Alex Smith/Jim Harbaugh; Dennis Allen/Greg Knapp; David Shaw/Jeff Tedford/ Lew Wolff; Bobby Valentine
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 19, 2012

19SEPTEMBER

ONE OF the reasons I’ve enjoyed the 49ers’ success the last year, and two games into this season, is the play of Alex Smith. For years I insisted that Smith was a good quarterback who was put in an impossible situation with a bad team, bad coaches and a constant turnover of offensive coordinators. He’s finally getting the chance to work with good coaches and have the same system for two consecutive years and we’re seeing the results.

Not that everybody is convinced. National media often refer to him as a mere “game manager”, as opposed to being a premier quarterback. USA Today listed him as the 17th best quarterback in the NFL, which puts him below the midpoint in the estimation of their socalled experts.

None of this bothers Smith, who has shown a remarkable ability to shut out criticism from media and booing from fans. The only time he spoke out was when Mike Nolan tried to throw him under the bus, insisting that Smith’s shoulder was not a problem – just before Alex had season-ending surgery.

He’s had opportunities to leave. When the 49ers said they were voiding the contract he signed as a rookie, he could have left as a free agent, but he signed a less lucrative contract to stay. He was a free agent after the 2010 season but assured new coach Jim Harbaugh that he was staying. Harbaugh gave him a play book, so Smith could work with receivers during the lockout. He was a free agent again after last season but except for one visit to Miami when Harbaugh and Trent Baalke were watching Peyton Manning work out, he waited for his agent to work out his contract with the Niners.

The Manning episode remains shrouded in mystery. Was Harbaugh really serious about Peyton? He apparently never invited him to the 49ers headquarters, which Manning had said was a necessity if he were going to sign with another team.

Signing Manning would have been a serious mistake because his salary would have forced the 49ers to release some important players. As it was, they had only one significant loss, guard Adam Snyder, and Alex Boone (and occasionally Leonard Davis) have done a good job at that position.

Manning represented a big risk, too, because of his injury history. And, after this three-interception first quarter in the Monday night game, there is serious doubt that he can be the same quarterback whose previous accomplishments make him a first ballot choice for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Except for that one visit to Miami which didn’t seem serious, Smith has remained impervious to all the chatter. He’s learned the offense in record time, and he’s obviously very confident. That showed clearly Sunday night when he checked out of a pass play that had been sent in because he saw an opening in the Lions defense – and Frank Gore ran through it for a big gain.

He can certainly make the big throw when he has to. He should have proved that to critics in the fourth quarter of the playoff game against the New Orleans Saints but the doubters surfaced again when the Giants beat the Niners in the NFC Championship game. But Smith had only one reliable receiver, Vernon Davis, who was covered like a blanket by the Giants.

He’s looking more confident this season with more receivers brought in and Michael Crabtree finally looking like the receiver they thought they were getting when they drafted him No. 1. The win-clinching drive against the Lions was a classic, with Smith three times converting third-and-long situations, and Crabtree making good catches and tacking on yardage. Finally, Alex found Davis in the end zone for his second touchdown.

Yet, the critics still say Smith is merely a product of Harbaugh’s system. Were Joe Montana and Steve Young simply a product of Bill Walsh’s system? Every quarterback needs the right system, but quarterbacks still have to produce.

Too often quarterbacks are judged by how many yards they throw for. Every week, The Chronicle posts the top yardage figures for quarterbacks in the Sunday games. The first week, three of the seven QBs played for losing team. The second week it was four of the eight.

Smith is unlikely ever to be on that list. Harbaugh’s system, like Walsh’s, is based on completing a high percentage of passes with a low interception rate; both of the coaches knew that the best predictor for winning is to win the turnover battle. Alex Smith has broken the 49ers team record for longest streak without an interception, which is 217 after Sunday’s game, breaking the record set by Young who broke Montana’s record.

Most important, the 49ers are now a cumulative 15-3 in regular season play with Smith in Harbaugh’s system. So, Alex doesn’t care if he’s just called a “game manager” by the ignorant. He may just manage the 49ers into the Super Bowl.

OH, THOSE RAIDERS: Two losses to open the season have brought criticism from two columnists I respect, Monte Poole and Tim Kawakami. Monte has been all over offensive coordinator Greg Knapp while Tim has expressed doubts about rookie head coach Dennis Allen.

The funny thing is that Monte, Tim and I were on a “Chronicle Live’” show before the start of the season and I thought we were in agreement that nothing much could be expected of the Raiders this season because they didn’t have the players but that the organization was building in a way that will bring future success./

Well, apparently that agreement was illusory.

Time for a reality check. New general manager Reggie McKenzie first had to clear the brush created by Al Davis’s overgenerosity on contracts by cutting players who could have helped but were woefully overpaid. Those cuts, and the fact that they had no first round draft pick, has left them very thin. Injuries to defensive backs have been especially critical, and now Shantae Spencer is injured. Michael Huff may have to play corner this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The offense has also been hampered by a switch to zone blocking, which requires linemen to move together. It’s worked in Denver, where Allen was an assistant last season, and it worked in Houston last year, when Knapp was the offensive coordinator. It has not yet worked for the Raiders because the offensive linemen are still not comfortable with it. Perhaps they’ll get it by this week, perhaps not, but it’s hard for me to see why this should be blamed on Knapp.

In fact, Knapp has been a good coordinator with the 49ers, when I could watch his work closely, and with Houston last year when the Texans got to the playoffs after their starting quarterback was knocked out. I doubt that he’s lost his ability – but he may not have the players to work his system. Any system is only as good as the players running it.

As for Allen, it is much too early to judge him. Remember that Walsh went 2-14 his first season. There were several in the media who thought the Niners should get a new coach – and who wrote that – when it soon turned out that the 49ers simply needed better players, not a different coach. Eddie De Bartolo and I have had our differences, but I give him credit for sticking with Walsh through his first two years, which produced only eight wins combined.

I was very close to Walsh, of course, and knew what he was doing, so I wrote after that second season that he was making progress and the 49ers would soon be winners. But no, I didn’t predict a Super Bowl!

I am not close to Allen and I can’t predict if he’ll eventually have success, but I think we have to be patient with him at this point. What I would look for would be incremental improvement, such as defensive linemen and linebackers staying where they’re supposed to be instead of free lancing, solid tackling instead of arm tackles that are easy to break and, of course, fewer penalties. That seemed to be happening in the first half in Miami, but the Raiders reverted to their undisciplined self in the second half, perhaps because they were tiring in the Miami humidity.

URBAN LEGEND: In an otherwise sensible column, the aforementioned Kawakami referred to the A’s trying to save the Giants by giving them the rights to the San Jose/Santa Clara area in 1990. (Two attempts by the Giants to build a park in the area were rejected by voters.)

I have an advantage in this situation because, just before the Giants ownership group reached an agreement with MLB, Walter Shorenstein told me that the deal was that the Giants would get territorial rights to the peninsula and San Jose/Santa Clara in exchange for getting a new park within 10 years. The Giants beat the deadline by three years on their park so their territorial rights are still in place.

But it makes me wonder why writers who don’t have this background don’t ask a simple question: How do you give away something you don’t have? In 1990, neither the Giants nor A’s had territorial rights beyond their own cities. A’s owner Walter Haas, a wonderful human being, may well have given his friend, Bob Lurie, his blessings in trying to get a park built in the south Bay, but he had no territorial rights to give away.

AMAZING A’S: The A’s attendance is still low because owner Lew Wolff has figuratively kicked them in the teeth for years, but there are still dedicated fans who love their team despite everything.

This year has been a revelation. General manager Billy Beane had to trade away established pitchers but he got good talent in return and the A’s have remained in contention for the wild card slot and, if you’re dreaming, even the division title. Wolff must be cursing every time he looks in the mirror because his master plan is crumbling all about him. His claim that he can’t build a winner while playing in the Coliseum is being proven wrong, and he’s no closer to moving the team to San Jose than ever.

A story in the Los Angeles Times, quoting an anonymous source close to the commission – color me skeptical on that, by the way – says that baseball commissioner Bud Selig plans to put a plan to settle the matter before the owners. There are only two real possibilities: 1) That Selig would challenge the Giants territorial rights, at which point the Giants would sue. I think we can scratch that one because the attention that would get might convince Congress that baseball’s anti-trust exemption should be dropped; 2) That Selig would convince the Giants to take a financial settlement to give up their territorial rights. They’ve said in the past they wouldn’t but let’s just assume the Giants agree to take $100 million for those rights. Who’s going to pay that? Wolff and his money man, John Fisher? Ho, ho, ho. Other major league owners? Not a chance.

There’s only one good conclusion to this: Sell, Lew, sell!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Stanford continued its recent domination of USC, four wins in the last five games, and this one was the most surprising of all. It seemed the Cardinal would fall off with the graduation of super quarterback Andrew Luck, but they’re 3-0. Harbaugh took two outstanding coaches, Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, with him when he went to the 49ers, but he left David Shaw behind. Traditionally, successful Stanford coaches have been men who understood the culture at the school, which is quite different than almost any other school in big time sports. Shaw played at Stanford before becoming an assistant coach, so he certainly understands it.

Stanford has had periods of great success, including back-to-back Rose Bowl wins in the early ‘70s. But John Ralston, who coached those teams, had a significant advantage that current coaches lack: He could get junior college transfers into school. Now, Stanford doesn’t allow any junior college transfers.

Citing just that fact, Walsh told me in our last lengthy talk that he doubted Stanford could ever be a powerhouse again. This was when Walsh was acting as temporary athletic director. His prediction seemed right on target when Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were the head coaches.

But Harbaugh reversed that trend big time, and now Shaw is continuing that pattern. Good for him.

MEANWHILE, CAL came eversoclose to beating Ohio State in Columbus but lost by a touchdown.

In a game like that, there are always plays and decisions which are criticized. One of those came late in the fourth quarter when with the score tied, coach Jeff Tedford decided not to go for the first down on fourth-and-short and brought in field goal kicker Vincenzo d’Amato, who missed his third straight attempt, this one the biggest miss of the day.

I would have gone for the first down, but I’m always more aggressive than coaches, whose jobs depend on such decisions. If Tedford had gone for it and failed, there certainly would have been those who criticized him for the chance to go ahead with a field goal.

BOBBY VALENTINE’S season just got worse when he called his September roster the worst in Red Sox history, then tried the next day to erase what he’d said in a rambling disclaimer that made even less sense than his statement the previous day.

I’d feel sorry for Valentine, but he’s such a pompous ass, he deserves everything he gets, which will include a firing as soon as the season is over. His major league managerial career is probably over, too. I can’t imagine anybody giving him another shot.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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