When Owens feels lost in the offense - as he did in the 49ers' season-ending loss to the Green Bay Packers - he must be able to approach his coach on the sideline to express his concerns in a rational manner. Even if his concerns are legitimate, it does no one any good when he is off to himself, complaining to no one in particular.
The communication between All-Pro player and coach is not the only issue the 49ers must face this offseason, but it ranks high on the list of priorities. It wasn't long after he signed his big contract that Owens began feeling isolated from the organization. He felt Mariucci betrayed him when the coach suspended him for a week without pay for the Dallas episode in September 2000.
In the locker room, Owens and owner John York had a stare-down. General manager-turned-consultant Bill Walsh was one of the few power brokers in the organization who felt he could walk up to Owens and conduct a conversation. The week of the playoff loss to the Packers, Terry Donahue made a breakthrough. Donahue, less than a full year into his job as team GM, got together with Owens and had dinner. It might not sound like much, but it was an indication that Donahue does not want Owens to feel like an outsider.
Owens has a long memory. He said he doesn't want to have any sort of relationship with his head coach. That's fine. But if Mariucci takes the step to pick up the phone to try to offer Owens an olive branch, he might be causing a lot more harm to the team if he does not accept. Owens will never completely trust Mariucci and, again, that's fine. But he needs to be able to coolly tell his coach what he sees on the field, what routes are working, what's not working, etc. That is the way Owens can get more involved in the offense. And, let's face it, Owens needs to be more involved in the offense. He is the only game-breaker on the team. As long as Owens is healthy, the 49ers need to center their entire offense on him.
No other receiver in the NFL - and few players - is as capable of causing so many problems for an opponent as Owens. There are those who say that Owens is selfish. He undoubtedly wants to be the center of attention, but he also only speaks out after the team loses. In other words, if he's not seeing the ball as often as he'd like and the team is still winning, there's nothing to complain about.
The 49ers won only two games this season in which Owens did not catch a touchdown pass. In the five games the 49ers lost, Owens averaged just 4.6 receptions for 59.6 yards and no touchdowns. So Owens makes a good point when he says the ball should be coming his way more often. It sounds so convincing when you hear Mariucci talking about teams making a commitment to take away Owens during the course of a game. He'll talk about how a safety will be giving help over the top, and so on and so forth. How many seasons did opposing defenses make Jerry Rice the No. 1 focus? How many seasons did Rice continue to thrive despite all that attention? Somewhere along the line that old 49ers staple, the slant pattern, disappeared from the playbook. Owens could be just as dangerous with that simple pattern as Rice was in his prime.
The problem with the ongoing Owens-Mariucci feud is that until they both get to understand each other a little, neither side particularly cares what the other has to say. Mariucci doesn't listen to what Owens says because it's so easy to dismiss it, knowing that most people's initial reaction is "Oh, geez, there he goes again." And Owens couldn't care less about the machinations of why he isn't catching 10 passes a game.
In the midst of their early season sparring match after the loss to the Chicago Bears, Mariucci said he and he alone decides when a player is going to catch 20 passes in a game. It was a reference to the previous season when Owens latched onto an NFL-record 20 receptions in a victory over the same Bears. If you turn it around, Owens was thinking Mariucci and Mariucci alone also decides when a player of his caliber catches three passes in a loss to the Bears or four passes in a season-ending loss to the Packers.
That Mariucci quote was clipped from a local newspaper, highlighted in yellow ink, and taped to Owens' locker for the final 2 1/2 months of the season. It's time for that article to come down. It's time for that wall between coach and player to come down or things could really get ugly in 2002. Matt Maiocco covers the 49ers for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat