Niners Look Like A Team Running On Empty In Loss
The Tampa Tribune, published 13 January 2003

They were tired and they were beaten up, and it showed Sunday. The 49ers looked like a team that expended every ounce of energy a week earlier engineering one of the greatest postseason comebacks in NFL history, then flew across the continent into the spinning blade of a red and pewter buzz saw. San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci, looking a bit haggard himself Sunday afternoon, did not appear to relish the idea of a cross-country flight home in the wake of the second-worst playoff loss in 49ers history.

``It's a tough way to end it, certainly,'' Mariucci said. ``I'm sure it'll 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. And also, we know that we've got work to do.''

That said, the post-mortem on Sunday's 31-6 blowout loss to Tampa Bay in an NFC divisional game revealed more about the rigors of the NFL season - especially the part of the season spent on the road - than it did about San Francisco's inequities. Did his team run out of gas? ``If healthy bodies are what you consider gas, then yeah,'' Mariucci said. ``We ran out of healthy bodies, and that's what we needed to play against such a great defense.''

By halftime, three-quarters of the 49ers' secondary was injured and out. They started without cornerback Jason Webster and lost cornerback Ahmed Plummer to a dislocated right shoulder in the first quarter. Free safety Zack Bronson, who returned last week from surgery after breaking his left foot in Week 5, lasted only until early in the third quarter.

The Bucs already were eager to pass, based on the Giants' success through the air before the 49ers came roaring back from a 24-point deficit to win their wild-card game last week in San Francisco. When quarterback Brad Johnson saw backups Mike Rumph, Rashad Holman and recently signed Duane Hawthorne patrolling the secondary, it was time to move the ball.

``With young defensive backs, if the pressure can't get to Johnson in a hurry, a QB like that is going to pick them apart,'' San Francisco defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. said. ``When three out of four DBs are out, it's hard to win in this league.''

Tampa Bay's No. 1 defense, meanwhile, held the 49ers out of the end zone and limited Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia to 193 yards on 22 of 41 passing. He was intercepted twice and fumbled away the ball once. ``We just couldn't get anything going,'' Garcia said.

It's never easy to win on the road with a berth in a conference title game on the line. Coming into the weekend, home teams were 109-36 all- time in divisional playoff games, and San Francisco has lost five consecutive road playoff games. Couple those telling statistics with the emotionally draining comeback only a week earlier, and the 49ers were set up for a fall. Not that the only healthy member of the secondary would buy into that as an excuse. ``We got beat by a team that was better prepared than we were,'' strong safety Tony Parrish said. ``It didn't have anything to do with last week.''

Not since a 49-3 loss to the eventual Super Bowl XXI champion New York Giants in 1987 have the 49ers limped home this battered and bruised. ``We lost our second playoff game, so on we go,'' Mariucci said. ``We check out [today]. The team needs some much- needed rest.''