Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Chris Mullin, Brandon Belt, Brandon Allen, Pablo Sandoval, Barry Zito
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 17, 2011

17AUGUST


THE PANIC by 49er fans has been almost palpable after the disastrous first exhibition game against the New Orleans Saints. To avoid further panice, there are two things you should know:

1) The game went south primarily because New Orleans coach Sean Payton approached it as if it were a midseason game.

2) Jim Harbaugh can’t overcome the 10 disastrous seasons that preceded him in one year.

The first point is more important in assessing the game. The second is more important for assessing the season.

What the NFL calls “preseason games” are just glorified scrimmages. Coaches usually use them to evaluate the progress of young players, especially the most recent draft choices. Significantly, starters generally get significant minutes only in the third of the four games.

For some unexplained reason, Payton chose to play that game as if it were a regular season game, using as many as seven defenders in an all-out blitz on the quarterback. The 49ers were not prepared for that, but no NFL team would have been. I have no idea what Payton was trying to prove. Perhaps there’s something in the personal history between him and Harbaugh that is not public knowledge. It certainly wasn’t a worthwhile gauge for his defense; if you succeed because the opposing team is totally unprepared for what you’re doing, it’s meaningless.

The 49ers practice against blitzes every day, but they don’t practice against the myriad blitz packages the Saints used. They would have if this had been a regular season game, and the results would probably have been much different.

I’ve heard from 49ers fans who are dismayed about the state of the offensive line – solely because of this game. My advice: Take a deep breath. I think the 49ers OL will be a good unit, and one which will improve as the season goes on. I repeat, this game was not a gauge.

Nor was the quarterback play significant. Alex Smith had had only five practices (of the 12 the Niners had held) because of provision in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement which kept him from practicing earlier. He’s learning a new system, one which will work much better than the horse-and-buggy offense with which he was saddled last year but which takes time to learn. Harbaugh was excited by his progress after yesterday’s practice, saying that it was Smith’s best yet and that his three practices since the disaster against the Saints have been his best overall. He made a point of saying Smith had distanced himself from rookie Colin Kaerpinck, though the former Nevada Reno quarterback has intrigued everyone with his potential.

He also made a point of saying that, if they do bring in a veteran quarterback, he will be No. 3 on the depth chart. That’s a point I had also made to readers who thought that Daunte Culpepper would be a serious candidate for the starting job if the Niners signed him. I saw Culpepper with the Raiders two years ago and it was obvious that his time as a frontline NFL quarterback was behind him. He wasn’t even in the league last year. He has never really recovered from a serious knee injury in 2005. The Smith-haters were really grasping at straws to think that Culpepper would seriously contend for the starting job.

Harbaugh has confidence in Smith and, as I’ve said many times, that means more to me than the group-think opinions of my media colleagues or those of fans who don’t seem to understand that football is a team game. As one who played quarterback for 15 years in the NFL, Harbaugh has an understanding of the impossible situation Smith has been in since he was first drafted by the Niners.

He also understands that he wasn’t given control of a team that will be contending for the Super Bowl this season. There is an outside chance that the 49ers will make the playoffs this season but only because they’re playing in perhaps the weakest division in the NFL; only the AFC West is a competitor for that dubious distinction. A more likely scenario is that they’ll win 6-7 games.

Forty-Niner fans know the litany all too well: a series of bad coaches, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary; a front office peopled by computer geeks and headed up by Terry Donahue, who only worked at it part-time, and Scot McCloughan, who resigned just before the 2010 draft.

Now, I think they’re finally headed in the right direction. I like GM Trent Baalke, who has a good NFL pedigree (including working under with Bill Parcells at the start of his career) and is a very hard worker. The Niners are also trying to beef up the front office with experienced people, like John Becker, recently hired as senior personnel advisor.

Most of all, they’ve got Harbaugh, who reminds everybody, including me, of Bill Walsh with his approach to the offensive game and his overall mindset. He’s not daunted by stepping into a tough situation. At Stanford, he inherited a team that had been winless the year before. Many were questioning whether Stanford could ever again have a competitive team, given its very high admission standards. His first two years were a success only in comparison to his immediate predecessors, as the Cardinal won four and five games before going 11-1 last season, including a win in the Orange Bowl.

Not unlike Walsh’s first three years with the 49ers: 2-14, 6-10 and 13-3 and a Super Bowl win.

Walsh inherited a much worse team, which had been gutted by Joe Thomas. But, like Walsh, Harbaugh knows he can’t turn the team into an immediate winner. He’ll build slowly but well, getting the foundation in place for more success to come.

It’s hard for 49er fans to have that kind of patience, and I understand that. But please,let’s not panic over one exhibition game.

CHRIS MULLIN was not only a very talented player, which got him into the basketball Hall of Fame, but as cooperative an athlete as I’ve ever known. To my knowledge, he never turned down an interview request. We talked many times and in different situations. One time, when I needed to talk to him for a magazine article, he said he had to go to Fresno for a clinic but would talk to me when he returned. No need, I told him. I was going to Fresno to visit my parents, who had retired there, so I’d talk to him there. We met in a gym, of course. Gyms are to Mullin what a body of water is to a fish.

Many basketball players like to shoot hoops but Mullin was extreme. He hardly seemed to leave the gym and, at 48, he still likes to shoot hoops.

That – and natural ability – is why he became so good at it. In practice one day, I saw him hit about 30 in a row from the three-point line, then go to another spot and have a similar run. Rick Barry could create his own shot, which Mullin seldom could, but Chris was always on the move, working to get open for a pass and then quickly putting the ball in the basket. He was also a good passer and his quick hands enabled him to steal the ball on defense.

He combined with Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond on the TMC gang that was very exciting to watch in Don Nelson’s unorthodox offense. They couldn’t translate their regular season success into equal success in the postseason, though, because they didn’t have much size. Nelson tried to change that by trading Richmond for Billy Owens – he’s since called that the worst trade he ever made – and then making another trade to move up and draft Chris Webber. We all know how that worked out. Nelson always rode rookies hard and Webber didn’t like that one bit. In the offseason, then Warriors president Dan Finnane told me he had tried to get Nelson to sit down with Webber and talk out their differences, but that wasn’t how Nellie operated.

After his playing days were over, Mullin joined the Warriors front office and soon moved up to director of basketball operations. He made his mistakes but he also made the trade that brought in Baron Davis and got the Warriors back in the playoffs. But then, he fell victim to a power struggle with Robert Rowell, who had the ear of owner Chris Cohan. Rowell is gone now, thankfully, with the new ownership of Joe Lacob and Peter Gruber.

When I called Mullin to talk to him for my column on him in the Examiner, before he hung up, he said, “I want to thank you for all the nice things you’ve written about me.”

That’s Chris Mullin.

HITTING COACHES: The Giants apparently aren’t going to make a sacrificial lamb of Hensley Meulens, as they did of Carney Lansford, for their inability to put together a consistent offense.

In fact, hitting coaches seldom make much of a difference in a team. Some get credit they don’t deserve: Charlie Lau was praised for his work with George Brett, though you or I could have made Brett a great hitter.

The right pitching coach can make a big difference because pitchers initiate the action. If a coach can change a pitching motion, a pitcher can often become more effective.

But batters are reacting to a pitch and their approach is set by the time they get to the major leagues. Occasionally, a coach will get a hitter to change his stance or approach briefly – but as soon as that hitter goes 0-for-4, he goes back to his original approach, even if it’s not working, because he’s comfortable with that stance or that swing.

So, what you see when a hitter comes to the majors is basically what you’re going to see for as long as he’s there.

At one time, there were organizations who had hitting philosophies that they taught their minor league players, so they would have that approach when they came to the majors. One example: The Baltimore Orioles in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

With all the player movement now, though, it’s hard to put in an organization-wide approach. TheA’s used to depend on their minor league system to keep them supplied with players but when I was at Sunday’s game, only three of the nine hitters (with the DH) were from their farm system: catcher Kurt Suzuki, second baseman Jemile Weeks and shortstop Cliff Pennington. There are times when Pablo Sandoval is the only Giants position player starter from their minor league system, and Pablo certainly didn’t learn his hitting style in the Giants system.

Teams hope that the players they get, through whichever avenue, are disciplined hitters. Buster Posey was an established hitter when he was drafted, knowing when to go to the opposite field and when to pull the ball. I’ve been impressed this year by two rookies, Brandon Belt with the Giants and the newly-acquired Brandon Allen with the A’s. Both are disciplined hitters who can hit home runs when they get the right pitch. Allen will get a full-blown chance to show what he can do with the A’s for the rest of the season. I can only hope Belt won’t be put back on the Fresno Shuttle.

The Giants don’t have many disciplined hitters. Aubrey Huff is, though his overall season has been a disappointment. Nate Schierholtz has had some long at-bats. But three-quarters of the Giants infield is of the “see ball, hit ball” mode. When the Giants do get home runs, they usually do minimal damage because nobody gets on base ahead of the homer. They set a major league record with 21 straight solo homers. And when they do get a runner on base, they’re much more likely to hit into a double play than hit a home run.

That kind of minimal production has led writers to talk of “torture” when describing the Giants play. Please. The Giants won the World Series last year. There are fans of 29 other teams that would like to experience that kind of torture. But I’m sure lazy writers will continue to use it.

BARRY ZITO: Even Bruce Jenkins has finally come around to my thinking on Zito, echoing my thoughts of two weeks ago in the Examiner by saying the Giants should release Zito. But Bruce still thinks that Zito could make it with another team. Sorry but the problem is the man, not the uniform. He simply is not a major league pitcher any more. He should just go to the beach and strum his guitar, while counting the money the Giants threw at him.

ON THE 10 o’clock news one day last week, Channel 2 teased, “Could the Raiders be heading back to Los Angeles?” I turned it off. I knew we couldn’t be that lucky.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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