Panning Out As the rebuilding 49ers prospect for talent, unheralded Jeff Garcia is making a strong case that he's their man at quarterback

December 04, 2000

Rich Walcoff, host of the postgame show on the San Francisco
49ers' flagship radio station, KGO, was fielding calls in the
wake of the team's season-opening 36-28 loss to the Atlanta
Falcons.

WALCOFF: "It's Bob's turn in Gilroy. Make me smile somehow, Bob."

BOB: "I think people shouldn't be so negative. First, the 49ers
are one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Second, they had a lot
of guys hurt in the preseason and this is just the first game. We
should be positive. I think the quarterback [Jeff Garcia] did a
great job. Sure, maybe he moves around a little too much, but he
was under pressure. Overall, I thought he did a tremendous job."

WALCOFF: "Bob, you know your stuff. It sounds like you might be a
coach."

BOB: "I am. I'm Jeff's dad."

Twelve weeks have passed since Bob Garcia called to defend his
son. Jeff still cringes when asked about it. He understands his
father's motivation--most of the calls that preceded Bob's
included criticisms of Jeff, who, by the way, had produced decent
numbers against Atlanta (23 completions in 36 attempts for 253
yards and three touchdowns with one interception). But as Jeff
has reminded his father, the old man doesn't need to fight to get
respect for his son. Jeff is doing a pretty good job of disarming
the critics by himself.

Garcia has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NFL
this season and one of the few positives on a Niners team that,
even after a 16-6 win over the Falcons on Nov. 19, is 4-8. He is
third in the league with 24 touchdown passes, is fourth in passer
rating (98.7) and has thrown only seven interceptions. In fact,
after Garcia passed for 336 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-28
loss at Green Bay on Oct. 15, Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler
called him one of the top five quarterbacks in the league.

"I know people didn't expect this out of me," says the
30-year-old Garcia, "but I also know that wherever I've been,
I've found a way to scratch and claw my way to being one of the
better quarterbacks."

Being a good quarterback is one thing. Being a good San Francisco
quarterback is quite another. Though Garcia's numbers would be
relished in most NFL cities, Niners fans were spoiled by Joe
Montana and Steve Young. Even 49ers coach Steve Mariucci and
general manager Bill Walsh, who called Garcia the franchise's
quarterback of the future when he signed him as a free agent from
the Canadian Football League in February 1999, wavered in their
support early this season. Mariucci benched Garcia in the fourth
quarter of a 38-22 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sept. 10 and
the following day intimated that he might start Rick Mirer in
that week's game against the St. Louis Rams. An irked Garcia kept
his job, and over the next seven games he completed 63.7% of his
passes while throwing 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

"I believe Coach Mariucci could have stopped the talk that week
[about whether Garcia or Mirer should start] by sticking by his
quarterback," Garcia says. "Until that point I thought I was that
guy. But then there were doubts coming from the head coach, and
as much as I wanted to talk to him about that, I decided I was
going to go out and become a better quarterback."

At first glance Garcia doesn't appear to be anything special. He
is generously listed at 6'1" and 195 pounds, and his arm strength
is ordinary. "Because I look so average, people sometimes think I
don't have it in me to be above average," he says. Garcia often
uses his instincts and his mobility to make plays, and though he
doesn't lack confidence, he doesn't exude it either. While dining
in a San Jose restaurant recently, he often rambled, sounding
like a candidate in a political debate who has much to say but
only a short time to squeeze in everything. He competes with a
similar sense of urgency.

Garcia, who grew up in Gilroy, a town 60 miles south of San
Francisco, understands how quickly life can change. Thirteen
months before he was born, Jeff's mom, Linda, delivered twin
girls four weeks prematurely. They died the next day. On Mother's
Day 1977, when Jeff was seven, Linda miscarried. Two weeks later
his six-year-old brother, Jason, drowned during a family vacation
in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. In July of the following year, Jeff's
five-year-old sister, Kimberly, tumbled out of the back of a dump
truck used in the family's gravel business and died from massive
internal injuries. Linda says sometimes her son competes so hard
that it appears he is trying to erase his family's pain through
his play.

"For a long time I felt like I was robbed of childhood
experiences," says Jeff, who has two other sisters, Jene, 22, and
Melissa, 21. "I thought I had missed out on those special moments
that siblings share. Who knows? Maybe my brother would've been
one of my receivers in high school."

As Jeff grew up, Linda began referring to the family as the
Garcia Five. His parents and siblings continue to be Jeff's main
support group. Linda is the soft-spoken matriarch whose two
brothers coach football and whose father, Maurice (Red) Elder,
was a star halfback and defensive back at Kansas State in the
1930s. Bob is emotional and candid, a man who spent 20 years
(including 13 as the head coach) winning with unwanted players at
Gavilan Community College in Gilroy before retiring in 1990. As a
ball boy for several of those teams, Jeff watched his father
motivate undersized offensive tackles into believing they could
conquer any challenge. "Jeff is quiet by nature, but if you could
gauge the emotion in him, it would be way off the charts," Bob
says. "He has so much confidence in himself."

No Division I school offered Jeff a scholarship, so he spent one
year playing for his dad at Gavilan before moving on to San Jose
State, where he set the school record for career total offense
and earned MVP honors at the 1994 East-West Shrine Game. Still,
no NFL team even invited him to training camp. Walsh, who was the
Stanford coach at the time and had watched Garcia excel against
his teams twice, tried to help. He contacted 14 friends around
the league to try to sell the quarterback as a potential backup,
but nobody would give him a look. So in the summer of '94 Garcia
caught on with the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL.

He began as a third-stringer, but after Doug Flutie sustained a
season-ending elbow injury midway through the '95 season, Garcia
got his chance. In his second start, a 51-26 win over the
Edmonton Eskimos, he threw for 546 yards and six touchdowns. In
five years he passed for 16,449 yards and 111 scores and led the
Stampeders to the 1998 Grey Cup.

Even though Garcia never talked about it, those around him knew
he was itching for an opportunity to play in the NFL. "There was
no doubt he was an NFL player," says Flutie, who signed with the
Buffalo Bills in 1998. "I remember him asking me about it when
his contract came up [in Canada]. I told him he had to take a
shot at the NFL because the guys down here were no different from
him or me. It's just that they got a shot and we didn't."

Walsh, who had moved back to the Niners in January 1999, gave
Garcia a shot. Making his first NFL start while subbing for the
injured Young on Oct. 3 of last year, Garcia engineered a 24-22
win over the Tennessee Titans, completing 21 passes in 33
attempts for 243 yards and two touchdowns. But his production
went downhill, and the Niners lost 11 of their next 12 games.
Because of limited opportunities in training camp, Garcia wasn't
prepared to run the team's complex offense. He threw five
interceptions and one touchdown in the three games following the
Tennessee win and irritated his receivers by scrambling instead
of waiting for plays to develop. "When Jeff got in the huddle,"
recalls San Francisco fullback Fred Beasley, "his actions
basically said, If you don't know what you're doing, don't ask
me, because I'm learning here, too."

Garcia also carried too many burdens onto the field. He wanted to
please Walsh, his family and the fans back in Gilroy who stopped
by his parents' home with footballs to be autographed. Above all,
Garcia wanted to prove he belonged. "Jeff had so many
expectations on him that in the little time he had he was trying
to make everyone see he could play," says Niners wideout Terrell
Owens. "He had a lot of pressure on him. We were losing, and he
was trying to pick up where Steve left off."

Garcia's fortunes didn't improve until after Mariucci benched him
during a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 7. Though Garcia
was crestfallen enough to question his abilities, two days later
he told his father that "the weight of the world has been taken
off my shoulders." Jeff's spirits were lifted when he watched a
tape, compiled by San Francisco quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp, of
the positive plays he had made during the season.

Garcia slowly realized that he wasn't solely to blame for the
49ers' woes, and he displayed more confidence when he returned to
the starting lineup on Dec. 5. He threw for more than 300 yards
in three of the team's final five games. "Jeff was so apologetic
initially because he was replacing Steve Young," Walsh says. "He
would admit his mistakes. You never apologize as a quarterback.
Even if you are wrong, never say it, because once you go public,
that's when the trouble starts. With Jeff it was just a matter of
his overcoming the Joe-Steve history, and to do that he had to
play."

This year Garcia wasted no time building on his momentum of 1999.
During the off-season he studied film and refined his mechanics
with Knapp three or four days a week. The Niners also tailored
their West Coast offense to fit his talents, giving him free rein
to move around the pocket more, and installing the shotgun. Over
the course of the season Garcia has executed more effectively and
shown better judgment. "He used to have eight to 12 plays a game
where you would say, 'That's not right,'" says 49ers offensive
coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. "Now he has two to five. The very
best in the league are right around that mark."

Says Panthers defensive coordinator John Marshall, "I can see
that he's not as hesitant with his reads. He knows where his
people are going to be, and when he sees that something has been
taken away, he knows where to go with the ball."

The question is whether Garcia can continue to play at such a
high level. Given his history, don't bet against him. "I'm where
I am today because of the doubters," Garcia says. "They drive me.
As for that question about who's going to lead this team in the
future, that doesn't bother me. I know who it will be."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER LITTLE BIG MAN The 6'1" Garcia is third in the NFL in touchdown passes and has thrown only seven interceptions. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER TRIAL BY FIRE Though he has taken his lumps learning the Niners' offense, Garcia has gotten comfortable with the system. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS FAMILY AFFAIR In tough times Garcia often turns to his biggest fan club: Linda, sisters Melissa and Jene, and Bob.

Garcia uses his instincts and mobility to make plays, and though
he doesn't lack confidence, he doesn't exude it either.

"I told him he had to take a shot at the NFL," says Flutie,
"because the guys were no different than him or me."

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