Randy Moss/Michael Crabtree/Vernon Davis; Al Davis/Reggie McKenzie; Tom Keating
IT’S SUCH A treat to watch the 49ers these days because they’re doing things right. That doesn’t just mean winning. They don’t make critical and stupid mistakes, like jumping offsides on third-and-one. They use different formations but never seemed confused by the changes. Unless I missed it, there wasn’t one false start Sunday in Green Bay.
That’s coaching, not just by Jim Harbaugh but his assistants. He may have the best group of assistants since John Ralston had four future NFL coaches – Bill Walsh, Mike White, Dick Vermeil and Rod Rust on his Stanford staff. They practice everything, and they get it right.
This is the way good teams win. It’s the way Walsh won. It’s the way Bill Belichick wins. In the NFL today, head coaches set the tone for the team but it’s the assistants, especially the coordinators, who set formations and game plans, and the assistants on lower levels who do the coaching of positions. That’s why the whole staff is important.
It was a simpler game in Walsh’s day and he obviously drew up the offensive game plans. But, he also had good offensive assistants, Mike Holmgren and Paul Hackett among them. Defensively, he turned everything over to George Seifert, who was probably as inventive with his defenses as Walsh was with his offense.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman have more weapons this year, after adding receivers Randy Moss and Mario Maningham and having Michael Crabtree healthy. You saw the difference on Sunday when wide outs caught 15 passes for 152 yards and one touchdown. The 49ers wide receivers had not combined for 152 yards in any of their previous 29 games, including playoffs.
The Packers feared the deep threat Moss poses so much that they left him free in the end zone for an easy touchdown – and also left tight end Vernon Davis uncovered for another touchdown.
You can bet Harbaugh and Roman will come up with more offensive wrinkles in the games to come, starting Sunday night against the Detroit Lions.
NON-ISSUE: The media tried to make a big story out of the little squabble after last year’s 49ers-Lions game when Detroit coach Jim Schwarz thought Harbaugh was a little too enthusiastic with his handshake and pat on the bat. Possibly upset because he’d been outcoached, Schwarz came after Harbaugh as the 49ers coach walked toward the dressing room.
It was only a minor story last year and the attempts to reprise it were ridiculous. Harbaugh repeatedly turned back questions at yesterday’s news conference by saying the game was the important story. Exactly.
COLUMN DELAY: I had another doctor’s appointment this morning which became more complicated with additional tests. It’s been a rocky two weeks for reasons I don’t care to divulge but I think I’m close to returning to where I was three weeks ago, which was good for my age.
RAIDERS: My friend Phil Lichtenstein has a friend who’s a hard-core Raiders fan, one who sits in the Black Hole and wears one of those nightmarish costumes that get him on TV. This fan insisted one day that the Raiders were the winningest team in football. Phil did some math: Since 1980, which includes the last time the Raiders won a Super Bowl, they’re 250-256. Since they returned to Oakland, they’re 119-160. Hard to trumpet the greatness of the Raiders with those figures.
In truth, the Raiders were great for a time, from 1967-82, when they won three Super Bowls and were almost always in contention for the ultimate prize. Al Davis was at his peak then, and he had help, especially from Ron Wolf, who went on to build Super Bowl teams in Green Bay. Davis capitalized early on the fact that he had no bias, so he could get good players who were rejected by other teams simply because they were black. In those days, when scouting systems were unsophisticated, he used a number of friends to spot talent throughout the country, especially in black colleges, which were not scouted at all. His teams used an explosive offense he had learned from Sid Gillman and a man-to-man defense with tight bump-and-run coverage.
But as the years went by, the NFL changed greatly – and Davis never did. Rules changes made it very difficult to play tight man-to-man coverage, and the zone defenses he hated cut down on the long downfield passes he loved. While other NFL organizations hired more people and diversified, Davis quit relying on anybody. He was the only one allowed to make a decision, on the field or behind the scenes.
It was utter madness but when I tried to point this out in print, I was besieged by angry e-mails from fans who believed the myth, despite what was happening in front of their eyes.
Fortunately for the health of the franchise, new general manager Reggie McKenzie doesn’t believe the myth. Everything he’s done since he’s taken over is a direct opposite to what Davis did. McKenzie played for the Raiders but he also worked for the Packers, and the Green Bay organizational model is the one he’s chosen.
That extends to fan behavior at the games, too. At the Monday night game, fans were monitored closely, in the parking lots and when they came into the stadium. Davis was never willing to say anything to the fans about their behavior, even when they became known as the most obnoxious in the league, but McKenzie clearly wants a better atmosphere at the games, so well behaved fans aren’t driven away.
That doesn’t mean the Raiders will suddenly become winners again, as was painfully evident in their opener against the Chargers. McKenzie had to get rid of some bad contracts just to get started, and he didn’t have picks in the first two rounds of the draft. To make it worse, the Raiders lost two key players, wide receiver Jacoby Ford and cornerback Ron Bartell to injuries in the opener.
It will take time for the Raiders to become contenders again. But when they do, they’ll probably be consistent contenders for a significant period of time because they’re finally doing it right.
NFL REFS: The NFL got through its first game, a Thursday night extravaganza, without problems but that was not the case on the first full weekend of play. There were numerous problems throughout the league. I only watched the 49ers-Packers game but that was enough, with obvious blown calls, confusion over what calls to make, coaches apoplectic on both sidelines. The season will be farcical if the NFL doesn’t reach agreement with the regular officials very soon.
The replacement officials aren’t even the highest level of collegiate officials. The major conferences all have contracts with their officials, so they can’t do NFL games. These are guys who worked games in Division II, which is nothing like the NFL. To make it worse, there have been numerous rules changes in recent years and there are many calls which are judgment decisions. An official who isn’t familiar with the speed of the NFL game doesn’t have a prayer. That was part of the problems in the 49ers-Packers game because there were so many late flags, an indication that officials weren’t sure of their calls.
The sticking point now is apparently pensions. NFL commissioner Roger Goodall is playing hardball, as he likes to do, but he’s already being overruled on some of the suspensions he handed players who were supposedly involved in the “bounty program. He’d do well to quit playing God and tell his negotiators to reach a sensible agreement. There’s an incredible amount of money in the NFL right now. There’s surely enough to reach a decent agreement with officials, who are an important part of the game.
SUDDEN THOUGHT: The Giants are very lucky they’re playing in the NL West. If they were in the AL West, they’d be third, behind Texas and the A’s. They’d also be third if they were playing in the NL East and second in the NL Central, 5 ½ games behind Cincinnaati.
Fortunately, they’re playing in the NL West, where they only have to beat the Dodgers, who seem to get worse when they add players, not better.
LAST SATURDAY, my health problems kept me from the Cal-Southern Utah game. In previous years, I would have searched the cable networks to see when who was carrying it. But this is the brave new world of Larry Scott. As commissioner of the Pac-12, Scott has set up a new Pac-12 network to carry conference games. But this is not Florida, where he’s been based most recently.
In Florida, college football is bigger than a moon landing, so if you announce a cable network that has SEC games, you have to be careful not to get caught in the stampede. The Bay Area is slightly more sophisticated. I have AT&T’s U-verse network which gives me access to the highest level of entertainment available, plus NFL, NBA and MLB games, as well as Comcast’s lineup of local games. Now, Mr. Scott wants to force us to switch systems to watch his brave new world.
No, thank you. Among other things, AT&T also provides my telephone service, both land lines and cell phones. Nancy and I are not going to spend a dime on Scott’s grandiose plan.
Frankly, I’ve been opposed to Scott’s plans from the beginning. Bigger is not necessarily better and a “west coast conference with Utah and Colorado? Give me a break. This is a hugely unbalanced conference and the only consolation is that, at least he couldn’t get Texas schools in.
Remember this: Change is not necessarily progress.
TOM KEATING: I’m generally an upbeat person but there are times when I think, life sucks. One of those times came Monday, when I heard that Tom had died.
I was fortunate enough to be a beat writer on the Raiders, 1967-71, when it was still possible for writers to be close to players. For the most part, I wasn’t as close to players once I became a columnist because I had to cover more sports and more players, but I was very close to the Raiders players, even to the point of sitting with them on planes when we traveled to away games.
The two players I was closest to were Ben Davidson and Tom Keating. Ironically, they died less than two months apart and from the same disease, prostate cancer.
Keating was my favorite because he was intelligent and outgoing. In training camp, he had a big corner room on the second floor of the now long-gone El Rancho motel and several players would crowd into the room. I was usually there, too, just to listen. I never wrote anything I heard in that room, unless I talked to the player later and got an on-the-record comment, but I got quite a football education.
For a relatively short time, Tom was also a great player. He wasn’t big for a defensive lineman, even in those pre-steroid days, at 6-2 and just under 250 pounds, but he was very quick. He’d be by offensive linemen before they knew what had happened, into the backfield to sack the quarterback. He was part of the defensive line that set an NFL record with 67 sacks for 667 yards lost in the 1967 season that lasted until the NFL went to a 16-game season. After that season, he tore his Achilles tendon in an All-Star game. When he returned, he was still a good player but he didn’t have the quickness that had made him great.
That never changed his personality, though. No matter what, he was upbeat, and he loved to be surrounded by people. He had a house in Alameda that was like a halfway house for players. When players came to the Raiders, they stayed at Tom’s house until they got more permanent residences.
In retirement, Tom and I got together on a regular basis for lunch at Tadich’s Grill. Tom knew the owner, Bobby Buich – Tom always knew everybody – and we could both take BART in to the city so we could drink freely, which meant copious amounts of chardonnay to go with the old style fish dishes at Tadich’s.
That stopped when Tom married a woman who was a government lawyer and moved back to Washington, D.C., but eventually, they divorced and he moved back to Walnut Creek. I hadn’t had much contact with Tom recently but I called him when his good friend Ben died. He told me he had lost 20 pounds because of his cancer but he had his strength back and was eating well again. “I want to get my strength back and then we can go to Tadich’s,” he said.
Sadly, that was not to be. On August 27, I learned that he was in hospice care and was going to be sent to Denver, where his brother, Bill lives. On August 31, he died, two days short of his 70th birthday.
Life can suck.
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