David Shaw/Jim Harbaugh/Andrew Luck/ Tony La Russ; Hue Jackson/Carson Palmer; Jahvid Best; Alex Smith
MY FRIEND Guy Benjamin always says that the coaches who succeed at Stanford are the ones who understand the culture, and the Cardinal definitely has one now in David Shaw, who played for Stanford and was an assistant to Jim Harbaugh before moving up to head coach.
Stanford is unique in college football, a small, private school with great academics which runs a big-time sports program. The coaches have always recruited athletes with the argument that they’re the equivalent of an Ivy League school with a big-time program and, oh, yes, great weather year-round. Mike Montgomery told me when he came to Cal that, when he was at Stanford, the recruiting pool was small, “..but if we identified a player we really wanted, we could usually get him.”
In the past, Stanford coaches have sometimes been able to cut corners to get players into school. John Ralston, for instance, got players in as junior college transfers, and Ralston’s teams won consecutive Rose Bowls. But that window has been largely closed. Stanford now allows almost no junior college transfers, period. So, coaches have to build a team with players who come in as freshmen.
For coaches who understand how Stanford operates, this can be a plus. All freshmen have to stay in an on-campus dorm, so athletes from the start feel a part of the university. This is a complete reversal of what happens at the real football schools, where athletes stay in athletes-only dorms, eat with their fellow athletes and have a minimal contact with real students. Often, a minimal contact with challenging academic courses as well.
Getting coaches who can survive in this climate, though, isn’t easy. Buddy Teevens would have seemed to be a natural because he came from Dartmouth, but he was a washout. Teevens, though, was better than his successor, Walt Harris. Though Harris had been successful elsewhere – and was originally from the Bay Area – he alienated everybody, from players to influential alumni. That last group got him fired. Stanford isn’t THAT different from other schools.
Harbaugh fit in from the beginning. He reveled in Stanford’s tough academic policy. When I sat down with him for an interview, he brought up the subject and criticized his alma mater, Michigan, for being a “two-track” school which often failed to give athletes a meaningful education. Harbaugh knew I would write that, as I did for the Examiner, and that column got back to Michigan, making him persona non grata. He didn’t care because he had no interest in coaching at Michigan. There were countless national stories after that which named him as a likely successor to Rich Rodriguez, but if Michigan ever contacted him (which I doubt), he didn’t respond. And, of course, when he left Stanford, it was for the 49ers.
Harbaugh built a powerhouse at Stanford, with quarterback Andrew Luck leading the way, and Shaw has built on that success. (The ridiculous speculation that Luck would attempt to manipulate the NFL draft were produced by men who do not know him at all. Andrew Luck is the complete package, an extraordinary talent but a young man who has remained grounded. That’s why he stayed in school instead of turning pro last year, knowing the decision would ultimately cost him money. He’s enjoying his college experience and wanted to stay to get his degree. I admire him as much for that as for his athletic ability.)
Shaw fits into that picture perfectly, a smart man and good coach who likes it where he is. He hasn’t turned his whole life over to coaching, though he certainly puts enough hours into it. Stanford has often had trouble keeping successful coaches – Ralston, Bill Walsh, Denny Green and Harbaugh all moved on to the pros. But Shaw says he wants to stay at Stanford as long as the school wants him. It’s the perfect match.
WORLD SERIES: Tony La Russa is unlike any other manager I’ve ever known, an intense man who reminds me much more of an NFL coach than other baseball managers. To say he’s often misunderstood by the media is an understatement. Even today, a local columnist chided him for his lack of humor and advised him to lighten up. Good luck with that one.
When he was with the Oakland A’s, an interview with him was like taking a course in Baseball 1A, but only if you asked the right questions. The lazy writers – a majority, unfortunately – who asked him broad questions like, “What do you think of your team, Tony?”, were treated with scorn. Thus, his reputation as not being media-friendly. Those writers much preferred Giants manager Roger Craig, who would always talk to the media but gave writers nothing but meaningless platitudes.
With the A’s, La Russa would often sleep in his office after a loss, churning over decisions he had made and unwilling too impose his bad mood on his family. I’ve known many football coaches who slept in their offices but never another baseball manager.
I thought La Russa’s intense nature might have hurt his A’s team in the late ‘80s. That team was clearly the best in baseball in that span but they won only the middle of the three World Series they were in, a 4-0 shellacking of the Giants in the 1989 Series which was interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake. In baseball, players have to stay on an emotional keel during the long season and then step up their game, emotionally and physically, during the postseason. I thought that, because La Russa demanded so much of his players during the season, that those A’s teams couldn’t step up their games in the postseason.
But since then, I think Tony has learned to ease up on his players during the regular season, saving his top level intensity for when it’s needed most. He won a World Series in 2006 with a Cardinal team that won only 83 games during the season. This season, the Cardinals were 9 ˝ back in the wild card race but came on to win it and are now in the Series again. They’re down, 3-2, but the Series (which may be delayed by rain) is back in St. Louis again. Don’t bet against the Cardinals, but if they win, it won’t be because La Russa has lightened up!
DUH RAIDERS: Football is becoming almost as overwhelmed by statistics as baseball, which was once accurately described as an ocean of statistics surrounding an island of activity, and I’m now hearing from readers who cite statistics to “prove” that Carson Palmer is no better than Jason Campbell.
Baseball statistics have their shortcomings because they are influenced by the parks in which they play. A pitcher with the San Diego Padres, pitching roughly half the time in perhaps the best pitcher’s park in the majors, should have better stats than one pitching for the New York Yankees, playing in a park where the ball just flies out. (Of course, the Yankee pitcher will have a better won-lost records, the most unreliable statistic by which to judge a pitcher.)
For the most part, though, baseball statistics are a reliable barometer because they measure individual accomplishment, and baseball, as many have written, is an individual sport within a team concept. When Albert Pujols hits at least 30 homers in each of his first 11 seasons in the majors, and usually hits over .300, too, you know you’re watching a great player, one who is certain to be in the Hall of Fame.
Football stats, though, are much more suspect, especially when they relate to quarterbacks because a quarterback needs good receives, good protection and a good system to succeed. One example from the past: In the 1971 draft, quarterbacks Jim Plunkett, Archie Manning and Dan Pastorini went 1-3. None of them had the career they deserved. Plunkett got beat up in New England and it wasn’t until late in his career that he showed how good he could have been, quarterbacking the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins. Manning played for a consistent loser in New Orleans, Pastorini had limited success in Houston.
So, now we have quarterback ratings and Peter King of Sports Illustrated, whom I regard as a topnotch NFL writer, had a comparison recently of Palmer and Campbell in recent seasons which put Campbell slightly ahead. Of course, that doesn’t reflect the fact that Palmer had knee and elbow problems (he had knee surgery eventually), and that his stats were down from the previous seasons.
In my mind, there’s no doubt that Palmer is a better quarterback than Campbell, and I think that Hue Jackson was right in making the trade, even though he had to give up a first-round draft pick in 2012 and a second-rounder in 2013. That’s because I think the Raiders are on the brink of a break-through. They have some players who can make a difference, and they need to take advantage of them now. This is not a time to be playing for the future.
Of course, they have to avoid the kind of letdown that hit them last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. There is only one word to describe that game: dreadful. Hue Jackson did a terrible job of preparing his team (as I wrote in Tuesday’s Examiner). I had assumed that Jackson would have a conservative offensive game plan to protect Kyle Boller and rely on his defense to make the plays. The Chiefs, after all, had scored only 77 points in six games, while giving up 150. Instead, Jackson had Boller throwing deep, so he got picked off six times. Though Palmer was not prepared to play, he was rushed into the game in the second half and threw three more.
I was probably the only one in the press box who had seen more Raider interceptions in a game because I had been at an October, 1977 game in which Ken Stabler threw seven picks against the Denver Broncos. After the game I talked to the Snake and he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Win some, lose some.”
But that was a different era and a different Raiders team. This one is unaccustomed to success – unless you count last year’s 8-8 a success – and needs to be aware that it can’t afford any more letdowns. Palmer won’t make enough difference if the rest of the team doesn’t pick it up big time.
And, BTW, though I sharply criticized Jackson in that Examiner column, I think he’s a very good coach. Generally, I like his gambling style, but he has to learn when to play conservatively, too. I think the Chiefs loss will be a good lesson for him.
OH, MY: One of my pet dislikes is those writers who sound as if they’re writing from the dugout of baseball games or the coaches box at football games, and I saw another example of homerism last week when I read a Detroit columnist’s explanation of why the 49ers ended the Lions’ winning streak, that the Lions were suffering from the hangover of a big Monday night win over the Chicago Bears and came out flat on Sunday. Yeah, they came out so flat that they had a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Even to Detroit readers, that column should have rung false, but that’s what happens to writers who root first, analyze later.
In fact, the Lions had everything going for them in that first quarter, with the home town fans roaring for them. The 49ers seemed on the verge of collapse, with the offensive linemen unable to hear the snap count and either getting beat or committing false starts. But they settled down, made the big plays and won the game with a touchdown with just over a minute to go.
And, in winning, the 49ers also exposed the Lions’ Achilles heel. The Lions put tremendous pressure on the quarterback with their pass rush, but the Niners blocked the pass rushers to the outside, opening up holes for Frank Gore. Because the Lions spread their linebackers across the field, there was nobody there. Other teams are going to look at that game video and use the same tactics that the 49ers did.
In addition, the 49ers also shut down Jahvid Best, and without big runs from Best, the Lions really have no running attack. And, they may be without Best for the rest of the season. His concussion history, starting with the one he suffered in the Oregon State game when he was at Cal, is very troubling. His season and career are at risk.
The Lions were a great early season story but they face a tough road to the postseason because they’re in the same division as the reigning Super Bowl champs, the Green Bay Packers. With Aaron Rodgers performing at an all-world level, the Packers are undefeated.
The 49ers have the opposite situation: Because the NFC West is the weakest division in the NFL, they have an easy road to the postseason. Some writers are already speculating on when the Niners will clinch the divisional championship, I guess trying to prove they’re ahead of the curve. Right.
Mostly, though, writers are falling all over themselves saying that Jim Harbaugh performed a miracle by making Alex Smith into a good quarterback. Sometimes, I wonder what these writers are looking at. As I’ve written countless times, football is a team sport and Smith never had the support he needed, with the awful trifecta of bad coaching, poor pass protection and inadequate receivers. When it was clear that Smith would be coming back to the 49ers, these writers all said it was a terrible idea, that the 49ers needed to look for another quarterback, ad nauseum. I wrote in March that Smith, finally playing for a coach who understands quarterbacks, would have a good year.
Writers and broadcasters have access to more meaningful information than fans. They should be able to weed out the emotion that fans understandably have and evaluate accurately. Unfortunately, not many ever do.
PET PEEVE: The broadcasters who can’t simply say that a coordinator is going to call a certain type of defense or offensive play but insist he’s going to “dial up” the scheme. What if his players don’t answer the phone?
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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