Colin Kaepernick, Alex Smith, Jim Harbaugh; Jeff Tedford; Mark Davis/Reggie McKenzie/Dennis Allen; Brian Urlacher
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 21, 2012


SITUATION NORMAL: The 49ers have a quarterback controversy.
My first experience with this came in the ‘60s, when I was doing general assignment sports stories, often dressing room stories. At that time, The Chronicle worked on a strict seniority system with writers, so those with more experience had the best beats, even if they weren’t very knowledgeable. That was especially true with the 49ers. The beat writer thought John Brodie was terrible, so he always pushed for the backup.
George Mira was drafted by the 49ers in 1964 after starring at Miami as a strong-armed quarterback, though undersized at 5-11. Both the Chronicle and Examiner beat writers campaigned for him to get his shot as a starter.
I think it was 1966 when that happened. Mira started, played terribly and the Niners lost big. I don’t even remember the other team, but I do remember that head coach Jack Christensen stormed into the interview room, told the writers, “You wanted him, you got him and I hope you’re happy!” After which, he left without saying another word.
That was the end of Mira’s time as a starter, thankfully, but the same writers also campaigned for Steve Spurrier, the Niners’ No. 1 pick in 1966. Spurrier played when Brodie was injured and had some early success, but he didn’t have a strong arm, so the defenses clustered in the middle of the field and shut him down. Gene Washington has told me that, because Spurrier had such a great football mind, if he’d had even an average arm, he’d have been successful.
You’re all familiar with the quarterback juggling Mike Singletary did in his lamentable time with the Niners. For a time he started Troy Smith, who is now a free agent with no takers after being released by Omaha of the UFL. He also started Shaun Hill, the very definition of a backup, as he is now in Detroit.
But the most notable quarterback competition came in 1988. Bill Walsh was convinced that Joe Montana was through, as was I. Steve Young started two games while Montana was sidelined with flu and back problems. But when he came back, Joe proved both Walsh and me wrong with a 2 ½ season performance that was probably as good a stretch as any NFL quarterback ever had. In that time, he took the Niners to two Super Bowl wins and to the very brink of another Super Bowl. Young had to wait his turn, though he still had the time to put together a Hall of Fame career.
This controversy is somewhat like that in that strong cases can be made for both Smith and Kaepernick. Smith was playing at a high level when he was hurt, even throwing a touchdown pass against the Rams despite blurred vision. Taking over for him, Kaepernick started slowly but then played well enough to get the Niners that overtime tie. Two days ago, in the Monday night game, he was terrific, leading the 49ers to a surprisingly lopsided win over the Chicago Bears.
Frankly, I have no idea how this will play out, so I’ll leave that decision up to Jim Harbaugh. It’s a luxury to have two quarterbacks who can play so well – and in different ways – but it can be a distraction if you don’t have a clear No. 1. But, as a former quarterback, nobody knows that better than Harbaugh.

WHAT’S NEXT? I have news for those who seem to think Cal should have consistent top football teams: Since the end of World War II, Cal football is a collective 34 games below .500. There have been only four winning coaches in that time: Pappy Waldorf, who had the best overall record; Mike White; Bruce Snyder, and Jeff Tedford, who had the most consecutive winning seasons, eight at the start of his 11-year run. But when he had two losing seasons in the last three, he got fired.
Don’t tell me it was because of the low graduation rate for Cal football this season. That was an aberration in Tedford’s career. He has always checked closely on his players’ academic status (seven players made the Pac-12 All-Academic team this season). I think he was distracted by the stadium and High Performance Center drives but he had been committed to getting his players back on track to graduate. And, that was something that came up late in the fire-Tedford campaign. Before that, the emphasis was always on the fact that the team was losing.
Athletic director Sandy Barbour gave in to that pressure. She said yesterday she’d like to get the football equivalent of Mike Montgomery. Good luck with that.
John Crumpacker, who covers Cal for The Chronicle, admitted that picking a list of possible candidates was like throwing a plate of spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. He then proved it with his list of candidates. One of them was Steve Mariucci, who left Cal after one season as head coach and now has a cushy TV job. No way. Another was Hue Jackson, who proved with the Raiders that he’s not a head coach. Former Stanford assistant Willie Taggart is on the list because “he knows the California recruiting landscape.” No, he doesn’t. Stanford recruits nationally and does far less in California than Cal does.
One coach I like on that list is San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre. I had a long talk with MacIntyre as the pre-season Bay Area coaches meeting in August and was very impressed. I didn’t write about San Jose State at the time because, like most observers, I regarded the program as a lost cause. But the Spartans are 9-2 and headed for a bowl. If MacIntyre could revive that program, he’d be a good choice for Cal.
But I seriously doubt we’ll again see the kind of run Tedford had early. I thought he might be one of these college coaches who has a long, successful tenure, but I didn’t factor in those supporters who are totally unrealistic in their outlook on Cal football.
WHEN I started in the newspaper business, there was a saying about stupid football players: He’s been playing too long without a helmet. Brian Urlacher fits that description after saying that a knee injury is worse than a concussion because a knee injury can knock you out for the season and you only lose a game with a concussion.
Oh, boy. Apparently, Urlacher hasn’t noticed that former players are suing because of possible concussion damage, not knee injuries. The NFL is belatedly acknowledging the danger former players face from concussion damage. Present day players like Urlacher should be happy that the NFL finally got the message.
STANFORD NOT only upset Oregon at Autzen Stadium, unquestionably the loudest stadium in the Pac-12, but has brought out another phenomenal quarterback, Kevin Hogan, to follow in the footsteps of Andrew Luck.
All week long, Stanford defensive players had said they could slow down the Ducks and they mostly did before winning on a field goal in overtime.
Interestingly, I read an article last week that talked about how smart Oregon coach Chip Kelly was, and how he had researched his team’s fourth down plays and found that they almost always succeeded, so he was never hesitant about going for it on fourth down.
But early against Stanford, the Ducks failed on a fourth down. If they’d kicked a field goal at that point, they would have won in regulation time. So, maybe there are some limits to Kelly’s intelligence.
As with any coach, success depends on getting the right players, and Kelly has been able to attract some very good offensive players who want to play in his fast-moving system.
Under first Harbaugh and now David Shaw, Stanford has also been able to attract very good players in the last few years, but they are also very different from the players that Oregon and other top 10 schools get.
Stanford’s admission standards are the highest in the country for schools playing in top level conferences. Vanderbilt’s are as high, and probably Rice’s, but you haven’t seen teams from those schools in competition to play in bowls.
Because of their admission standards, the number of players Stanford coaches can recruit is much smaller, but at the same time, the school has a definite advantage with those athletes who have the grades to get into top academic schools. The Stanford recruiting pitch has been the same for a long time: An Ivy League school with a big-time athletic program. Not to mention, great weather most of the time.
Not all coaches have been able to benefit from that. Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris certainly didn’t. But, Harbaugh knew the school from the time when his father was an assistant there, and Shaw went there himself. So, they knew how to make the pitch.
Harbaugh was always front and center, as he is with the 49ers. Shaw is much different, quiet, not one to boast. But, he’s certainly doing a great job.
In a way, I think the Stanford success contributed to Jeff Tedford’s firing at Cal. Because I’ve gone back and forth between the two schools over the years, I’ve talked to and liked many of the Stanford coaches. My heart is obviously always with Cal but, as I’ve told Shaw, “I hope you win all of your games but one.”
I don’t think many Cal fans feel that way, so Stanford’s success really grinds on them. Unrealistic? Of course, but rooting for teams is never realistic and when you bring your school into it, the unreality is taken to another level.
DUH RAIDERS: Mark Davis made a public statement about being unhappy with the way the season was going. Was he sending a message to the coaches or general manager Reggie McKenzie? I don’t think so. I think he was just telling the fans he understands their frustration. He’s said he won’t interfere with the football people, and I don’t think he’s changed his mind.
Realistically, there was never any hope this team would be a winner. McKenzie had to get rid of too many bad contracts, and he didn’t have a draft pick in the first two rounds. It will take at least another year and probably two before we get a handle on what he wants to do with this team.
Knowing that, McKenzie gave Dennis Allen a four-year contract. As I’ve written before, I can’t judge Allen at this point because he doesn’t have the players. I always come back to the fact that Bill Walsh went 2-14 his first year with the 49ers. Sometimes a coach will inherit a team with good players who didn’t play well under a bad coach – Jim Harbaugh with the Niners is the prime example – but that was not the case here.
One local columnist has been calling for Allen’s firing, but this columnist still thinks it was a bad idea to fire Hue Jackson, so his judgment is lacking. Jackson is too erratic to be a good head coach – he’s fine as an offensive coordinator – and when he made that after the season speech blaming his players for the team’s late collapse, there was no way he could be brought back.
I think most Raiders fans understand that. There was some booing by the end of last Sunday’s game but I left early and there were a ton of fans leaving at the same time. They all seemed to be in good spirits, though their team had lost by a lopsided score.
Meanwhile, the Raiders front office is trying to change the fan mentality at the games. They have a message to shake hands with the person next to you, and there was another scoreboard message: “Raiders/Saints Fans, Enjoy the Game Together.” That’s the way it should be.
FOR THE rest of the week, I’m forgetting about sports and spending time with my family, including my wife, son and daughter-in-law and my brother and his woman friend who will be visiting from Santa Barbara. So, don’t expect answers to your e-mails.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

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