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49ers

Garcia still chasing ghosts

He'll be compared to Joe Montana and Steve Young until he wins it all, but his numbers measure up.

photo
[AP photo]
Jeff Garcia has three straight seasons of 3,000 yards and 300 completions and has a record 2.21 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- He'll line up behind center this afternoon, prepared for what he considers the "ultimate challenge" of facing Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and the rest of the Bucs' best-in-the-NFL defense.

But, just like in every other start, Jeff Garcia is competing against more than the players on the other side of the line. Playing quarterback for the 49ers is different, a battle fought as much in the present as against the past, a competition against the current opponent and a constant comparison to peerless predecessors Steve Young and Joe Montana.

As unlikely as it may seem, Garcia -- the coach's kid who grew up in Gilroy, Calif. (better known as the Garlic Capital of the World), played juco ball and then at San Jose State; the guy who had to spend five years playing in Canada and endure a half-dozen tryouts before being allowed in the NFL -- is winning both ways.

"There was a certain performance level that has been consistent over the years and Jeff has continued that trend of excellent quarterbacking," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "He's done it with a changeover in personnel, he's done it with a young growing defense, he's done it with a team in transition. So he's handled it very well.

"It's not easy to do. It's not just the performance, the physical attributes it might take to perform well on this team, but to handle the pressure of it, the expectations level, the bar that has been set so high. He's done very well for himself, and for us."

It would be easy to curse the circumstance, to consider being judged against the ghosts of Steve and Joe an unfair burden nobody would want a part of. Garcia, who grew up in northern California rooting for the 49ers, insists it's just the opposite.

"It's an honor," Garcia said. "I have to look at it as an honor. In no way has it ever been a burden. Obviously, it's a challenge. If you're a competitive athlete, these are the challenges that you look forward to. You want to overcome these sort of challenges.

"For me, it's just been a great ride in the sense of where I started with this team and now where I've come to with this team. I'm just trying to maintain my own and trying to do the best I can."

He's done pretty well since taking over for Young in 1999, leading the 49ers to the playoffs twice, earning three straight Pro Bowl selections, matching some of the dynamic duo's accomplishments (three straight seasons of 3,000 yards passing) and surpassing others (300 completions in three consecutive seasons and the best touchdown-interception ratio, 2.21, of any player in history).

Basically, it's all good, especially for a guy who wasn't drafted, wasn't invited to the NFL combine, wasn't wanted by even one team as a free-agent training camp body.

He packed up and went north, and after five seasons with Calgary he had a Grey Cup championship, an MVP award and some needed confidence. He came back for another shot at the NFL and had a proponent in Bill Walsh, who had just rejoined the San Francisco front office and admired Garcia from his collegiate efforts against Walsh's Stanford team. When other teams, including Jon Gruden's Raiders, passed, the 49ers took him.

Garcia, 32, has responded with steady growth and improvement, taking controls of the West Coast offense and succeeding most when he uses a combination of his arm, legs, head and heart.

Ultimately, Garcia may be measured by championships, as Montana won four Super Bowls and Young won one. All Garcia has done thus far is win one playoff game. But he played so well in the wild comeback against the Giants, throwing like Montana and running like Young, that Walsh walked around the locker room insisting on stirring the ghosts.

"When," Walsh asked, "has Joe ever played a better game? When has Steve ever played a better game?"

Garcia, humbled and honored by the praise, insists he is a long way from belonging.

"As far as legacies are concerned, I'm still trying to find my way out of a hole sometimes," he said. "They're two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. I just want to be the next guy they talk about one day. I really do."

Measuring up

Here is how 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia compares in his first 58 starts with predecessors Steve Young and Joe Montana:

QB         Att.     Comp  Pct.   Yards   TD   Int
Garcia 1,938 1,206 62.2 13,540 95 40
Young 1,488 898 60.3 11,301 71 46
Montana 1,806 1,149 63.6 14,004 98 48

Source: San Francisco 49ers


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