Harbaugh vs. media; TV Blackout; Roger Maris/Babe Ruth/Barry Bonds; Cal Football
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 31, 2011


IT SEEMS 49er fans and media are in full-blown panic over the team’s showing in the practice games. For those of us with long memories, it mimics what happened when Bill Walsh took over in 1979.

The situations are not totally comparable. Walsh inherited a much worse team, which he melodramatically but accurately depicted as “worse than an expansion team.” The defensive backfield was particularly bad. In his first training camp, Walsh tried out DBs who had been cut by other teams at lunch time so, if they weren’t better than what he had, he’d send them on their way and the team wouldn’t even know they’d been there. He got one very good defender, Dwight Hicks, but otherwise, his secondary woes wouldn’t be solved until he drafted Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson in 1981.

Harbaugh’s overall talent is much better, good enough that one sports publication has predicted they’ll win the NFC West – but with only an 8-8 record. The NFC West is clearly the weakest of the six NFL divisions.

Inside the 49ers organization, they are realistic about what they have and what they can expect this year. I had an hour-long conversation with Jed York earlier this month, for a magazine article, and I’ve talked to both Harbaugh and Trent Baalke. Over and over, they talk about building a foundation this year for future success. They’re not making bold predictions about this year, as Jed did last year when the team was 0-5 – to his eternal regret.

Whatever hope Harbaugh & Co. had for a dramatic turnaround was dashed by the lockout this spring. As probably every national publication has noted, the 49ers were a team that would be hard-hit by the lockout because their new coach wouldn’t have time to put in his whole offensive system. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has also admitted he won’t be able to put in his whole defense until next year.

Yet, fans and media demand an overnight miracle. Fans have always been this way and the media these days is often driven by the nonsense perpetuated by bloggers, to the point where it’s difficult to determine when legitimate comment ends and the bloggers start. That’s why I resent it when people talk about my “blog.” I’m a professional journalist with many years of experience who writes an online column, as well as regular columns in The San Francisco Examiner. I am not a blogger.

Harbaugh has little respect for the media and, while I don’t blame him, I think he’d be better served if he hid his disdain. Some writers are already criticizing his approach to the meaningless practice games, much more than they criticized Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan in the beginning. Nolan, especially, got a warmer reception because he catered to the media, taking notes at practice so he would have talking points for post-practice sessions. It was clear that he cared more about his image than his coaching. That is not at all what Harbaugh is about. He’s very intelligent (like Walsh) and he has a clear idea of where he’s going.
He knows it’s not always possible to have immediate success. He had two losing years at Stanford before creating a powerhouse that went 11-1, won the Orange Bowl and may have been the best team in the country by the end of the bowl season.

Like Walsh, he knows what he knows and what he doesn’t know. Walsh gave complete autonomy with the defense to coordinator George Seifert, who was as imaginative with his defensive schemes as Walsh was on offense. Similarly, Harbaugh brought Fangio, his defensive coordinator at Stanford, with him to the 49ers. Fangio has NFL experience, so he’s a natural fit.

Harbaugh brought an offense similar to Walsh’s with him to the 49ers, and the team hasn’t fully assimilated it yet. In a KNBR interview last week, Joe Montana noted that Alex Smith will ultimately benefit from this system because it’s quarterback-friendly. “Alex has been in a situation where all of his receivers are 20-30 yards downfield and he doesn’t have good pass protection,” noted Montana. “What was he going to do?” Montana thought Smith “needs to learn that it’s all right to complete a pass for four yards on first down.”

The offensive line has struggled, too, but again, it’s a matter of learning assignments. Each lineman has to know not only his own assignment but that of the player next to him, so they can work together. They haven’t meshed yet, but I think the talent is there. When they know what they’re supposed to be doing on every play, they’ll do much better. But it may be well into the season before the OL is totally synchronized.

When Ira Miller was writing for The Chronicle, first as a beat writer on the 49ers and then as the NFL columnist, he had the knowledge and writing ability to explain to readers what was happening. There is nobody like Ira writing for the major papers today.Tim Kawakami of the Mercury is probably the best Bay Area columnist (present company excepted, of course) but he doesn’t have the overall appreciation of what is happening on the football field that Ira had.

And don’t look to the airwaves for help. Brian Murphy said on KNBR last week that, if the 49ers and Raiders don’t meet in the exhibition season, it will be the first time they haven’t met since the series was started in 1967. Apparently, Brian slept through the ‘90s because there was a five-year period, 1994-98, when the teams did not meet in the exhibition season. Carmen Policy, then the team president for the 49ers, had worked out a stadium deal for the Raiders in Los Angeles and he was totally bummed when Al Davis ignored it and moved the Raiders back to Oakland.

COACH DAVIS: It always amuses me when Raiders coach Hue Jackson refers to his boss as “Coach Davis” because, if there’s one thing Al Davis assiduously avoided, it was a lifetime on the sidelines, where he’d be an obvious target for criticism if things went bad.

When Davis came back to the Raiders in 1967, after a brief stint as AFL commissioner, Wayne Valley wanted him to be the coach/general manager. Davis only wanted to be an owner, so Valley allowed him to buy 10 per cent of the stock (since the book value of the club was only $185,000 at the time, Davis paid only $18,500) and be the general managing partner.

Meanwhile, Davis did his coaching from the press box. AFL teams mostly played in converted baseball parks at the time, with small press boxes and no owner’s boxes. Davis sat in the same area as writers so we heard all the criticisms Davis made of his coach.

The one I especially remember was a 1968 game in Kansas City when the Chiefs went to a four-back T formation because of injuries to their wide receivers. Davis sent a note down to John Rauch on the sidelines with a defense to stop the Chiefs. Rauch took the note without reading it and, while looking up at Davis in the press box, tore it in half and dropped it on the sidelines.

NCAA SANCTIONS: As usual, the NCAA is punishing the athletes in the latest University of Miami scandal, suspending eight players for one game and saying they must repay money paid them by a booster.

Nowhere in the decision is there any punishment for the university, though this is hardly the first problem of this type to pop up. Does anybody think the football people were not aware of what was going on?

Until the NCAA is willing to take serious action against schools and not just athletes, this kind of story will be repeated over and over and over.

TYPO: As numerous readers have already pointed out, there was an error in the next-to-last paragraph of my Tuesday Examiner column. I wrote that writers want the Giants to give up their rights to San Jose but an overzealous copy editor changed Giants to A’s. I can’t complain too much because editors have caught my errors in the past but I thought this was straightforward when I wrote it.

TV BLACKOUT: Against all evidence to the contrary, the NFL has continued its policy on home-TV blackouts and last week went to a ridiculous extreme by blacking out an exhibition game, the Raiders-Saints, because it was on national TV. Boy, that was a real hardship, not being able to watch a glorified scrimmage – and what turned out to be a particularly ugly one for the Raiders.

In the ‘60s, then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle feared that football would become a “studio game” because it televised so well. At one time, all home games were blacked out. Then, the Redskins got good and many congressmen couldn’t get tickets to their games so Rozelle, always an adept politician, agreed to let home games be televised if they were sold out 48 hours in advance.

And, that’s the way it’s stayed ever since. The rationale is that fans who live in cold weather cities in the north will stay home and watch on TV, though fans in those areas are accustomed to cold weather. If you turn on the TV for late season games in cities like Green Bay or Chicago, you see fans dressed in clothes that aren’t even in the closets of people living in the Bay Area. They want to see their teams, and they want the stadium experience.

Yes, football televises well, but you don’t feel the same excitement watching games on TV that you feel in the stadium, even for those of us who watch from the press box. I’d still much rather be at the game (except for meaningless practice games) than watching it pm TV. For fans, it’s an even more intense experience. I’ve said this before and it’s still true: If fans can afford the tickets and are physically able to get there, they’ll be at the game, not at home watching TV.

That, though advances in television technology have brought much clearer images on larger screens. One columnist opined last week that he’d never take his family to an NFL game because the TV packages are so good now. Since to the best of my knowledge, this writer hasn’t been at an NFL game since 1987, I certainly believe him – but he is in no way representative of the pro football fan base.

Television is an excellent selling tool, and the NFL is foolish to continue limiting fans’ exposure to televised games.

IN SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last week, Joe Posnanski argued for a return to the 154-game season. While I agree that baseball would be better with the shorter season, I think Posnanski’s reasoning – that records for 154 games should be restored – is far-fetched.

The debate started in 1961 when Roger Maris was chasing Babe Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a season. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick ruled that, if Maris didn’t break the record in 154 games, there would be a listing of two records, one for 154 games and another for 162. That’s the way they were listed for years. The legendary asterisk never existed.

Frick’s motive was purely personal: He had been a “ghost writer” for Ruth as a sportswriter in the ‘20s and was eternally grateful to Ruth for the extra money. But, his reasoning – that the 154-game season was sancrosanct – was ridiculous.

The NFL doesn’t bother with this nonsense. The league has gone from a 12-game season to 14 games and then 16, But records are listed as season records, though it’s obviously easier to, for instance, gain 1000 yards in a 16-game season than in a 12-game season.

Football fans don’t judge players just by statistics. Jerry Rice holds all the significant receiving records but even the most dedicated 49ers fan would have a hard time naming them. I’d have to look them up. But I know that Rice was the best receiver because he made the catch when it had to be made to win a game. I know that Jim Brown is the best runner I’ve ever seen, though he doesn’t hold all the records because he only played eight years and in 12-game seasons.

Baseball fans, though, are much more likely to judge players by individual records. Millions of fans know that Ruth hit 60 homers one season and 714 in his career, that Ted Williams was the last player to hit .400, that Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games.

What fans don’t do, though, is look at those marks in context.

Statistics can vary wildly under different circumstances. In the ‘30s, for instance, the ball was juiced because owners wanted more offense to bring in fans during the Depression years. (Owners and commissioners always claim the ball stays the same but MLB oversees the operation of making baseballs, without an independent overseer, so permit me my skepticism. I look at the results.)

In 1930, important records were set. Bill Terry became the last National Leaguer to hit .400 (.401) and Hack Wilson set a major league record which still stands with 190 RBIs and a National League record with 56 home runs.

The Philadelphia Phillies hit .315 as a team – and finished in last place in the NL, 40 games out of first place.

And, the ball wasn’t juiced? Oh, of course not.

There is even a local angle: Lefty O’Doul hit .383 (and .398 the previous year) and San Franciscans have long felt he should be in the Hall of Fame. There was even a “moot court” hearing one year in the ‘90s, during which I argued the opposite. This being San Francisco, the ruling was that he did – but HOF voters have never agreed.

In 1968, it was the reverse situation, as pitchers totally dominated. Gaylord Perry and Ray Washburn threw back-to-back no-hitters at Candlestick. Perry was on his way to the Hall of Fame but Washburn won just 72 games in his career. Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12. Gibson was a great pitcher but not that great. In the American League, Carl Yastrzemski was the only .300 hitter, barely, at .301.

In the late ‘90s, baseball was back o 1930 levels with an explosion of power hitters. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa blasted easily past the Maris record with 70 and 66 homers, and then Barry Bonds pushed it to 73.

Now, that’s all attributed to steroids use, but steroids had been around for some time – Jose Canseco was openly taking them in 1988 – with little effect. And, pitchers were taking them, too. I believe that commissioner Bud Selig and owners had the balls juiced so there would be more home runs and more people in the park, after losing the World Series to a labor dispute in 1994. Now, the claim is that power numbers are down because steroids are out – but human growth hormones, which can’t be detected, are still being used. I think the ball was just de-juiced some.

The moral of all this: Enjoy the game’s rich history, discuss the great feats and records, don’t take them seriously unless you take the context of the era into consideration.

SPECIAL COLUMN: I’ve written on Cal football for a college football special for the Examiner tomorrow, in addition to my usual Friday column, which will probably be on the Giants.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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