- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

What San Francisco accomplished in rising from salary-cap strapped laughingstock to serious contender in less than two years is almost as remarkable as the 49ers rising from years of ineptitude to win a record five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1994. Coach Steve Mariucci inherited an aging dynasty in 1997 and won playoff games in each of his first two years, but by 1999, the 49ers were in salary cap trouble.
"Because of our salary cap situation, we weren't going to have a lot of veterans," said Jeff Garcia, who succeeded legendary Steve Young as the 49ers' quarterback in 1999. "We were going to be full of youth, and those young kids grew up because they had the opportunity to play. They didn't want to be embarrassed anymore, so this team came together, probably a lot faster than a lot of people imagined it would."
From October 1999 to November 2000, the 49ers went 3-19 as age and the cap stripped them of 17 starters, leaving Mariucci no choice but to play overmatched youngsters.
"It was the only way for us to get out of the mess we were in," Mariucci said. "I don't know if we're any blueprint."
The 49ers quietly won four of their final six games in 2000 and then burst back into contention with a 12-4 wild-card season last year. So this is supposed to be their year. With all but two starters back and those two replaced by younger and just as talented players a playoff repeat was a given and the Super Bowl a very real possibility.
However, in splitting its first two games holding off the host New York Giants 16-13 and losing 24-14 to visiting Denver San Francisco has yet to get the NFL's No.4 offense of 2001 out of neutral. Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens, who averaged 95 catches, 1,432 yards and 14.5 touchdowns the past two seasons, has caught nine passes for a mere 79 yards and a score. Halfback Garrison Hearst, the reigning Comeback Player of the Year, is averaging 2.6 yards on his 45 carries. Garcia's passer rating is nine points below his career 91.1 figure, which ranks him third in NFL history behind predecessors Young and Joe Montana. The 49ers, who averaged 26 points last year, are averaging 15 so far.
"We're not going to run the wishbone," Mariucci said. "We're not going to put in the run and shoot. We're going to run our offense. It's been good to us. It will be good to us, and we will find a way to get the ball to our weapons more often."
Easier said than done.
Hearst, who made an amazing return last year after missing 1999 and 2000 with what seemed to be a career-ending ankle injury, is struggling to get a rhythm going while sharing the halfback spot with second-year man Kevan Barlow.
Owens has a different problem. Opposing defenses have opted not to worry about being beaten by second wideout J.J. Stokes or tight end Eric Johnson and have ganged up on Owens, who might need to re-start his cooled feud with Mariucci to get angry enough to get open.
"Terrell is going to get many situations where two or three defenders are looking at him in man situations," Garcia said. "Teams aren't going to allow him to float freely in zones, [but] we totally believe Terrell is going to continue to make big plays."
The young defense hasn't allowed many, being beaten for just one play of more than 27 yards and four touchdowns despite starting six players from the 1999-2001 drafts.
"We were playing good defense until [the Broncos scored 21 points in a span of 15:38 in the second half]," Mariucci said. "We're still very young and improving."
Discounting the aberrant 1999 and 2000 seasons, the 49ers have lost two straight at home just twice since 1983 so they plan to bounce back tomorrow against the visiting Redskins. But San Franciscans have their eyes on bigger prizes. Next up is NFC West archrival St. Louis, against whom the 49ers were 0-6 the past three years. Later comes a bus ride across the Bay to Oakland, visits by playoff conqueror Green Bay and NFC runner-up Philadelphia and the season-ending rematch with the Rams.
Which is why Mariucci said his team could improve this season and wind up with a worse record. But Garcia is allowing himself to dream about returning the 49ers to glory.
"We have a good enough team to be a playoff team once again and once you do make the playoffs, you hopefully do enough to get to the Super Bowl and win it," Garcia said.

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