."
If the high point was the comeback from a 24-point deficit against the Giants, a low was the extension of the team's playoff road losing streak.
San Francisco's last postseason win on the road was in January 1989 when they defeated the Bears at Soldier Field, 28-3, in the NFC Championship Game in Bill Walsh's final season.