Ben Rothlisberger/Aaron Rodgers; Arnold Palmer, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler; Jim Harbaugh/Alex Smith
THIS YEAR’S Super Bowl is shaping up as an excellent game, which has not always been the case for this game.
Early on, there were two blowouts, as the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders in games that were basically decided at halftime. That led NFL people to proclaim that their league was much superior to the AFL.
It turned out, though, that the superiority was only in the Packers. When they faded to below .500, the AFL won the next two Super Bowls. Everybody remembers the first win, when Joe Namath “guaranteed” a victory for the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts but the next year was even more convincing. The Chiefs easily beat the Minnesota Vikings; the Chiefs had had a much tougher time getting by the Raiders in the AFC Championship game.
A number of mostly forgettable games followed that. The chief problem was that the overwhelming media attention unnerved the players, and they were tight when they played the game.
Now, the media attention is even more overwhelming, but it’s that way during the regular season, too, so players are accustomed to it. And I certainly don’t expect either of these teams to have stage fright. The Steelers have won two previous Super Bowls with Ben Rothlisberger at quarterback. The Packers had to win their final two games of the season to make the playoffs and then, as the No. 6 seed, had to win three straight on the road to get to the Super Bowl.
At first glance, this shapes up as a low-scoring game because both teams have strong defenses. But both are also vulnerable to the deep pass. When the Jets rallied in the second half of the AFC Championship game, a big part of it came with Mark Sanchez rolled out and threw a strike to the end zone. In the Packers’ win over the Bears in the NFC Championship game, emergency quarterback Caleb Hainie threw for two long touchdowns.
The Packers started as 2 ½ point favorites but that means nothing. Oddsmakers set a line which they hope will bring fairly even betting on both sides. They are not predicting the outcome of the game, though I’ve seen thousands of stories written on that assumption.
If I had to pick a winner, I’d go for the Steelers but I’m rooting for the Packers, simply because Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback.
COOLEST ATHLETES: My favorite segment on the Comcast “Chronicle Live” show on which I appeared last night, was on Gentleman Quarterly’s list of the “25 coolest athletes.”
I’d disagree with a couple of GQ’s choices. Bjorn Borg was the opposite of cool. A great tennis player, yes, but with the personality of a cash register. My definition of “cool” is an athlete who does things his own way, even if it goes counter to the thinking of others. By that standard, John McEnroe would have been a much better choice.
I would never have voted for Walt Frazier, either. I think Frazier tried to make himself into a personality, aided and abetted by the New York media which used the nickname “Clyde” after the male character in “Bonnie and Clyde,” for the way he dressed. But I think Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were far ahead of Frazier, both in the cool category and in ability.
My choices were:
--Arnold Palmer. In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Palmer brought an unparalleled electric charge to golf. Galleries had admired Ben Hogan and other top golfers but they went absolutely nuts over Arnie. Unlike other golfers, he looked like an athlete with a muscular upper body and trim lower body. He looked like he could play defensive back.
And Palmer always went for the risky shot. More often than not, he made it, but even when he failed, it was spectacular. Galleries roared when he went for the risky shot; if he missed, they were certain he’d get the next one. His following on the course – what became known as “Arnie’s Army” – was huge, dwarfing those following other golfers.
I covered Palmer in what turned out to be his last hurrah on the major championship stage, the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He lost the lead on the final day and, the next day, lost a playoff to Billy Casper. He never won another major, but his legacy remains. Present day golfers owe a huge debt to Palmer, who made golf a major sport
--Joe Namath. The world of pro football changed forever when Sonny Werblin signed Namath to what became known as a $400,000 contract, only $25,000 of which was his yearly salary, which was huge at the time. It was a signal that both the New York franchise and the AFL were solidifying after a shaky start.
Namath went on to lead the Jets to a win in the third Super Bowl (see above) which shocked football fans.
More than that, he was ideally suited for the role of “Broadway Joe.” Though he spent many nights studying film, it was the ones he spent out with beautiful women that got everybody’s attention. He had a natural swagger, the very definition of cool.
--Ken Stabler. The Snake is the only one of these three I talked with regularly because he came to the Raiders while I was still on the beat and quarterbacked them to their first Super Bowl win, after the 1976 season, which I covered, though I was a columnist by then.
Last year, I was on the Comcast show with Stabler, and host Greg Papa turned over the interview to me. Stabler and I had talked of old times in the dressing room before the show, so I just brought up some of the things we’d talked about. We both enjoyed it.
Stabler always did things his way. If that meant staying out all night before a game, so be it. He always played at a high level.
He also was a very smart quarterback, who knew his strengths and weaknesses. He knew Cliff Branch could outrun his throws, so he taught Branch to double back to catch the throw. He shortened the “out”routes, 20 yards for other quarterbacks, 17 for him. He’d take the playbook home with him and discard the plays he didn’t like.
And he accepted failure as well as success. I remember vividly one of his bad games, when he threw six interceptions against the Denver Broncos in a loss. When I talked with him after the game, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Win some, lose some.”
The very definition of cool.
CAL QBS: An Examiner reader took exception to my Friday column which, among other things, said that Craig Morton was the best quarterback I had seen at Cal. “Didn’t you see him play for the Dallas Cowboys?” he wrote and went on to say that he rated quarterbacks by how their teams did and that Joe Kapp and Mike Pawlawski, among many others deserved to be rated higher than Morton.
Frankly, that is among the stupidest e-mails I’ve received. For openers, I was rating college quarterbacks. What any of them did later had no place in my evaluations. Morton had his struggles with the Cowboys – though he played well enough when he went to Denver to be in the Broncos Hall of Fame – but I wasn’t considering that.
Second, though a quarterback is the most important player on a team, football is still a team game. There are any number of good quarterbacks who have struggled because they were on bad teams. The lucky ones finally went to a good one. Y.A. Tittle became a Hall of Fame quarterback because of what he did with the New York Giants – after he left the 49ers. When I talked to John Brodie for my 50-year history of the 49ers, he told me that, when Y.A. was with the 49ers, the two of them would talk before each game about how many touchdowns it would take to win the game. Often, the number was four, because the 49er defense was so porous. With the Giants, linebacker Sam Huff burst into a quarterbacks meeting and said, “Don’t worry. Even if you don’t get any touchdowns, we’ll find a way to win.”
Jim Plunkett may be an even better example. He was a Heisman Trophy winner and the quarterback of a Rose Bowl team at Stanford. He had the misfortune to be drafted by the sad sack New England Patriots and did little but absorb punishment. Later, with the Oakland Raiders, Plunkett won two Super Bowls. Same player, much different teams.
Morton had the misfortune of playing for a terrible team at Cal. Ironically, the freshman team he played on was good enough to beat the varsity when they scrimmaged. “But most of those players flunked out,” Morton told me. They should have gone to an SEC school. As a senior, Cal really had little more than Morton, but he still had an outstanding year.
The second-best I’ve seen at Cal were Joe Roth and Aaron Rodgers. Sadly, Roth died of cancer while he was still in school. Rodgers is a very smart quarterback who can make all the throws. He seems on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
I love Joe Kapp. I pushed for him to get the Cal coaching job (a mistake) and wrote the bio for his Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame plaque. But it’s hard to evaluate him as a college quarterback because he played in a system, the old split-T, which called for the quarterback to run as much, or more than, he passed. That’s the reason he wasn’t drafted by the NFL until the 22nd round.
Pawlawski? A great leader, much like Kapp, but hardly a great quarterback. Mike, who’s done radio-TV on Cal games since his own career ended, would tell you that himself, if you asked.
JAY CUTLER: In the wake of Cutler coming out of the NFC Championship game in the second half because of a knee injury, apparently a tear in the ligament in his right knee, he was criticized by other NfL players and fans as not being tough. The players should have known better. As for the fans, my favorite was one who Tweeted that the injury wasn’t serious. “I had that one time and I played a round of golf the next day.” Oh, yeah, sinking a three-foot putt is certainly the physical equivalent of being buried by a 375-pound tackle. But, oh, wait, you say the golfer followed up with a strenuous game of chess. Oh, well, that equals it out.
I learned in December, 1969, that it’s not always wise for a quarterback to tough it out and stay in the game. Daryle Lamonica hit his hand on the helmet of Aaron Brown early in the game and had serious problems the rest of the game. The Raiders defense kept getting him the ball deep in Kansas City territory but Lamonica kept giving it back on interceptions, while George Blanda chafed on the bench. The Raiders lost the game so, though they beat the Chiefs twice in the regular season, it was the Chiefs who went to the Super Bowl and beat the Vikings.
Cutler’s teammates, who know him better than anybody, defended him. (It was apparently a medical decision that took him out of the game.) He needed all his mobility to stay away from the Packers’ pass rush. As for the Bears’ fans who booed Cutler, better they should have booed the offensive line which didn’t protect him.
ALEX SMITH: It seems Jim Harbaugh has come to the same conclusion I have: The best move for the 49ers would be to re-sign Smith.
Harbaugh knows that, for a quarterback to succeed in the NFL, he needs a strong offensive line, good receivers and good coaching. Smith had none of those last year.
The worst part of that was the coaching. Mike Singletary was so overbearing he destroyed the assistant coaches, too, especially those on offense. The 49ers were a very poorly coached team last year and I’m not sure whether the assistants weren’t good enough or whether they were just overwhelmed by Singletary – or both.
In a way, Singletary was like Kapp when he coached Cal. I assumed, as did athletic director Dave Maggard, that Kapp would let his assistants do the real coaching and concentrate on recruiting and building alumni support for the program.
That’s how it worked the first year. Ron Lynn, the defensive coordinator, ran practices. But then, the USFL began and took away the best assistants, including Lynn. Kapp couldn’t hire good replacements and he decided he could do the coaching. You know how that turned out.
Singletary made the same mistake early. He really needed help on the offensive side but his first act was to fire offensive coordinator Mike Martz. No good OC would come to San Francisco after that, so Jimmy Raye got the job. But it didn’t matter who had that job because Singletary demanded that his Stone Age offensive philosophy be used.
He got hired by Leslie Frazier, a former teammate in Chicago, to be the “assistant head coach and linebackers coach” but his change of getting another NFL head coaching job is nil.
Harbaugh is doing a good job of putting together a staff, starting with offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive coordinator vic Fangio, both of whom were with him at Stanford and, most important, have extensive NFL experience. As he showed at Stanford, Harbaugh will also let his assistant coaches coach.
The offensive line should be much better. Losing Eric Heitman was more of a blow than was obvious. The center calls blocking assignments and Heitman, with his intelligence and experience, was very good in that role. With his return, David Baas can slide back to guard and replace the erratic Chilo Rachal. Rookie offensive tackle Anthony Davis made a lot of mistakes last year but he was the youngest player in the league, so that should have been expected. I’ve seen enough film of him from college to know that he has the quick feet a tackle needs in the NFL.
I think the 49ers should look for a big play receiver early in the draft and a quarterback in the lower rounds, where there are often surprises.
This is not the year to look for a quarterback in the first round because those who are available, especially as low as the seventh pick, come with big question marks.
The labor situation complicates everything. If there is no negotiated settlement before this summer, which seems almost certain, there will be no time to work with either a rookie quarterback or one picked up in free agency.
That’s why it would make more sense to bring Smith back. He knows the team, including the receivers, and he would really benefit from having a coach who understands quarterbacks.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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