49ers Year-by-Year: 2002

In this week's installment of the Year-by-Year, we're taking on 2002. 2001 had been a breakthrough year for the rebuilding 49ers, and 2002 was set up to be a banner year for a franchise rediscovering its identity. However, any success the team seemed to come by was marred in controversy. Whether coming from a broken front office or the always outspoken Terrell Owens, the 2002 49ers were as disconnected from each other as they were anything else. Read on to see how it all turned out.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 5

@ New York Giants

W: 16-13

1-0

0-1

Sept. 15

Denver Broncos

L: 24-14

1-1

2-0

Sept. 22

Washington Redskins

W: 10-20

2-1

1-2

Oct. 6

St. Louis Rams

W: 13-37

3-1

0-5

Oct. 14

@ Seattle Seahawks

W: 28-21

4-1

1-4

Oct. 20

@ New Orleans Saints

L: 27-35

4-2

6-1

Oct. 27

Arizona Cardinals

W: 28-38

5-2

4-3

Nov. 3

@ Oakland Raiders

W: 23-20

6-2

4-4

Nov. 10

Kansas City Chiefs

W: 13-17

7-2

4-5

Nov. 17

@ San Diego Chargers

L: 17-20

7-3

7-3

Nov. 25

Philadelphia Eagles

L: 38-17

7-4

8-3

Dec. 1

Seattle Seahawks

W: 24-31

8-4

4-8

Dec 8

@ Dallas Cowboys

W: 31-27

9-4

5-8

Dec. 15

Green Bay Packers

L: 20-14

9-5

11-3

Dec. 21

@ Arizona Cardinals

W; 17-14

10-5

5-10

Dec. 30

@ St. Louis Rams

L: 20-31

10-6

7-9

Playoffs:

Jan. 5

New York Giants

W: 38-39

11-6

10-7

Jan. 12

@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

L: 6-31

11-7

13-4


Head Coach:
Steve Mariucci

Key Losses: G Ray Brown, SS Lance Schulters

Key Additions: G/C Eric Heitmann, SS Tony Parrish, LB Brandon Moore

2002 was a big year for the NFL. With the addition of the expansion Houston Texans, the league had grown to an impressive 32 teams. The addition also meant that the conferences were unbalanced, and the league realigned from two conferences with three divisions each into two conferences with four divisions each. While the league tried to make the new conferences more geographically accurate than they had been, it also tried to maintain historical rivalries. This kind of compromise sent a team like Atlanta out of the NFC West, but didn't move a team like Dallas out of the NFC East. In the arrangement, the Seattle Seahawks actually switched conferences, joining the 49ers, the Cardinals, and the Rams in the NFC West.

The 49ers had just gone through a massive realignment themselves. Once an aging team riding the skill and success of long-time stars like Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ken Norton Jr., Tim McDonald and more, the team had spent a difficult three-plus years transitioning into a new era of 49ers football. As Jeff Garcia grew into the role of starter and Terrell Owens overtook Rice as the primary receiver, the team very quickly shed veterans and restocked with talented youth. After only two losing seasons, the effort had paid its dividends, and 2001's 12-4 record and playoff appearance signaled that the 49ers were back.

Going into 2002, the rebuild was officially over and one of the most stable offseasons that the team had experienced in years stood as proof of that. The 49ers only found themselves needing to replace two players, guard Ray Brown and strong safety Lance Schulters. They addressed guard by drafting Eric Heitmann, and they addressed strong safety by signing veteran Tony Parrish. Other than those moves, the team was essentially happy to build off of the success of the previous season.

But the stability of the roster belied the internal struggles surrounding the franchise. 2001 had been a difficult season for head coach Steve Mariucci, who clashed openly with both ownership and his own star receiver, Terrell Owens. Despite the team's rebirth, it was generally assumed that his job was on the line even if the team performed well.

And if the 49ers were hoping to answer any questions about the coach's future in week one, they failed. Even with a win in New York, the 49ers offense never got going and managed only 13 points through most of the game despite the defense intercepting Kerry Collins three times. Only a Jose Cortez field goal proved to be the difference that night.

Things got no better as the team traveled home in week two. The embarrassing loss brought with it questions about the team's focus and preparedness - and with those questions, more about the future of Mariucci. Luckily, week three brought the Redskins to town. This was especially lucky because a flu bug swept through the team that week, and some players couldn't even finish the game. Jeff Garcia started the game, but had to give way to Tim Rattay who - though listed as ill - was healthy enough to close out the win. The team ultimately went through 20 IV bags just to put a team on the field that day. Coming away with a win was the first impressive thing they had done all season. Even better, they had a bye week upcoming to get healthy again.

After the win, however, Owens again spoke out to the media against his coach, openly questioning Mariucci's killer instinct. Only three weeks in, and it was promising to be a very long season.

But after the bye week, the 49ers got to play an uncharacteristically struggling Rams team before traveling to Seattle to take on a Seahawks team with just as many problems as St. Louis. They disposed of the Rams, but only just came out with a win over Seattle as Owens scored the winning touchdown in the game - before pulling a Sharpie from his sock and signing the ball. The receiver's penchant for controversy was growing game-by-game, but his game-changing abilities were bringing wins at the same rate.

The long string of struggling opponents ended there, though, and the 49ers couldn't defeat the strong New Orleans Saints. The pattern held over the next four weeks, as San Francisco took care of business against the overwhelmingly average Cardinals, Raiders (and former receiver Jerry Rice), and Chiefs before losing in overtime to the then 6-3 Chargers. Even with the loss, the 49ers themselves were 7-3 and in control of the West.

The next week things got worse. The Eagles came into San Francisco without starter Donovan McNabb. Backup Koy Detmer, however, had no problems filling the Pro-Bowler's shoes as he carved up the 49ers' defense from start to finish. The post-loss theme for the team was one of embarrassment, and even Bryant Young spoke about a lack of cohesiveness on the team. More alarming was the team's continued trend of losses to playoff caliber teams - even those without their starting quarterbacks.

There wouldn't be a chance to buck that trend for another two weeks, but nothing about the team's close wins over the Seahawks and Cowboys would make anybody hopeful about their chances against Green Bay. Despite the team's 9-4 record, not many even among fans were sure that the team could even pretend to compete in the playoffs. At a point in the season where San Franciscans should have been preparing to celebrate, many were filled with nothing short of concern.

Oddly enough, the team's 20-14 loss to Green Bay was almost a reassurance. The reality that the team would be in the playoffs was sinking in for the players. But also, the 49ers remained competitive with a contending team until the final seconds. The 49ers were one play at the end of the game away from defeating Green Bay - and despite the overall distaste at the loss, that was a step in the right direction.

And then, the team sleep-walked through the final two weeks. Or did they? It was difficult to tell whether lackluster performances to defeat the Cardinals and to lose to the Rams were examples of a team easing into the playoffs or further evidence that a team which had stumbled and fallen to a 10-6 record simply could not put away a decisive victory regardless of the strength of the opponent.

Whatever the case, the 49ers would host the New York Giants in the playoffs. Though question marks loomed everywhere and head coach Steve Mariucci's job was all but lost already, nobody in San Francisco could help but feel the pull, the allure of possibility. The playoffs gave the 49ers a second lease on life - a new season to rectify the failures of the regular season.

And after the first half, they were down 38-14 at the end of the first half. So much for the playoffs. So much for possibility. So much for the 49ers, and so much for Steve Mariucci.

Then the impossible happened. In the third quarter, the 49ers moved to a two-minute offense. In the new alignment, Garcia found his rhythm. He quickly hit Owens for a touchdown, followed by a two-point conversion. 38-22. The third quarter ended with two magnificent defensive stops. Then, in the fourth quarter, Garcia scored on the ground, running a bootleg into the endzone. Then another two-point conversion. 38-30. Then a field goal. 38-33.

Suddenly, the game was within reach. But the team was still losing, and they had lost close games that season already. As the Giants marched into field goal range, 66,000 raving fans in attendance could feel the impending hammer of a two-score game with three minutes to go. From 42 yards out, though, Matt Bryant failed to convert.

Just like that, the momentum was back on the 49ers side, and Garcia ran an efficient, exciting two-minute drill capped by a 13-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets to take the lead with one minute to play.

Again, the Giants looked to swing the hammer and used that minute to drive all the way to the 49ers' 23-yard line. With the game on the line, long-snapper Trey Junkin muffed the snap, ending any chance for Matt Bryant to redeem himself - and the 49ers won the game.

It was an unbelievable catharsis for a franchise that had been sick for a playoff win for years. Even Terrell Owens got in on the jubilation, heaping praise on his quarterback after the game.

And then it all came tumbling down. Traveling to Tampa Bay, the 49ers were simply no match whatsoever for the marauding Buccaneers, and their season ended with a 31-6 loss.

And with the end of the 2002 season came the end of another era of San Francisco 49ers' football, this one the most short-lived of all.

Primary References:

http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/2002.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2002_NFL_season
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/09/06/SP78652.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2002/09/23/SP73300.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2002/10/15/SP61050.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2002/11/26/SP137447.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2002/12/16/SP241537.DTL
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2003/01/06/SP113935.DTL

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