What could be more ironic than this? The 49ers, trying to get their offense back to the way it used to be, hire a head coach known for working with quarterbacks - and turn, successfully, into a running team.
That isn’t the way anyone expected it to happen, not even head coach Steve Mariucci.
Of course, the 49ers never asked him about it.
Mariucci was asked this week how much the 49ers inquired about his offensive philosophy before they hired him as head coach. Not at all, he said.
“We just relied on him to handle it,” said club president Carmen Policy.
Policy and the 49ers knew that Mariucci knew the West Coast offense. They knew he could teach quarterbacks and would hire aggressive, young assistants. They didn’t know he would get the 49ers to the NFC title game in his first year with an offense that looked more like the 1990 New York Giants than most of the 49ers’ best teams.
You remember the ‘90 Giants. They ended the 49ers’ three-peat dream even though they failed to score a touchdown in two games against San Francisco, winning the NFC championship 15-13 on five field goals.
Those Giants parlayed a low-risk offense and a strong defense into a title. They scored 35 offensive touchdowns, averaged 33.8 rushes, 128 yards a game rushing and 32:15 possession time during the season, and had a turnover margin of plus 20. The 49ers scored 36 offensive touchdowns, averaged 32.7 rushes, 123 yards a game rushing and 32:28 possession time, and had a turnover margin of plus 21.
Mariucci has said often that “a part of him just wants to wing it” by throwing the ball 40 or 50 times a game. But he also broke into pro football on a team with a power running game, and he is very comfortable directing an offense that relies as much on the run as the 49ers did this season. His first NFL assistant coaching job, after all, was with the Los Angeles Rams in 1985, the year after Eric Dickerson set the NFL rushing record with 2,105 yards.
“We had like six running plays,” Mariucci recalled Tuesday. “It was smashmouth and it was crush ‘em and it was successful. It was so simple. The passing game was very limited. The running game was almost unstoppable. I learned, if you get big guys and you get a guy who can run, you can do it this way.”
At a much younger age, Mariucci grew up near Green Bay watching the Packers of the ‘60s smash their way to championships, and he still talks fondly of players like Jim Taylor, their Hall of Fame fullback.
Nonetheless, that wasn’t quite the plan when the 49ers hired him. The 49ers thought they were getting a coach who would take their offense back to its Bill Walsh roots. But they never actually asked Mariucci about his offensive philosophy before hiring him; it didn’t come up in the interviews with Policy.
That is just as well.
“We felt he was capable of versatility and making adjustments,” Policy said. “He seemed like that type of person. He’s not fixed on one single track.”
So how did the 49ers’ offense evolve?
Clearly, some of it has to do with the almost season-long loss of Jerry Rice and the injury to Steve Young in the opening game. But the fact is, Mariucci had the 49ers headed into a running direction much earlier. Last March, in fact, during the NFL’s annual meeting, he explained how he planned to introduce the I-formation and a power running game to the 49ers.
The change started as soon as Mariucci reviewed the 49ers’ game tapes from 1996.
“We watched every play,” he said. “They were beating up Steve Young because of the no-run threat and pass every down.”
Offseason acquisitions moved the 49ers in this direction. Kevin Gogan to bulk up the middle. Garrison Hearst for inside running. Redefine fullback William Floyd’s blocking role. Draft Greg Clark, an excellent blocking tight end.
“We got those guys almost like ‘bubble’ guys,” said Dwight Clark, the 49ers’ vice president/director of football operations. “We knew we had to strengthen the running game, but I felt we would still stay predominantly a passing offense.
“Well, those guys were so good at blocking and running the ball that we flipped a little bit.”