Al Davis, Jim Harbaugh, Bud Selig, Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe, Tiger Woods, Cal Football
ONE THING I have to give Al Davis: He knows his kickers. Sebastian Janikowski, a first-round pick, and Shane Lechler have been the best kicker/punter duo in the NFL for some time. They both came up big in the Raidersí season opening win in Denver on Monday night, Janikowski with a 63-yard field goal, Lechler with a 77-yard punt.
Darren McFadden was also a good pick, but even I thought that was the right pick at the time. (In a much more problematical pick, I also liked Nnamdi Asomugha as a late first-round pick, pretty much alone among Bay Area media, but that was less my astute judgment than my Cal bias.)
Just as with the 49ers on Sunday, the Raiders beat the worst team in a weak division, but the Raiders will have a more difficult path to even a .500 season because the San Diego Chargers are once again the class of the AFC West, even picked as a Super Bowl team by some. The strongest team in the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams, suffered some physical setbacks in their opener, while absorbing a lopsided loss.
The Raiders also have a tough schedule, starting with games 3-5: the Jets and Patriots at home, then Houston on the road. They could easily lose all three. In late season, they have another difficult three-game stretch: The Bears at home, followed by the Dolphins and reigning champions Green Bay Packers on the road.
Davis wasnít happy with last yearís 8-8 record because he thought his team was better than that. but heís been living in a fantasy world for some time. In fact, the Raiders probably overachieved because they were a perfect 6-0 against divisional teams. I believe itís more realistic to think theyíll e a 6-7 win team this season and Davis will react as he always does: Heíll fire his coach Ė if he is still making the decisions.
Davis in very bad health. Though the PR department claimed he was at training camp one day, no beat writer saw him. He did make the trip back to Denver, but the TV cameras didnít show him, which Iím sure was at the request of the Raiders. At this point, there is a very good chance that, before the end of the season, Amy Trask will have to appoint a football man to run that part of the operation, which may save Jacksonís job.
Some things never change with the Raiders: Every coach since Jon Gruden has said that cutting down on penalties will be a priority, and all of those coaches have had to grind their teeth as the Raiders just keep making stupid penalties. Monday night it was 15 for 131 yards. Theyíve been worse, but thatís not much consolation. Against a better team, which describes at least ĺ of the teams in the NFL, those penalties would have cost them the game.
They did stop the Broncosí running game, which has been a real weak point in the recent past, but they allowed the much-maligned Kyle Orton to throw for 304 yards.
There has been much speculation that Jason Campbell will be more comfortable this year because he has no competition for the starting quarterback job and heís reunited with his former coordinator with the Redskins, Al Saunders. But the Redskins were quite happy to get rid of Campbell, remember, so those werenít exactly great times. Itís more significant that Davis let Zach Miller, Campbellís go-to receiver, get away. Kevin Boss is a good receiver on short passes but not the deep threat Miller was, nor as good a blocker. With Boss out with an injury Monday night, Darrius Heyward-Bey was the Raidersí leading receiver, with four catches for 44 yards. So, DHB is now a possession receiver. Exactly why Davis took him No. 1.
Coaches like to say a win is a win, no matter how ugly, and both Raiders coach Hue Jackson and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh were happy to get a win in their debuts. But for each coach, there is still much work to be done. The difference is that Harbaugh knows he will be given the time to build the 49ers into a playoff team. Jackson canít be sure.
REACTING TO complaints from writers that Harbaugh isnít very informative in his media briefings, a local columnist said he was creating an anti-media atmosphere even more extreme than the Raiders.
Of course, this columnist never goes to a game involving either team, nor to practices, nor to any media briefings. In fact, when he writes about the NFL, his column is usually laced with references to the Ď60s because thatís the last time he paid much attention to the league, when he was in high school.
Iíve been to thousands of games involving the Raiders and 49ers, and to practices and to many, many media news events, and I can tell you, it isnít even close. The Raiders are hands-down the most hostile team to the media that I have ever known. The PR chief is there primarily to call up writers and broadcasters who have offended Davis to bawl them out. (Theyíve given up on me, finally.) For some time, writers who had offended Davis Ė which is practically anybody with an opinion Ė were dropped from the media e-mail list. I was one, of course, but Iíve been restored to that list now, so I can once again sleep nights without worrying about it.
Harbaugh doesnít like to give out any information, which hardly makes him unique among coaches or managers. He reminds me of Tony La Russa, when he managed the Aís. Tony was not popular among writers because, unless they asked him specific questions, he didnít say much. ďThey expect me to write their stories for them,Ē he complained to me one time. I asked specific questions and found him very informative. . It was like taking a course in Advanced Baseball when he opened up.
Iíve had a couple of one-on-ones with Harbaugh where heís been very open, but I donít expect him to ever be that open in a group setting. But more hostile than the Raiders? Give me a break.
TONE DEAF: When the Mets proposed wearing 9/11 commemorative caps for their Sunday home game, baseball commissioner Bud Selig nixed it. Worse, he made Joe Torre Ė who was the Yankees manager when the Twin Towers were brought down by a terrorist attack Ė tell the Mets that baseball wanted a consistent policy for all teams. Could you please move up your retirement date, Bud?
In contrast, the NFL told teams and players they could do what they wished to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that terrible day, so players wore emblems on their uniforms or helmets.
At Candlestick, there was the usual first game scenario, with the American flag spread over the field, fighter jets buzzing the field. The only added touch was a trumpet solo before the National Anthem. And, there was a special tribute at halftime. All well done, I thought.
I have no objection to patriotic displays when theyíre appropriate. When ďGod Bless AmericaĒ was played at baseball games immediately after 9/11, I sang it as lustily as anyone because it was important that we all come together as a country. But now, 10 years later, that song is not necessary, though the Giants still play it during the seventh inning break at Sunday afternoon games. (The Aís, thankfully, do not.)
Similarly, it was important to play the National Anthem at baseball games during World War II but it is ridiculous that it be sung or played before every single athletic contest now.
Sometimes, it causes some funny moments. When the Aís were playing the Toronto Blue Jays, both ours and Canadaís National Anthems had to be sung. At one game, the same man was singing both but when he got to about the third sentence of the Canadian song, he completely forgot the words, so somebody had to bring him a copy of the words, so he could start again.
SABEANíS FOLLIES: Brian Sabean justifiably got credit for making some good moves last season to bring in key players for the Giants push to the World Series, but this year, the bad Brian, the one who overspends terribly for players, resurfaced. A couple of weeks ago, the Giants released both Miguel Tejada and Aaron Rowand. Tejada was no big deal because the Giants only had to pay him for the rest of this year but Rowand still has another year on that ridiculous five-year, $60 million contract he signed before the 2008 season. He was only a slightly above average player then and he isnít even that now. As of this point, no other team has signed him, though theyíd only have to pay him the major league minimum the rest of the year, with the Giants picking up the rest.
There are still more tough decisions to be faced. Aubrey Huff was an important part of last yearís miracle, so Sabean rewarded him with a two-year, $22 million contract. I would have understood a one-year contract for $11 million as gratitude for what he did last season but the second year should have been a club option. There wasnít going to be any bidding war for Huff; the reason the Giants got him was that nobody else wanted him.
Now, Huff has reverted to form. The Giants have two younger alternatives, Brett Pill, who just came up, and Brandon Belt, who has been up and down all season. Both are better choices for 2012, so Huff may wind up being cut, too.
The Giants will also most likely have two veteran second baseman under contract. Sabean signed Freddy Sanchez to a contract extension early in the season, even knowing Sanchezís injury history. Then Ė surprise! Ė Sanchez got injured and required more surgery. Sabean traded for Jeff Keppinger and will probably have to re-sign him because thereís no guarantee when Sanchez will return Ė or how long heíll play before heís hurt again.
And, thereís also Mark De Rosa, who has been on the DL for almost the entire length of his two-year contract. At least, heíll be gone next season.
Iíve gotten this far without even mentioning Barry Zito because heís in a special category, the biggest free agent mistake ever. He still has two years left on his contract but surely, the Giants will finally release him. Maybe he can take his money and go to the beach and play his guitar.
TENNIS, ANYONE? The reality of tournament tennis at the top level is that, when the top players meet frequently, itís common that one player will become dominant over another even when theyíre seemingly at the same level.
I first noticed this with Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Borg was the Golden Boy of tennis when he hit the tour in his teens, catnip to the girls and young women and a devastating force on the tour. He was only 14 when he played for his country, Sweden, in the Davis Cup. He won five straight Wimbledon titles. But, John McEnroe beat him in the finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1981 and Borg knew he couldnít beat McEnroe, so his time at the top was over. He retired, though he was only 26. Subsequent attempts at comebacks in later years failed.
Lately, itís become obvious with Roger Federer. At the time Federer was being crowned the best of all time by tennis writers who had never seen Rod Laver play, Rafael Nadal started beating Federer like a drum. How can you be the best of all time if youíre No. 2 in your own time?
Now, itís Nadalís turn to take a backseat to Novak Djokovic. No shame there because Djokovic is beating everybody, 63-2 in matches this year. Nadal has great energy and probably better court coverage than anybody in tennis history, but he has no answer to Djokovic, who is almost as good at court coverage and has a better array of shots. My guess is that heís going to be on top for some time.
Golf is a much different sport, and one reason it has passed tennis in popularity is that it is medal play, not match, so the top players have a chance to be in the running on the final day.
But, golf has another problem: So many of its top players are bland. Nice guys, cooperative with the media but guys who tend to blend into the woodwork.
Right now, golf needs the pre-scandal Tiger Woods, a dynamic figure who was well known to people outside the golf world. But Tiger has seemingly lost his confidence and heís tinkering with the swing that made him the dominating figure on the tour. Even those golfers who have won tournaments they might have lost to the earlier Tiger have acknowledged that the tour needs Tiger at his best. But I doubt weíll ever see that golfer again.
GO, BEARS! While watching Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen carve up the Cal defense for 474 yards and receiver Paul Richardson get an astounding 284 receiving yards, including touchdowns of 66 and 78 yards, I wondered what the sideline geniuses who hounded former defensive coordinator Bob Gregory were thinking.
You remember two seasons ago when a group of Cal alums, mostly younger ones, Iím sure, thought they knew more about football than Gregory did. They sent e-mails flying back and forth, some of which were copied to me, to explain how their theories could solve Calís defensive problems. Gregory resigned at the end of the year, to yhe great joy of these geniuses, who sent congratulatory e-mails back and forth, and Clancy Pendergast was hired as the Bearsí coordinator.
When the Bearsí defense looked great in the first two games last year, the armchair geniuses were jubilant, once again congratulating themselves on their brilliance. But, there were some real bumps in the road ahead, as the defense gave up 52 points to Nevada Reno and 48 to both USC and Stanford.
I donít blame Pendergast for that, nor for the passing numbers for the Buffaloes last Saturday. Heís a good coach Ė but so was Gregory. College football is a game of very young players who are still early in their learning curve. They can make great plays or terrible plays, and the schemes in which theyíre playing are only partially responsible for both.
Fortunately for the Bears, they got a positive example of that to beat Colorado. Trailing by three in overtime, 30 yards from a first down and facing a tsunami of noise from Colorado fans, quarterback Zach Maynard completed an improbable 35-yard pass to get the first down. Two downs later, he threw for the touchdown to his half brother, Keenan Allen, and the Bears got the win.
I would hope that would shut up the armchair geniuses, but Iím sure it wonít. Pendergast better be prepared. Iím sure theyíll be giving him plenty of great advice this season.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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