Baalke Hire, Cable Firing, Singletary's Legacy, Pistol Offense/Single Wing; Bowl Games
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 05, 2011


STEVE YOUNG had a great interview with Ted Robinson, sitting in for Ralph Barbieri and Tom Tolbert, on KNBR last week, discussing what the 49ers should do. Give Robinson credit, too, because he asked good questions and didn’t try to insert his personality into the interview, as Barbieri and Tolbert certainly would have.

I didn’t hear the interview – in general, I find that listening to sports talk is injurious to mental health – but a friend sent me a transcript of the interview.

Basically, Young was saying that successful teams in the NFL are all following the Bill Walsh example, not just in their offensive systems but in the way they travel, the way they set up their organizations and the way they create a team image. Steve was very emotional as he said the 49ers had the pattern and they’ve thrown it away.

Indeed they have. Because of his intense jealousy over what had been accomplished when his brother-in-law, Eddie De Bartolo, was in overall charge (though Eddie never made any decisions after the first big one, to hire Walsh), York was determined to erase any vestiges of what had gone before.

Walsh came back to the organization briefly as general manager but York continually insulted him, most of all by telling him he’d teach him how to run an organization! York had the confidence of the ignorant; because he had run a couple of race tracks for Ed Sr., he thought he could run a football organization, which is a totally different operation. In horse racing, jockeys, trainers and owners only get paid when they win – and the horses don’t have agents.

Walsh put up with it only long enough to get his choice, Terry Donahue, installed as general manager. Then, he and John McVay, who had been at his side since 1979, retired together. I was at the retirement party for Walsh and McVay in Santa Clara, and we all lamented the end of an era, though none of us were totally aware of how bad it would get.

Unfortunately, Walsh’s last decision also turned sour. He believed Donahue could be a good general manager because, as a longtime coach at UCLA (he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame), Donahue had run a very complex program. But in the interim, Donahue had worked as a TV analyst and become accustomed to a short work week. He had also just bought his dream home in Newport Beach and he spent half his time here instead of in Santa Clara. That’s no way to run an NFL team successfully.

Young also said in his interview that Donahue was determined to get rid of the people Walsh had brought in. Steve had, of course, been the 49ers quarterback until a concussion ended his career in 1999, and he had fronted for a group which tried to buy the 49ers. Unfortunately, York wasn’t willing to sell.

So, here we are now with Jed York trying to run the franchise, though his business experience is limited to, well, being the son of the owners. Smart people who want their sons involved in a business usually start them at the bottom so they can learn the entire business. Jed was started at the top.

So, not surprisingly, yesterday he named Trent Baalke as the new general manager, after a building-wide search. Jed is comfortable with Baalke, a man he knows, and he clearly didn’t want to bring in somebody he didn’t know, which is virtually everybody in the NFL. His one contact with an NFL lifer was to ask Bill Parcells about Baalke, whom Parcells had hired as a scout for his first NFL job. Parcells praised him highly. There’s a surprise.

At 29, Jed is an intelligent young man, but he doesn’t have the background to make these decision. That doesn’t matter to his family, of course. No matter what he does, their business will remain intact.

This is exactly what’s wrong with the monopoly organizations of football, baseball and basketball in this country. It’s almost impossible to lose money, with salary caps, revenue-sharing, etc., so owners are only compelled by their own pride to run their organizations well. Robert Kraft is that kind of owner in New England. John York is at the opposite end of the spectrum here.

DUH RAIDERS: I wrote in the Examiner yesterday that the Raiders would be better off without Tom Cable. Surprisingly, Al Davis agreed with me and declined to pick up Cable’s team option yesterday.

Usually, Davis waits on these decisions, leaving the coach twisting in the wind, but his hand was forced when the 49ers got permission to talk to Hue Jackson about their vacant head coaching job. (Teams are required to give permission if the job is a promotion.) Jackson is expected to be promoted to the Raiders head job. As difficult as the job can be, because of Davis’s interference, it’s preferable to the 49ers’ job now because the Raiders have better talent.

The players wanted Cable to stay, of course, but that’s always a minor consideration in retaining a coach. The major one is what the coach actually did to improve the team and Cable came up short in that regard.

The Raiders 8-8 record was their best in eight years, but only because the previous seven had been double-digit losses, an NFL record.

The improvement this year came from two areas: 1) Better players; and 2) Jackson’s playcalling. Cable had nothing to do with either.

The Raiders had a solid draft this year and even came up with a couple of surprises. Jared Veldheer became a good offensive left tackle, the key position on the line, and fourth-round pick Jacoby Ford gave the Raiders the big pass plays Darrius Heyward-Bey can’t deliver, plus the bonus of a great kick returner. Jason Campbell, obtained by Davis in the offseason for a fourth-round draft choice, is hardly a great quarterback but he’s a legitimate NFL player at the position, which the Raiders haven’t had since Rich Gannon.

The one credit Cable earned during his four-year stint as Raiders head man was convincing Davis that JaMarcus Russell was not the answer at quarterback. But, though Davis had drafted Russell No. 1, by that time he surely realized that Russell was a bust, comparable to Ryan Leaf, a player with talent but with absolutely no discipline or work ethic. I doubt Russell will ever play in the NFL again.

The Raiders this year were on an emotional roller coaster, up for league games, down for most of the others. That reflected Cable’s personality – who can forget him acting like a cheerleader on the sidelines at San Diego – and it cost the Raiders a chance to get into the playoffs. They set an NFL record for most penalties in a season, so Cable did nothing to bring game discipline to the team.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s playcalling was a huge improvement over Cable’s in the previous year, imaginative and usually successful in keeping other teams off balance. Jackson made Darren McFadden the dangerous offensive weapon he should have been earlier – and, again, Cable had nothing to do with that.

Jackson is an unknown as a head coach, but he has to be an improvement over Cable. Though Cable talked optimistically about proving himself as a head coach, nobody ever considered him head coach material before and I’d be shocked if he gets another shot in the NFL.

MIKE SINGLETARY: Vernon Davis confirmed what a lot of us had already believed: that players were wound tight as a drum under Singletary. The day after the season ended, Davis said that players were more worried that Singletary would use one of his rants on them than on their play.

Davis had worked through Singletary’s “tough love” approach in the first game Singletary was the head coach and sent Davis to the locker room because he was upset at a temperamental display by Davis. After that, Davis was able to handle Singletary’s outbursts and just play his game. His teammates couldn’t, and so, the 49ers were less than the sum of their parts.

But please, no more of this what-could-have-been from both 49ers and Raiders players.

After demolishing the Arizona Cardinals in their final games, the 49ers were saying the best NFC West team wasn’t in the postseason. But they had their chances and blew them all, from an 0-5 start to their stumbling loss to the Rams in St. Louis in their 15th game. As bad as their record was, if they’d finished by beating the Rams and Cardinals, they’d be in the playoffs, because they would have had the tie-breakers over both the Rams and the Seahawks.

The Raiders were celebrating because they went 6-0 in their division, but that also meant they went 2-8 against the rest of the league. To win in the NFL, teams have to play well through all 16 games, a point the Raiders seem to have forgotten.

PISTOL OFFENSE: Those going to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T on Monday (or watching it on TV) will see the Pistol offense at its best with Nevada Reno quarterback Colin Koepernick.

This offense is reminiscent of the single wing, which was still around when I first became interested in college football. Dick Kazmaier of Princeton was terrific; this was just before the Ivy League schools de-emphasized football, which is looking more and more like a wise decision. At UCLA, Red Sanders had a great tailback in Paul Cameron and a good one in Primo Villanueva.

The single wing required a tailback who could run and pass. Steve Young would have been a great single wing tailback. I mentioned that to him one time when we were talking, but he didn’t know anything about the single wing, having been born after it had disappeared.

The strength and weaknesses of the single wing were best illustrated at USC, where Jess Hill was running it. In 1951, Hill had the multi-talented Frank Gifford (a quarterback at Bakersfield JC before coming to USC) and the formation fit Gifford’s skills perfectly. The next year, Hill had what could have been a classic T-formation backfield if he’d played Rudy Bukich at quarterback, Jim Sears and Al Carmichael at halfback and Leon Sellers at fullback. Instead, he stayed with the single wing and wasted most of their talents. Bukich and Sears rotated at tailback; Bukich was an excellent passer but a poor runner while Sears was a good runner and poor passer. Carmichael, a good running back, seldom got the ball.

The Pacific Coast Conference and Big Ten had started a Rose Bowl rivalry on January 1, 1947 and USC became the first PCC team to win after six straight Big Ten triumphs. They beat the Wisconsin Badgers, but it was in spite of their offense. They scored only one touchdown but their defense held Wisconsin scoreless.

The T formation was brought into college play by Clark Shaughnessy, who was as innovative as Bill Walsh later, with Stanford in 1940, and the Indians, as they were then called, went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl. Frankie Albert was the quarterback, an effective passer and a great ballhandler. Lou Spadia told me once that the first time he saw Albert play, he didn’t know where the ball was for the first quarter.

Teams went to the T because it was easier to find one player who could pass and another who could run than to find one who could do both.

But, when you get a player like Koepernick, who can do both, the Pistol offense can roll up a lot of yards and points. Koepernick, who played high school ball at Turlock, wasn’t recruited by any colleges in northern California because coaches didn’t think he could pass well enough to play in a pro-type offense. I think they were probably right, but he’s a dynamite player in the Pistol.

BOWL GAMES: The Big Ten finally salvaged its postseason when Ohio State beat Arkansas, leaving the Big Ten’s record at 1-5 – with an asterisk because Nebraska, which will be in the conference next year, also lost to Washington.

This is no surprise to those who have been following college football because the Big Ten has been the most overrated major football conference for years. If anything, it’s losing ground because Florida schools, which have virtually no entrance requirements for athletes and good weather, have been on the rise. The Big Ten is stronger academically but schools are all in bad weather areas.

But as they say in bowl circles, Big Ten teams “travel well.” Because of the bad weather in their areas, supporters are happy to make the trek to bowls played in better weather, which translates into money for bowl sponsors.

Meanwhile, the Pac-10, which had a bad year with only four teams bowl eligible, is doing well so far, with Stanford winning very big in the Orange Bowl and Washington winning.

Only Arizona was a loser, which didn’t surprise me. I’ve maintained for some time that Arizona was not a top tier team and had a good record early only because of a soft schedule. As soon as they hit the tough part of their schedule, they took a nose dive.

RADIO-TV: I’ll be on Action Sports, 860 a.m., at 9:25 a.m. tomorrow and on Comcast’s “Chronicle Live” show at 5 p.m. on Friday.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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