September 5, 2010

2002: 49ers Defeat Giants in Thursday Night Opening Game

The NFL chose to open the 2002 regular season with a Thursday night game prior to the weekend contests. The New York Giants hosted the San Francisco 49ers at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands on September 5. There was a celebrity-filled concert at Times Square prior to the kickoff, much of it in tribute to the recovery efforts in New York City following the previous year’s terrorist attack.

The Giants, coached by Jim Fassel and NFC champions in 2000, had slipped to 7-9 in ’01 and there had been dissension sown along the way. Even a bright spot like DE Michael Strahan breaking the single-season record for sacks with 22.5 was clouded by controversy when it appeared that Green Bay QB Brett Favre had set himself up for the record-setting sack in the season finale. In the ensuing offseason, defensive coordinator John Fox left the club to become head coach of the Carolina Panthers and a mainstay at linebacker, Jessie Armstead, moved on to Washington as a free agent.

San Francisco had finished second in the NFC West under Head Coach Steve Mariucci in ’01 with a 12-4 mark and lost to Green Bay in the Wild Card round of the postseason. It was a step in the right direction after the club had run into salary cap trouble and fell below .500 in both 1999 and 2000. The passing combination of QB Jeff Garcia to WR Terrell Owens had been highly productive, although the temperamental Owens (pictured above) clashed with both coach and teammates.

For all of the pregame hoopla, the contest itself seemed anticlimactic as both teams started slowly. The 49ers got the first break on the game’s third play when safety Tony Parrish intercepted a pass by New York QB Kerry Collins. After a 16-yard run by Garcia, the Niners had a first and goal situation at the Giants seven yard line, but couldn’t get into the end zone and the resulting 25-yard field goal attempt by Jose Cortez was blocked.

New York proceeded to drive 69 yards on 11 plays with Matt Bryant, who had been cut the week before but re-signed when PK Owen Pochman had to be placed on injured reserve, booting a 29-yard field goal to give the Giants the early lead.

Cortez, the top placekicker in the XFL in 2001 with the Los Angeles Xtreme, made good on his second field goal attempt from 23 yards to tie the game at 3-3 at the end of the first quarter. That was it for the scoring until the last play of the half when Bryant narrowly made a 33-yard field goal that allowed the Giants to take a 6-3 lead into halftime.

San Francisco went ahead 10-6 in the third quarter as Garcia connected with RB Garrison Hearst on a swing pass that produced a nine-yard touchdown. The Niners seemed in control in the fourth quarter when Cortez kicked a 33-yard field goal following the third interception of a Collins pass.

However, the Giants fought back, driving 77 yards on 14 plays highlighted by Collins passes of 23 yards to WR Amani Toomer in a third-and-16 situation and 20 yards to rookie TE Jeremy Shockey. RB Tiki Barber capped the possession by diving into the end zone from a yard out, and with the successful PAT the score was tied at 13-13 with 1:49 remaining in regulation.

San Francisco’s offense took over on its 30 yard line following the kickoff, and Garcia immediately threw to Owens, who had streaked past Giants CB Jason Sehorn to make the catch on his way to a 33-yard gain. From the New York 37, Garcia passed again, this time to WR J.J. Stokes for 12 yards. After a seven-yard run by Hearst, Cortez was successful on the game-winning field goal from 36 yards. The 49ers went home with a hard-earned 16-13 victory.

Said 49ers Coach Mariucci afterward “It took us the whole game to get going, but we won. Can you call this game ugly? I guess you could say that.”

Indeed, sloppy play and penalties had marred the contest. There were 15 penalties, including 10 by the Giants. New York outgained the 49ers, 361 yards to 279, but had been undone by untimely interceptions (neither team fumbled) and penalty flags.

Terrell Owens was held to just eight yards receiving prior to the clutch catch that helped set up the winning field goal; he ended up with four receptions for 41 yards. TE Eric Johnson had the most receiving yards for the Niners with 44 on three catches. Jeff Garcia completed 16 of 26 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Garrison Hearst was the leading rusher with 40 yards on 12 carries.

Kerry Collins went to the air 45 times and completed 28 of those passes for 342 yards; however, he had the three interceptions as opposed to no TDs. Amani Toomer had an outstanding performance, catching 9 passes for 134 yards, but also had a 44-yard catch to inside the San Francisco 10 yard line wiped out by a holding penalty. The Giants gained just 43 yards on the ground, on 22 carries, with Tiki Barber leading the club with 29 yards on 15 attempts and the one score.

Both teams went on to finish the season with 10-6 records; in the case of the 49ers, it was good enough to win the NFC West while the Giants finished second in the NFC East and qualified for the postseason as a wild card team. They met in the Wild Card round, with San Francisco again coming out on top, 39-38, in a far-more exciting and high-scoring game that came down to a botched field goal attempt and missed pass interference call by the officials.

Terrell Owens caught a career-high 100 passes for 1300 yards and led the league with 13 touchdown receptions. The journeyman placekicker Jose Cortez (pictured above left) failed to last through the year with the 49ers and ended the 2002 season with Washington; he went on to see action with four more teams (as well as a brief second stint with the 49ers in 2005).

The Thursday night opening game was deemed a success and became an annual event, although since 2004 the host team has been the defending Super Bowl champion.