49ers, fans, Alex Smith, Hue Jackson
THE EXCITEMENT of the thrilling 49ers win over the Saints last Saturday was diminished by the loutish behavior of some 49ers fans toward visitors wearing Saints shirts. Part of this is what I regard, from my old fogey’s viewpoint, of a decline in civility in today’s society. There are bigger factors, though. These are the two biggest:
1) Alcohol. Remember how many arrests used to be made at night games at Candlestick with the Giant and Dodgers? Same thing. Fans start drinking early at tailgates and continue in the stadium, and a certain number of them get out of hand. I’m sure the offenders last Saturday were not a significant part of the crowd but, as the saying goes, it only takes one bad apple to spoil a barrel.
2) Relatively low numbers of season ticket holders at the game.
When I was covering the Raiders, 1967-71, I would be given an extra ticket to the home games, so my wife came to the games. I never worried about her safety because she was sitting among people who came to every game. The Raiders were sold out on a season ticket basis at that time. The ticket holders were mostly blue collar types, but whatever their professions, they rooted very hard for their team but were always civil to each other, almost like an extended family. Conversely, the 49ers crowds at Kezar were full of hard drinkers who often fought with each other.
Now, of course, it is the Raiders crowds which have the bad reputation, and the big problem is that only about half the stadium is season ticket holders. Many fans buy individual game tickets, so there’s no continuity. And, many of those who are there for one game love to act out, because it’s their one chance to get on TV.
The 49ers don’t have a large season ticket base now, either, though they’ve kept games on home TV by buying up the cheaper seats which are available – a smart move, especially this season. So, a sizeable part of Saturday’s crowd was “fans” who had bought single game tickets. I’m sure they were the ones who were most abusive toward the Saints fans.
It could be worse on Sunday. The game will start two hours later, which only gives the drinkers more time to get out of control. There will probably be a large contingents of Giants fans out from New York, and New Yorkers are not known to be kind and gentle.
The good news for the 49ers is that they can expect a big bump in season ticket sales after this season, especially if they win Sunday and go to the Super Bowl. The Raiders won’t be that lucky because, missing the playoffs again, they’ve given fans no reason to buy season tickets. There will be plenty available on game day. So, the 49ers crowds will be tamer but the Raiders crowds will continue to be rowdy.
NOW THAT Alex Smith led the 49ers on two touchdown drives of 80- and 85-yards in the final four minutes of last Saturday’s win over the Saints, maybe we can forget about the “Jim Harbaugh is afraid to put the game in Alex Smith’s hands.” Turns out Alex can do well when the game is in his hands. He’s done that before, too, though in less important games. He’s often had games where his quarterback rating was highest in the fourth quarter. I remember when Mike Singletary made a quarterback change at halftime of a game in Houston and Alex led the Niners to a dramatic comeback win.
It doesn’t surprise me when fans make emotional decisions about players they like or dislike because they have much less information than they think they have. It’s easy for fans to evaluate basketball teams and players because it’s a relatively simple game. Baseball is somewhat more complicated but if you’ve followed it for years, and perhaps played it as a youth, you have a good understanding of what’s happening. Not so with football. Fans don’t know game plans, blocking assignments, pass routes. So, when a pass is incomplete or intercepted, they blame the quarterback, although it may be that the receiver has run the wrong route on a timing pattern.
Watching from the press box, writers and broadcasters don’t know the game plans, either, but talking to coaches and players gives them much more information than fans have. Yet, many of them fall into the trap of just mimicking one another and passing on the same misinformation.
One example: Think of how many times Smith was just dismissed this past season as “managing the game.” That’s the kind of thing you say about a quarterback with limited ability, such as Shaun Hill, who briefly started for the 49ers but is the very definition of a backup quarterback. It was not fair to Alex Smith, who was working with Harbaugh’s game plan, which was conservative because Harbaugh knew he had the defense to protect small leads – and with a depleted receivers group. At the start of the season, Josh Morgan was supposed to be the big play receiver, but he was knocked out for the season early. Braylon Edwards was signed as a free agent but injuries and a bad attitude made him a nonfactor before he was released. Ted Ginn Jr. and Kyle Williams made some big plays but had injury problems, too. Delanie Walker was knocked out by a broken jaw.
Football is a team game. Aaron Rodgers looked like a world beater for most of the season but he couldn’t win last Sunday when his receivers dropped eight passes.
Smith is mentally tough and he never complained, and he also learned to adjust. Michael Crabtree had become his go-to receiver, but Crabtree, probably overcome by nerves in the pressure-filled situation on Saturday, dropped three passes, so Smith adjusted and hit Vernon Davis on a couple of big plays late – and on the winning touchdown.
I think this is just the start of what should be a very good career for Alex Smith, and I also think it will be with the 49ers. As I wrote in Tuesday’s Examiner, the 49ers should sign him to a multi-year contract after this season is over.
GENE WASHINGTON: Speaking of football being a team game, there is no better example than what happened to Washington, who will be inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame this year.
Gene was a great receiver, an earlier version of Jerry Rice, when he had good quarterbacks throwing to him. His numbers declined sharply when John Brodie retired after the 1973 season. A series of mediocre-to-awful quarterbacks followed until the Niners traded for a battered Jim Plunkett before the 1976 season. Even Plunkett wasn’t what he had been at that point. It wasn’t until 1980, with the Raiders, that he had recovered from his earlier beatings and led the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins.
I talked to Gene earlier this week because I’m writing his BASHOF bio, and part of that discussion was about the quarterbacks between Brodie and Plunkett. Steve Spurrier was one. “Steve had as good a football mind as anybody I’ve ever known,” he said. “I’m not surprised that he’s been successful as a college coach. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the strongest arm. He had a good year filling in for Brodie when John was hurt in ’72, but it was downhill after that.”
Even as Spurrier was having early success in 1972, I could see that his arm wasn’t strong enough to make the pass to the sideline. In my column, I predicted that his success would be short-lived because defenses would soon cheat toward the middle and shut off his targets. Spurrier didn’t talk to me for years after that, probably because I was right.
Washington’s receiving numbers won’t impress fans who know only the game as it’s played now, but there were no limits on the defense at that time, Defensive backs could hit receivers all over the field, linebackers could knock down receivers running across the middle. Now, DBs can only hit receivers once, at the line of scrimmage, so the game has changed radically. No defense can just shut down a team, as the Steelers first two Super Bowl champions did in the ‘70s. Now, teams have to play defense as the 49ers do, trying for the big interceptions or stripping the ball after the catch.
As Washington expressed it, “The TV networks love the game as it’s played now.”
Of course. Defense wins games but offense sells tickets, in all sports.
GHOST TO THE POST: One of the interesting side notes Saturday is that teams which force at least four turnovers are now 78-1 in playoff games.
The one exception? The Raiders 1977 playoff game in Baltimore.
The Raiders were trailing by three points late in the game. Coach John Madden was agitated on the sidelines but quarterback Ken Stabler told him, “John. Look at the people, how excited they are. This is a great game.” Then, Stabler went in and completed a long pass to Dave Casper, the famous “Ghost to the post” pattern, setting up the tying field goal. In overtime, Stabler threw a 10-yard scoring pass to Casper as the Raiders won, 37-31.
ANDREW LUCK: He may have come in second in the Heisman voting but there is no question among NFL people who the best college quarterback is. Luck will be the No. 1 draft pick, no question.
What is a question is whether he’ll play behind Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts. Manning is 36 and he’s had three neck injuries in the last two years, the last of which sidelined him the entire 2011 season. I’m no doctor but it seems that he’s risking paralysis if he returns to the playing field. He’s had a career which makes him a lock to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he’s made plenty of money and he can make an easy transition to the TV booth. His only sensible decision would be to retire.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: There is no honor among thieves, and you can add football coaches to the axiom. The latest example: Washington’s Steve Sarkisian hired Cal assistants Tosh Lupoi and Eric Kiesau away with just two weeks left in the recruiting season. The timing is not coincidental. Lupoi is known as a super recruiter and Cal may lose some top recruits because he’s transferred – even though they wouldn’t be coached by him. That speaks volumes about the whole recruiting process and it should be a lesson to older Cal alumni who think Jeff Tedford should be able to lure top prospects to Cal because of the school’s reputation.
Lupoi has previously been best known for advising a defensive lineman to fake an injury to slow down the Oregon Ducks a couple of seasons ago. Citing a source “close to the program” an internet service claimed defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast actually made that call.
That one doesn’t pass the smell test. My experience has been that these anonymous sources usually turn out to be a low-ranking assistant who has a grudge against those above him, especially the head coach.
I’ve never cited anonymous sources. If I felt comfortable that I was getting solid information, I’d write it as my own opinion. Then, readers could congratulate me or tell me I was full of it, but I wasn’t hiding behind a “source.” One example: Midway through the 1996 season, I wrote that Brian Sabean would be promoted to replace Bob Quinn as general manager at the end of the season. A deputy sports editor pressed me to write that “according to a source” nonsense but I refused. I knew my information was solid.
INTERNET NONSENSE: There’s all kinds of information out there but you have to pick and choose to get the real story because there are many baseless reports.
For instance, on Yahoo.com, Mike Silver claimed that Mark Davis fired Hue Jackson as coach because Mark had a dysfunctional relationship with his dad and wanted to erase all traces of him from the team.
Well, guess what? Al Davis and his son were never close. One time when Mark was in his 20s, he came up to me at Golden Gate Fields and told me he was enjoying my criticism of his father.
In recent years, they’ve been reconciled. I was at a Raiders practice when it first happened. Mark came out on the field and he and Al hugged. But even then, Al did not bring Mark into the organization to let him work in different parts of the operation, as John York did with Jed with the 49ers. It was always All About Al.
But I’m sure the decision to fire Jackson was made by new general manager, Reggie McKenzie. Jackson thought it was his remarks about wanting to play a bigger part in the organization but McKenzie said he wanted his own man in there, which new general managers often do. Even if he didn’t, Jackson cooked his goose when he blamed the players for not making the playoffs. None of them would have ever played hard for him again.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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