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The Inside Track | Xs AND O's / LONNIE WHITE

49ers Have Right Mix to Keep Ball Moving

November 09, 2002|LONNIE WHITE

In case you missed it, NFL dynasties are dead.

Thanks to free agency and a hard salary cap, repeat Super Bowl champions apparently are a thing of the past and teams struggle simply to win two games in a row in Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's parity league.

It's true that the NFL still has inept teams like Cincinnati, Dallas and Detroit, which have as much chance of reaching the playoffs as Winona Ryder has of getting hired as a sales clerk on Rodeo Drive.

But even those teams will have opportunities to turn things around sooner than later. Just check out the types of seasons St. Louis, Baltimore and New England had before their Super Bowl championship runs.

Two months into this season, several teams have emerged as legitimate Super Bowl contenders, with one of them the San Francisco 49ers, standing out in recent weeks, especially after an overtime victory over Oakland.

Coach Steve Mariucci and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp have put together a versatile attack, which has the league's best mixture of run and pass.

"We're making progress on offense," said Mariucci, whose 49ers have won five of their last six games and host Kansas City on Sunday. "We're becoming more explosive."

Quarterback Jeff Garcia may not have the strongest arm, nor is he the league's most accurate passer, but he gets the job done and seldom makes the same mistake twice.

The 49ers can count on Garcia to make the right decision to keep drives alive. He consistently hurt the Raiders with short runs out of the pocket when the 49ers needed first downs.

At the start of the season, Garcia struggled against the NFL's most common defense, the two-deep zone with safeties lining up on the hash marks. He doesn't have that problem anymore.

By spreading the ball around to other receivers, instead of looking for No. 1 threat Terrell Owens, Garcia has taken the 49er offense to a new level. He leads the NFL with a 134.7 third-down passing rating, and has thrown for 10 touchdowns with no interceptions in 69 third-down passes.

Owens still gets his share of passes -- just ask Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson, who watched Owens make 12 receptions for 191 yards. But so do wideout Tai Streets, who's taken over for underachiever J.J. Stokes, and Garrison Hearst, Kevan Barlow and Fred Beasley out of the backfield.

But what sets the 49ers apart is their ability to run when they want to run.

The Raiders often knew what was coming, but they couldn't stop San Francisco from running 51 plays in the second half and overtime, including the final 30 of the game with most of the damage coming on the ground. That's just how old championship teams such as Pittsburgh, Miami, Washington and even the Raiders used to do it.

And it wasn't the first time that San Francisco has done that this season. Four times in six victories, the 49ers have run out the clock while either driving for the winning points or protecting slim leads.

Individually, neither Hearst nor Barlow is among the top 10 in rushing but together, they form a dangerous 1-2 punch. Combined, they have three fewer carries but 31 more yards than Kansas City's Priest Holmes, who leads the league in rushing.

"I'm sure each one of them would like to have more of the load," Garcia said. "But that's the way it is. We have two backs that are as solid as they are and as talented as they are, and we need to get them both on the field."

Pat Morris, the offensive line coach, has put together a unit that, despite a season-ending knee injury to guard Dave Fiore, has spearheaded the second-best rushing attack in the NFC and allowed only nine sacks.

With Derrick Deese, Ron Stone, Jeremy Newberry, Eric Heitmann and Scott Gragg as the starters and Matt Willig as the top backup, the 49ers can blow teams off the ball when they need yards on the ground, and protect Garcia when they need a completion.

Beasley, the fullback, is the X-factor. Not only is he the lead blocker for Hearst and Barlow, but he also protects Garcia from blitzing linebackers and safeties.

"It's part of the business," Beasley said. "You don't get all the touchdowns and make all the runs, but you're doing the dirty work, like an extra lineman."

But Beasley can also run with the ball on short-yardage plays, and he did that extremely well against the Raiders. Last Sunday, he finished with five carries -- three on third and one, one on second and one, and a critical one on fourth and one in overtime -- and he converted all into first downs.

Finding a way to keep drives alive late in games was a priority for the 49ers coming into the season. In a key game last season, St. Louis defeated San Francisco with a crucial seven-minute drive to end the game after the 49ers had cut the Rams' lead to 30-26. The loss ended up costing the 49ers home-field advantage for the first round of the playoffs and they lost at Green Bay.

"Closing the game with five-, six-, seven-, eight-minute drives is huge," Mariucci said. "You're saying to that offense over there, with a Marshall Faulk or Rich Gannon or Jerry Rice, whatever weapons they may have: 'Keep off the field.' That's very frustrating for them."

After playing the Chiefs this weekend, San Francisco plays two more quality teams, San Diego and Philadelphia. If the secondary stops giving up so many third-down conversions -- opponents have a 53.8% success rate -- they may win enough games to earn precious home-field advantage in the playoffs.

But even if the 49ers end up playing postseason games at Green Bay or Philadelphia in December, they'll still have a chance because of Garcia and their ground attack.

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