49ers green with envy Prepared for Vikings, they see real target as deposing Packers

January 03, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO -- Steve Mariucci, the San Francisco 49ers' rookie coach, is violating the first rule in the coaching handbook this week: He's not playing them one game at a time.

As he prepared his team for today's playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings, Mariucci admitted he was peeking ahead to the game the 49ers think they'll play next week against the defending champion Green Bay Packers.

If all goes according to form and the 49ers and Packers win this weekend, they'll play next week in the NFC title game, with that winner trying to give the NFC its 14th straight Super Bowl victory Jan. 25.

Mariucci, who spent four years as the quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, said of the possibility of playing the Packers, "I'd be lying if I said it never crossed my mind."

"I thought about it the minute [team president] Carmen Policy and I hung up the phone on our first conversation [last January]. Somebody has to beat the Packers. They're the champs. But that's not the job at hand. We've got to do something else first."

Well, it's time for the something else -- today's game against the Vikings.

It's easy to understand why the 49ers can look ahead to the Packers.

After all, the Vikings' starting quarterback, Brad Johnson, is injured and Minnesota lost five straight games before sneaking into the playoffs in the final regular-season game when Indianapolis quarterback Jim Harbaugh was injured and his replacement, Kelly Holcomb, fell apart.

One of those five losses was a 28-17 defeat at San Francisco on Dec. 7.

The Vikings did pull off a miracle finish to beat the New York Giants last week, but the oddsmakers weren't impressed. They list the 49ers as two-touchdown favorites.

The Vikings appear to have as many problems off the field as on it. Not only is the team up for sale, but there's no guarantee it will stay in Minneapolis when it is sold. And coach Dennis Green, who wrote a book in which he outlined a plan to take over the team in a legal fight, always seems to be in the midst of a controversy.

He started the latest flap in a startling interview in the ABC-TV pre-game show last Saturday, when he said Minnesota-area columnists were trying to run him out of town.

"We've got some columnists who have made up their mind and they talked about, I've got proof of that, that their No. 1 objective is to run Dennis Green out of town," he said. "That's totally different than being objective in your criticism and reporting."

The interviewer, Lesley Visser, then said that Green told her that in the spring of 1996, three columnists met with a Vikings official and "outlined a plan to smear him until he was fired."

"I'm not going to discuss it," Green said of the allegations several times after the game.

In a conference call with San Francisco writers this week, he didn't back down, but he didn't elaborate.

"I think ABC is one of the most reputable news outlets in the country, so I think I'll let it stand at that," he said.

Meanwhile, rumors persist that Green will wind up as the next coach of the Oakland Raiders, a place where paranoia is nothing new, although Joe Bugel still has the job.

Green, who has a year left on his contract, still might survive in Minnesota if team president Roger Headrick, one of the 10 owners, gains control of the team. Headrick is a Green supporter.

Green, a former 49ers assistant, does seem to have a good rapport with the players despite all the controversy, although last week's win over the Giants was his first playoff victory in five tries.

Wide receiver Cris Carter said: "Everyone loves having Denny as coach."

After the game, Green did give his coaching against the Giants good reviews even though he made a questionable decision to punt on fourth-and-seven from his 40 with less than four minutes left while trailing by nine points.

"Very rarely can you have a chance to show your stuff," he said. "A head coach shows his stuff when he has to use timeouts properly, when he makes decisions on field position, on blitzes, on running and passing. Today, you saw my stuff. I feel great about that because I like it."

If Green, who brought his team to Phoenix to practice this week, is to show his stuff against the 49ers, he needs a big game from running back Robert Smith and a consistent game from quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Smith rushed for 1,266 yards this year and Cunningham, who hadn't thrown a regular-season pass in almost two years until Dec. 1, put together a late rally against the Giants after a shaky start. He has two good targets in Carter and Jake Reed, but he has a tendency to run out of the pocket instead of staying in it to find them.

The big problem is the Vikings' defense, which ranked 29th in the league and was carved up by Steve Young a month ago. The 49ers quarterback completed 20 of 25 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns in that game.

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