Cal Defense, A's Rebuilding, Duh Raiders, Barry Zito
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 22, 2010

Sept. 22 column

WITH CAL’S resounding defeat in Reno Saturday night, we learned once again that any football system is only as good as the players.

Many Cal fans reveled in the blowouts in the first two games, thinking they were caused by the Bears’ aggressive defensive schemes. I cautioned that the blowouts came against inferior teams and didn’t mean anything.

Saturday night, the Bears were missing their best defensive player, linebacker Mike Mohammed, whose sore toe may also keep him out Saturday night against the Arizona Wildcats at Tucson. Like Zach Follett in 2008, Mohammed is the one player who can put consistent pressure on the quarterback on blitzes.

Meanwhile, in Reno, the Bears also ran into the perfect quarterback for a system, in Colin Kaepernick running the “Pistol” triple-option offense.

It’s always difficult to play a team with a different offensive style for the first time; look at the trouble teams have had against the Air Force Academy.

But, I don’t think this system would be so difficult to stop if it were run by a different quarterback. Nor do I believe that Kaepernick would be as successful running a conventional system. But, he’s perfect for this one.

I still don’t have a handle on how good (or bad) this Cal team is. It does worry me that quarterback Kevin Riley is still inconsistent, after all his playing time. He’s got the receivers this year but if he doesn’t step up, it will be a long year for the Bears.

A’S FUTURE: The A’s have a good foundation for success with a good young pitching staff, but they need to improve their offense to be playoff contenders next year.

The good news is that they’ll have money to work with because the contracts of Ben Sheets and Eric Chavez will both end. There is no interest in re-signing Sheets and Chavez will surely announce his retirement soon.

The club also has options on both Coco Crisp and Mark Ellis. Though Crisp has an injury history and played only 75 games this year, I think they should exercise his option. He’s an outstanding defensive centerfielder– he’s reached over the fence to take away what should be home runs – and steals bases at a better than 80 per cent rate. Ellis is a tougher call. He’s great defensively and a good clutch hitter, but he’s had injury problems. It might be better to go with the energizer bunny, Adam Rosales.

One easy call: Dump Jack Cust. His home run rate has gone down every year, as the pitchers have figured him out. His strikeout rate remains high and he can’t play the field. He’s strictly a novelty act.

The A’s could pursue a free agent power hitter, but they have to be careful not to go after somebody who looks good only because he’s playing in a home run park and in the middle of a strong lineup (hello, Matt Holliday). The Coliseum can be daunting to that type of hitter.

Adam Dunn is a possibility. He can hit the ball out of any park. Like Cust, he strikes out a lot – but he also hits a lot of homers. He’s had as many as 46 in a season. Last year with the Nationals, he hit 38. This year, he has 35. The A’s don’t have two hitters who have combined for that many this season.

Though he’s played first and left field, he’s not much better defensively than Cust. He should be kept at DH if the A’s get him, with only an occasional turn at first.

The A’s best bet from their home grown players remains Chris Carter, and there’s a question whether he’ll be ready by next spring. He came up last month briefly and went 0-for-19. Brought up again, he went another 14 at-bats before getting a hit. He got two more last night.

Carter’s history is as a hitter who starts slow at whatever level but then comes on strong. He should be a good hitter, with power, on the major league level, but there’s still a question where to play him. The A’s have used him in the outfield, but he’s a marginal fielder. He might be better at first. Daric Barton has developed into a fielder who could get a Gold Glove, and he has a high OBP, but he hasn’t hit for power. On a power-short team, he might be a luxury the A’s can’t afford.

One other note from the past: Though Willie McCovey hit .354 and was Rookie of the Year in 1959, the Giants hired Lefty O’Doul to teach him to pull the ball, knowing they were moving into Candlestick Park. That screwed up McCovey the next season but in the end, he wound up in the Hall of Fame with 521 career home runs.

The A’s might try the same with outfielder Ryan Sweeney, who has hit for average but never for power. Pitchers get him out by pitching him inside, knowing that if they miss out over the plate, the worst that can happen is that he’ll hit a single or double, not a home run. Sweeney has the size to hit for power. If he can do that, he’ll have a much more productive career – and the A’s will win more games.

FANS INTEREST: The morning after the Giants had jumped into first place over the Padres last week, the calls to KNBR’s morning talk show were about . . . the 49ers.

That didn’t surprise me. The 49ers have been the biggest sports story in the Bay Area since I first started writing a column in 1971.

It wasn’t always that way. When I came to The Chronicle in 1963, the Giants owned the Bay Area. People were walking down Market Street or going to opera/symphony/ballet performances with plugs from transistor radios in their ears to hear the Giants games.

By the ‘70s, though, there had been a national shift to the NFL, and the same shift happened in the Bay Area.

Baseball is the perfect radio game because you can have it on around the house or when you’re in the car. Even if you’re not listening closely, the inflection of the announcer’s voice tells you when something significant is happening.

It’s also more of a blue collar sport. Construction workers, for instance, can keep the radio on while they’re working without being distracted. But office workers can’t, so professional people found it difficult to keep up with the daily grind of a baseball season, with its myriad of statistics.

Football, though, is the perfect game for the professionals because, usually, only one game is played a week. The standings hardly change from Sunday to Sunday, so if you’re working in an office, you can catch up with anything you need to know the day before the game.

Television completed the picture because the game televises so well. For years, many fans have had 5-6 months of the year taken up by football. They’ve bought season tickets and tailgated with friends at home games. Then, they’ve met with the same friends for parties at the home of one of the families to watch the road games on TV.

That pattern may be broken in the near future because tickets are more expensive and new TV packages and HD telecasts make staying home and watching all the games on television more of a viale option, but until now, that pattern has worked very well for the NFL nationally.

Locally, it’s worked very well for the 49ers, who are smart enough to buy up unsold seats so all home games are on home TV.

That pattern also worked for the Raiders in the 1967-80 period, when they were selling out at home and had a strong provincial audience for the road games on TV. Because the 49ers were here for 14 seasons before the Raiders arrived, they had a northern California fan base. The Raiders fan base was limited to the East Bay, though there might have been a few attracted by their great teams at a time when the 49ers were only sporadically successful. Now, the Raiders have a strong national fan base, but they can’t get to games. Their local fan base is very small.

The Giants have the second-biggest fan base, big enough to come close to selling out AT&T Park for the season, but not approaching the 49ers in overall interest.

I’ve seen this in my mail and e-mail since 1971, which has been heavily weighted to the 49ers. So, I was not surprised last Tuesday when more KNBR listeners wanted to talk about the Niners’ playcalling problems than the Giants reaching first place.

UNIFORMS: The all-black uniforms sported by Stanford in their 68-24 blowout of Wake Forest on Saturday night were a shocker. Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh was not willing to discuss them after the game but he did at yesterday’s weekly media lunch.

“When I came here, I wanted the black out of the uniforms,” he said. “There was black around the numbers and I thought it would be better to just have the school colors of cardinal and white.

“Then, two years ago, Nike came to me and said they’d pay for all-black uniforms. I had a couple of players (Harbaugh wouldn’t say which ones) to help design them but we didn’t use them.”

Though there was talk that Nike and/or ESPN had pressured Stanford to wear them Saturday night, Harbaugh said it was his decision.

How were they received by Stanford fans? Harbaugh said he only cared about the players, and they liked them.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck said he liked the look, especially at night. Linebacker Shayne Skov said he thought the uniforms gave the team a “more aggressive” look. “I loved them,” he said. “The students and recruits definitely loved them, too, I know that.”

Doesn’t surprise me. Young people are not much into tradition, so they’re much more willing to experiment than older fans. I speak from experience.

My opinion: Phil Knight’s taste doesn’t match his ability to make money. We’ve already seen that with the horrific Oregon uniforms. Unfortunately, Jeff Tedford brought some of those ideas with him for Cal uniforms.

But, football isn’t alone in poor taste in uniforms. Green and gold are nice accent colors for otherwise white uniforms, but when the A’s go with jerseys in either of those colors, it’s hide-your-eyes time.

And then you have those orange jerseys the Giants have yanked out of a well deserved retirement. They should have been buried in the foundation of AT&T Park.

THIS AND THAT: I was appalled by the comments made regarding the Inez Sainz incident with the New York Jets by a reporter in the East, and noted approvingly by a Chronicle columnist, that women reporters should realize that “athletes are pigs” and “dress appropriately” for locker room interviews. Don’t these guys ever get out of the press box? In my shopping in Oakland or in walking around AT&T Park, I see numbers of young women dressed like Ms. Sainz, though they don’t look as good. That’s the style for young women these days: jeans that look like they’ve been painted on and revealing tops. The Jets acted promptly and scheduled players for sensitivity meetings to educate them about how to treat women. Maybe they should have included these two writers. . . Is there anything more ridiculous than Reggie Bush knowing he had to give back his Heisman, before the NCAA took it away. The money Bush took had nothing to do with his onfield performance and, realistically, he did nothing that hasn’t been done by many thousands of athletes. Hypocrisy reigns.

DUH RAIDERS: Nothing I saw at the Raiders’ narrow win over the Rams last Sunday made me think the Raiders can escape an eighth straight season with double digit losses. It might only be 10 if Tom Cable sticks with Bruce Gradkowski as his quarterback. It will be worse with Jason Campbell.

Campbell is a classic Al Davis type quarterback. He drops back, looks downfield and throws. He has a strong, accurate arm – when he gets a chance to display it.

This is exactly the kind of quarterback Daryle Lamonica was, and the Raiders got to their first Super Bowl and three straight AFL championship games with Lamonica.

But Lamonica had a very strong offensive line in front of him. Jim Otto was already there when Lamonica arrived through a trade with Buffalo before the 1967 season. Gene Upshaw was a rookie in 1967 and developed very quickly. Art Shell became a starter in 1969. All of them are now in the Hall of Fame.

With that kind of line in front of him, Lamonica could wait for his receivers to get open downfield and then throw the beautiful long balls that earned him the moniker, “The Mad Bomber.”

When Campbell waits that long, he’s on the ground. The current Raiders offensive line may be the worst unit in the league.

So, Cable went to Bruce Gradkowski in the second half against the Rams.Nobody thinks Gradkowski is a great quarterback. Tampa Bay had him for two seasons, Cleveland for another and both let him go. But he is an effective change of pace from Campbell, as he was with JaMarcus Russell last year. He is very accurate on short passes, gets rid of the ball quickly, moves around. In all, he gives the defense more to think about. The defenders can’t just expect him to be in a specific place, as they can with Campbell.

There’s not much doubt that the Raiders are a better team with Gradkowski, but Davis has never liked this kind of quarterback. He didn’t even like Ken Stabler and Rich Gannon, though they both got the Raiders to the Super Bowl – and Stabler got them their first World Championship.

It’s a dilemma for the 81-year-old Davis. We all know how stubborn he can be, hanging on to the ideas that served him well a half century ago. But he also knows that time is running out on his chance to win another championship.

When Jon Gruden was the coach, he argued heatedly with Davis over his quarterbacks. Davis loved Jeff George, who looked great on the practice field but had a tin heart. Gruden hated George, and he convinced Davis that the Raiders could win with Gannon. And, they did.

There will be no such coach/owner dialogues now. Gruden always knew he could get another head coaching job elsewhere in the NFL, which gave him negotiating power. Tom Cable knows that he would never have gotten a shot with another team, and this is it for him. He’ll do whatever it takes to keep this job, even if it means playing an inferior quarterback.

Stay tuned.

BARRY ZITO: Baseball people are always coming up with new statistics. The latest: In games in which he gets at least four runs of support, Zito is 110-6 in his career.

When I heard that, I remember the time in the mid-‘80s, when pitchers were throwing many more complete games, when somebody came up with a stat that showed that, when Nolan Ryan had a lead going into the ninth inning, he won something like 97 per cent of the time. Sounded impressive, until somebody else came up with a stat that showed that starting pitchers throughout the league had almost the same percentage of wins in that situation. Ninth inning comebacks weren’t that common.

I suspect that, if statisticians go through the records of other starting pitchers, they’ll discover that many of them have records similar to Zito’s in this category.

Don’t forget, it’s “at least” four runs of support. Most of Zito’s games in this category come from his time with the A’s and, hard as it is to believe when you see the A’s now, they had a very good offense in those days. Zito was the No. 3 pitcher in the rotation, behind Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, until his final year, so he probably got more run support, simply because the A’s weren’t facing the opposition’s best in the games he pitched.

Sometimes, it’s best to just look at the basic statistics and ignore these arcane sidetracks. Since he signed what was then the richest contract for a pitcher in baseball history, Zito has gone 10-13 with a 4.53 ERA, 10-17 with a 5.15 ERA, 10-13 with a 4.03 ERA. This year, he had a sensational first month but is 8-13 with a 3.98 ERA. If he’d been signed as the fifth starter with a matching salary, he’d be like Todd Wellmeyer, stuck in the back reaches of the bullpen.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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