Jeff Garcia had given the San Francisco 49ers five great years. He assumed the mantle of Joe Montana and Steve Young and led the 49ers to a pair of playoff berths while he claimed three Pro Bowl nods.
He had more than paid back the faith the 49ers — most notably Bill Walsh — put in him by taking a chance on the five-year Canadian Football vet after trying him out and signing him before the 1999 season.
But the 49ers wouldn’t — or couldn’t — pay him after the 2003 season, thanks to the salary cap.
So the pair parted ways, and then-GM Terry Donahue left the San Francisco media with this thought:
“When you lose stars, you don’t worry about it. You create new stars.”
Four years later, the 49ers are still waiting for their new star, and the quarterback they discarded will be playing for the newly-crowned NFC South champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Monster Park.
At the time, Garcia said, it was tough to reconcile his Pro Bowl performances and leadership of the 49ers against their inability to offer him the salary of a front-line starting quarterback. Garcia wasn’t the only player the 49ers couldn’t pay that year. He was willing to work with the 49ers, he said, but a contract never materialized.
The man who grew up in the shadow of the great 49ers teams of the 1980s in nearby Gilroy, Calif., eventually realized that he could no longer play for the 49ers and left for Cleveland.
“When I was a 49er, I always thought I would stay a 49er my entire career, and that was basically cut in half because I feel like I still have a lot of good football left in me,” Garcia said.
His words to the Tampa Bay media on Wednesday were said with an air of diplomacy. His words to San Jose Mercury-News writer Ann Killion in an article earlier this week were a bit more pungent, filled with the desire of a quarterback to prove a team wrong.
“Of course I want to go to San Francisco and play a lights-out football game," Garcia told Killion on Monday. "To show that, though I'm 37, I'm still playing at the top of my game. That this player could have been with you and could have continued to deliver. But that didn't happen."
For a while, it looked like the 49ers made a sound decision. Garcia endured two horrible years, first in Cleveland in 2004 and then in Detroit in 2005. In Philadelphia last year, Garcia actually returned home to San Francisco — as Donovan McNabb’s backup.
With the Eagles holding a big lead in the fourth quarter, Garcia had hoped to get in the game and do something.
“I was waiting, I was pretty much right on coach (Marty) Mornhingweg’s hip,” Garcia said. “I had my helmet in hand. I don’t know what else I could have done.”
Garcia had to wait until McNabb suffered a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 19 against Tennessee. Garcia then looked like the Garcia of old, leading the Eagles on a season-ending five-game surge that saw them win the NFC East and a playoff game over the Giants before losing to New Orleans.
But like the 49ers, the Eagles chose not to re-sign Garcia, even though he had made it known he would like to stay. The Eagles signed A.J. Feeley to back up McNabb.
The Bucs signed Garcia to a two-year contract and he continued his career renaissance, leading the Bucs’ bounce-back season from a 4-12 record in 2006.
Garcia is confident he never would have had a chance if not for Walsh, the former 49ers coach who built the franchise up from four straight losing seasons from 1977-80 to five-time Super Bowl champions. Walsh was the general manager when Garcia left the CFL in 1998 to try his hand in the NFL.
Garcia said Walsh had to sell then-head coach Steve Mariucci on allowing the San Jose State product to try out (Walsh was a SJSU alum). Garcia took over for an injured Steve Young early in the 1999 season and never gave up the starting job until the 49ers released him five years later.
Even now, several months after Walsh’s death, Garcia feels obligated to his former mentor.
“He is a person in a lot of ways that I never want to let down,” Garcia said. “I want to make sure that I give everything that I have because he gave everything that he had to get me to that point.”
And while Garcia’s star is ascending again, the 49ers are in disarray. Coming off last year’s 7-9 season many expected the 49ers to challenge the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West.
That hasn’t materialized, and instability at the quarterback position hasn’t helped. The Niners are down to their third quarterback, Shaun Hill, who will start Sunday. The Niners’ No. 1 overall pick in 2005, Alex Smith, is done for the season after an injury. Backup Trent Dilfer remains out with a concussion.
That makes Hill the fifth different starting quarterback — and sixth overall — since Garcia left after the 2003 season.
The 49ers haven’t had a winning season since 2002, the year before Garcia left.
“I think they’ve found it hard to get back to some of those better days,” Garcia said. “It may be in their future, but the last four years have been a struggle.”
Garcia goes home at a high point in the latter stages of his career. His team has a division championship. His wife, Carmella, is expecting a child. It’s the holidays, and much of Garcia’s family will be in attendance.
It will certainly be more emotional than Garcia’s return to Detroit in October. At least there, the Lions seem to have found an answer at quarterback.
The 49ers are still searching. Garcia, meanwhile, has found his bliss.
“He’s proud of where he’s from,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “He grew up in Gilroy. I think the Cinderella story he had in San Francisco was awesome. I lived it. I was there. I’m sure there will be some real emotion going through him. There should be.”
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.