Jim Harbaugh/Alex Smith; Jeff Tedford/Zach Maynard; Dennis Erickson/Rick Neuheisel; David Shaw/Andrew Luck
IN THE exhibition season, the New Orleans Saints tore the 49ers apart. Do you remember what the reaction to that was? Fans were distraught and local media tripped over themselves ripping the 49ers up one side and down the other. Alex Smith should not have been brought back; they should have traded for Kevin Kolb. The defense sucked out loud. And, whatever happened to the big offensive improvement that was expected under Jim Harbaugh?
If you remember that, perhaps you can put the 49ers loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving Day into perspective. The Saints caught the 49ers by surprise with their blitz package in the exhibition game. The Ravens did the same to the 49ers on Thanksgiving Day.
The 49ers had everything going against them in this game. They had a short practice week to prepare for a team known for its variety of blitzes, and then, they had to travel across country to the Eastern time zone once again. They’d won after their three previous trips but they hadn’t had short practice weeks for those games.
Well, the sky is not falling. The 49ers are still near the top of the NFL, possibly the second best team. Unfortunately, the best team, the Green Bay Packers, is in the same conference so it’s extremely unlikely they’ll get as far as the Super Bowl this season. But, look at the bright side: Who would ever have thought that we’d be talking about the Super Bowl after the 49ers had played 11 games? The most optimistic prediction was that they could go 8-8, probably good enough to win the weak NFC West, since Seattle had won it with just seven victories in 2010.
The 49ers are still a developing team because they have not yet totally learned Harbaugh’s offensive system; that probably won’t happen until next year. They’re also limited offensively because they don’t have wide receivers who can consistently make plays downfield; Michael Crabtree is having a good year but he doesn’t have the speed to be a consistent downfield threat. Nonetheless, Alex Smith has had a fine year, finally playing under a coach and system which allows him to show what he can do. I’d expect that the 49ers will do everything they can to bring him back, and Smith has seemed comfortable about being a 49er, despite all the abuse he’s taken, from media as well as fans.
The organization finally seems to be in good shape, too. Jed York has grown into his job as CEO. Trent Baalke is proving to be a very good general manager, and he and Harbaugh work together well. The front office actually has some NFL people in it now, not just computer nerds. I haven’t seen Paraag Marathe’s name in any stories this year, which is a good sign.
During the golden run for the 49ers, they had both solid coaches and a strong front office – and no, I’m not going to give Eddie DeBartolo credit for that. Eddie threw his father’s money around, which made him popular with the players, but this notion that he created a winning attitude is complete nonsense. Bill Walsh did that, and Walsh built the organization, too. George Seifert and Steve Mariucci were competent coaches after him, and Carmen Policy was good as the club president. When Carmen left and John York took over, the deterioration started and…well, you know the story since.
Now, the pieces are in place for continued success. This year is only the beginning.
CAL BEARS: After the inexplicable loss to UCLA, the Bears played very well down the stretch, winning three of their last four games and coming close in the Big Game to a much superior Stanford team. Quarterback Zach Maynard played especially well, and that bodes well for the immediate future because he’ll be back next season. Next year, they’ll be in the rebuilt Memorial Stadium, Jeff Tedford will have a magnificent training center to show recruits and I think the football program will get an upward bump.
Maynard’s progress has been amazing. It seemed in midseason that the game on this level was just too fast for him. He had “happy feet”, which caused his passes to sail, too often winding up in the hands of opposing defensive backs. If your quarterback isn’t playing consistently, there’s a good chance your team won’t.
Of course, the schedule made a difference, too. The Bears had back-to-back games against USC and Oregon and looked very bad in both games, but those are outstanding teams. The Ducks beat Stanford easily, and the Cardinal was undefeated going into that game. USC beat crosstown rival UCLA, 50-0, after Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel had said earlier in the week that his team was closing the gap. Well, maybe not.
Maynard is a gifted player and had looked much better in spring and summer drills than backup Allen Bridgeford, which is the reason he was named the starting quarterback. When he had problems, coach Jeff Tedford stuck with him.
Sometimes with struggling quarterbacks, there’s a point where a light seems to go on in their heads and they finally get what their coach has been telling them. I’d say that point was reached for Maynard in the Big Game. He was matched up with Andrew Luck, who may be the best quarterback in the history of a program which has had many good/great quarterbacks, including Jim Plunkett and John Elway among those I’ve seen in person since 1956. Maynard held his own in that game – some observers thought he outplayed Luck by a slim margin – and he had another very good game in Cal’s win over Arizona State.
There was one particular play in that game that I thought really showed Maynard’s progress. Under a very hard rush, he rolled to his left and, just as it seemed he’d have to throw the ball away to avoid a sack, he saw his running back, C. J. Anderson, on the sideline. He floated a pass over the defender so Anderson could make an easy catch. The play turned into a 74-yard touchdown.
Even two games earlier, Maynard could not have made that play. But, he was playing under control in that game and against Stanford, as he was not earlier.
Next year, I expect Maynard to use all his physical tools – he’s a fine runner, too – and be the best Cal quarterback since Aaron Rodgers. Inevitably, that will mean a better Cal team.
BYE, BYE COACHES: Dennis Erickson is out at Arizona State and Rick Neuheisel at UCLA. No surprise in either case.
I first met Erickson in 1987 when Cal and Washington State were playing in what was then the annual “Coca Cola Bowl” in Tokyo, matching two Pac-10 teams. I had gone over with the Cal group and stayed at their hotel; the Chronicle publisher didn’t care who paid my way, just so long as it wasn’t him.
Erickson was coaching the Cougars and my first impression of him was that he was very cocky but also very smart. He’s always been able to talk himself into another job, but his luck may have run out now. He’ll coach the Sun Devils in a bowl game but then he’ll go home, possibly to count the $1.5 million severance package he’ll get. Hard to feel sorry for him.
Frankly, I’m not sure that Erickson has ever been a very good coach but he is a really good recruiter and in college, he’s gone to schools who have only what I call the breathing test for athletes: If they can breathe, they’re admitted. With his recruiting ability, he won two national titles at Miami.
He wasn’t successful in two ventures into pro coaching, with the Seattle Seahawks and, of course, the 49ers, 2002-2003. With the 49ers, his main problem was his staff because he had hired only his friends. None of them were good coaches. Mark Purdy told me that players often complained to him about assistant coaches but said they knew they couldn’t go to Erickson because he’d support his friends.
The problem with Erickson’s recruiting has come back to bite him at Arizona State: He’s never paid attention to character, only ability. His teams have always committed unusual amounts of personal fouls, kind of like a minor league Raiders. At Miami, they had so much talent they could overcome that but the frequency of personal fouls has committed to the Arizona State collapse this year.
Neuhisel’s problem is two-fold: He has serious character flaws and he isn’t a very good coach. I thought the first problem would get him fired because he’d get the Bruins on NCAA probation but the second one has kept the Bruins from being good enough to get anybody’s attention.
When Bill Walsh was still with the 49ers and Terry Donahue was general manager, Donahue interviewed Neuheisel for the head coaching job. (True to character, Neuheisel had denied he was in the Bay Area for an interview, claiming he was just there to play golf.) Walsh talked to Neuheisel first and advised Donahue against hiring him because he wasn’t smart enough to be a pro coach. Donahue listened and made one of his few good decisions by not hiring Neuheisel.
As UCLA coach, Neuheisel hired Norm Chow, an outstanding offensive coordinator, but then decided to install the “Pistol” offense, which Chow had never used. So, Chow left for Utah.
But hey, who can criticize Neuheisel? He got the Bruins to the first Pac-12 conference championship game. They’ll play Oregon on Friday night. The over/under should be 50 points, and the Ducks will probably cover.
NBA AGREEMENT: I cringed when I saw the picture of NBA commissioner David Stern and Billy Hunter, head of the NBA Players Association, sitting together and smiling broadly when the settlement of the NBA labor negotiations was announced.
Nobody has less to do with the settlement than these two clowns. The pompous Stern kept threatening the players, which just encouraged them to resist. Hunter is a terrible negotiator, and I believe he was out of touch with the players. My guess is that he finally canvassed all the players and they gave him a one word instruction: Settle.
The new agreement gives the owners a bigger share of the revenues, but NBA players are still the best paid in professional sports, because there are fewer of them than in the other sports. In addition, an overwhelming majority of them are black and the reality of American life is that they are likely to have come from very disadvantaged environments. To give up the very large salaries they were getting….Tell me how that makes sense.
As I’ve said before, the only people I felt sorry for in this negotiation were the “little people”, the ushers, concessionaires, parking lot attendets. Their livelihood depended on the games being played. They’ll still suffer some financial losses but nothing like what they would have suffered if the season had been lost, which certainly seemed likely until the last minute settlement.
So, the NBA will have a 66-game season, starting with a triple-header on Christmas. I’ll be on a Christmas cruise with my wife, son and daughter-in-law, so I’ll miss that. Darn.
ANDREW LUCK: Stanford coach David Shaw made an impassioned speech supporting his quarterback in the Heisman Trophy race, as he appears to be in steep competition with Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, noting that the Stanford offense is geared more toward running and that Luck calls all the plays, which has not been done by a college quarterback in many years.
Good points, and there’s one other that Heisman voters should consider: If you were starting to build a football team, which of the Heisman candidates would be your first choice?
Anybody who answers anything but “Andrew Luck” REALLY hasn’t been paying attention.
LINE OF THE WEEK: A Sports Illustrated article traced the background of those investigating the Penn State football scandal and found that everybody involved in the investigation had some connection with the school and/or football program. The new school president, Rodney Erickson, pledged transparency in the investigation but the skeptical writer, Jon Wertheim wrote, “It is an admirable sentiment. But with so many potential conflicts, one wonders, Is Penn State cleaning house? Or simply rearranging the furniture.?”
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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