Jeff Garcia passed for a franchise-record 4,278 yards and made the Pro Bowl last year in his first full season as an NFL starter. Then he vowed to get better. He wasn't talking about statistics or individual accolades. He was talking about turning the 4-12 49ers team he took over in 1999 into a winner in 2001.
So, you already can say Garcia is a better quarterback than he was during his record-breaking breakthrough season last year. Because, as San Francisco enters its bye week, he already has shown several times this year that he has taken his game to the next level - while carrying the Niners there with him. It's all about winning, as Garcia will be the first to tell you.
"I don't know what the next level is," Garcia said. "Winning games is what it's about. And if that means I've taken it to the point where we can pull out the close ones, and where I can have the confidence late in the game to help lead this team down for a scoring drive, well then, yeah, I feel very confident about that." He should.
In each of San Francisco's four wins this year - which has put the Niners at 4-1, the best record in the NFL besides the 5-0 Rams - Garcia has brought the 49ers from behind to win. In both wins against Atlanta, he brought the Niners back from double-digit deficits in the second half. When Garcia led the Niners to the game's final 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to beat the Falcons 16-13 in the season opener, it was the first fourth-quarter comeback win of his career. But Garcia really outdid himself last Sunday in a 37-31 triumph over the Falcons. He rallied the Niners from a 14-0 hole to begin the second quarter and a 20-7 deficit entering the third period. He valiantly led the Niners on a 72-yard drive in the final two minutes of regulation, stepping up in the pocket and drilling a 17-yard touchdown strike to Terrell Owens between three defenders to tie the game and send it into overtime.
After the Niners won the overtime coin toss, Garcia's 25-yard scramble was part of a 60-yard drive that put San Francisco in position for a chip-shot winning field goal. A fumble ended that opportunity, but the Niners got the ball right back and Garcia ended the game with a 52-yard touchdown throw to Owens. Garcia threw for 332 yards and also rushed for a career-high 70 yards. And while those numbers turned out pretty after they stood at 75 and 23 at halftime, the biggest thing is that they came when it counted most.
"When it was crunch time and we had to make a play, he stuck it in there, or he improvised and ran for a first down," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "He was incredible. Those are pressure snaps. He's really coming around. He probably played his best game. The next step Jeff is taking now is him (becoming) a leader of this team, helping us win more games."