Kevin Hogan/Stepfan Taylor/Montee Hall; David Akers/Billy Cudriff; Warriors-Clippers; Terrelle Pryor
WHEN I saw Stanford go on two long scoring drives in its first possession in yesterdayís Rose Bowl, I thought it would be a high-scoring rout for the Cardinal. It didnít turn out that way at all, but Stanford found a way to win, with a strong defense in the second half and a running game keyed by Stepfan Taylor. That kind of resourcefulness was the key to the Cardinalís 11-2 season.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan started strong but that changed after he was slammed to the turf as he completed a 43-yard pass to Zach Ertz. Give Hogan credit for standing in there to take the hit he knew was coming, and also for not using that as an excuse for later problems, though it was obvious his accuracy suffered as a result of that hit. Thatís part of the reason I think heís going to be another in the line of great Stanford quarterbacks. Itís also probably what coach David Shaw saw as he made the change to Hogan at midseason.
This was a game, though, in which running backs were prominent, which is quite unusual as both college teams and pro are pass-happy. It was a pleasure to watch Taylor and Wisconsinís Montee Hall, both of whom are power backs but also able to make the subtle cuts when they see a hole opening. Hallís move to the right on the second Wisconsin touchdown was especially illustrative. The play was obviously designed to go up the middle but Hall saw open ground on the right and went untouched into the end zone.
I was happy to see Stanford win. Many Cal graduates, including my son, hate it when Stanford wins but Iíve written quite a bit about Stanford sports and have generally had a good relationship with the coaches. There were exceptions. Paul Wiggin, with whom Iíd had a good relationship at the start, claimed I had lunch with then athletic director Andy Geiger to discuss his firing. He was right about the lunch but that subject never came up. It didnít have to. Wiggin couldnít win when John Elway was his quarterback and he went 1-10 the one season he coached without him. He wasnít going to survive that. The other exception was Tyrone Willingham. I didnít have a problem personally but I resented the way he treated the media. When he got the job at Notre Dame, which gets by far the most media attention of any college team, I predicted he wouldnít be able to handle that. I was alone in that prediction but, guess what, I was right.
Iím also happy to see a conference team win a bowl game, though I can make an exception to that rule when USC loses. And, with Lane Kiffin as coach, itís impossible for me to root for the Trojans. When the Raiders hired Kiffin as coach, I wrote that Al Davis saw Kiffin as himself as a young man. Davis was all too right, and he fired Kiffin for trying to negotiate a college job while he was still coaching the Raiders. Al would have done the same thing. Ethical behavior wasnít on the agenda for either of them.
TRADITION, TRADITION: Reader Ed Manegold complained to the Cal ticket office about all the night games and was told that it was a ďGolden Bear traditionĒ to play night games. Funny, in 56 years of covering Cal football, starting when I was an undergraduate, I missed that. But Ed was probably talking to a 23-year-old who thinks that history is what happened yesterday.
THE 49ERS addressed a big issue by signing veteran kicker Billy Cuundiff to a one-year contract, but it isnít automatic that the Niners will use him when they begin their postseason on January 12 against Green Bay if they beat the Vikings in the first round game, as I expect they will.
What will likely happen now is that Cundiff and David Akers will compete in practice until coach Jim Harbaugh makes the decision on which one he wants. Their careers have been similar but Akers has more range, so he may yet get the call. The 49ers need more consistency than he has shown lately. Kickers often get into mental slumps, because there is great pressure on them to make every kick. Akers is in one of those mental slumps now, after starting the season with an NFL record-tying 63-yarder.
The other question is about Justin Smith. The 49ers defense hasnít been the same since he was hurt; significantly, Aldon Smith hasnít had a sack in three games without the ĎCowboyĒ clearing out offensive linemen to make a path for him to the quarterback. The early reports had Justin Smith out for months. Lately, there has been some optimism that he will be able to play by next weekend. I wouldnít bet the house on that one.
Iím not optimistic about the 49ers chances in the postseason, even if Justin Smith comes back. Last year, they played conservatively on offense, minimizing turnovers and let their defense control the game. That formula led to a 13-3 regular season and got them within two turnovers on kicks of the Super Bowl. Since Colin Kaepernick took over as quarterback, theyíve been a different team. Kaepernick makes more big plays than Alex Smith did but the 49ers offense has also stuttered a lot. Even the hapless Arizona Cardinals, on their way to their 10th straight loss, gave them problems early last Sunday. If that had been a playoff game, the 49ers would have been fighting uphill the whole game.
Because I was on vacation, I didnít see the 49ers game in Seattle but what Iíve read about it since then tells me that it went exactly as I expected. Kaepernick has had problem getting off plays in time in home games. It was hardly a surprise that he struggled in the horrendous noise of the Seattle stadium.
Thereís another problem with the big play or nothing offense: It doesnít give the defense much time to rest. When Bill Walsh coached the Niners, heíd meet with defensive coordinator George Seifert at the start of the week to see what the offense had to do to help the defense. If they were playing a good offensive team, Seifert would emphasize the need for the offense to get a lot of first downs, keeping the chains moving and keeping the other teamís offense off the field.
I donít get the impression that Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are having those types of discussions now.
If the Niners have to play the Seahawks in the postseason, theyíll have the advantage of playing at home. But the Seahawks have been playing very well in the second half of the regular season and, frankly, they look like the better team right now. Even if the Niners get by the Packers, which is hardly a given, theyíd have their hands full if they had to play the Seahawks again.
Iíve had e-mails from readers complaining about the hits by Seattle cornerbacks in their lopsided win over the 49ers but until I hear that the league is fining those cornerbacks for those hits, Iím inclined to put that into the category of fans complaints. (The cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Brower, have both been accused of violating the leagueís policy on drugs, but theyíre appealing and will both be eligible to play in the postseason.)
Because I had just returned from vacation just before midnight on Saturday, I stayed home the next day to watch the 49ers game against Arizona on television. I was amused when the announcers said theyíd had a long sit-down with Harbaugh but after it, they realized Harbaugh hadnít really told them anything. Welcome to the club, guys.
THE WARRIORS and Clippers playing games that could have a serious impact on both the NBA season and playoffs? Iím as surprised as you are.
The Clippers have a dismal history in Los Angeles, always a distant second to the Lakers, who have a glorious history, starting with championships in Minneapolis and continuing that tradition in Los Angeles, with great players like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain, at the end of his career. (A side note: The Lakers are also an example of the NBAís ridiculous pattern of retaining team nicknames when teams move. Lakers was a fitting nickname in Minnesota, whose state motto is ďLand of 10,000 lakesĒ, but have you seen lakes in L.A.? Even thatís not as bad as the New Orleans Jazz becoming the Utah Jazz. Jazz in Salt Lake City? Itís probably banned.)
Now, itís the Lakers who are playing second-fiddle. They signed Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the offseason but they are old, old, old. Nash has been injured but even when heís healthy, he canít get this team moving. It would be a surprise at this point if the Lakers make the playoffs.
The Clippers also made an important move in the offseason, acquiring point guard Chris Paul, who is getting the ball to Blake Griffin, the most dynamic player in the league, and DeAndre Jordan, whom the Warriors tried to sign last year as a free agent, before the Clippers matched their offer. The Clippers went undefeated in December and had a 17-game winning streak that was finally snapped last night in Denver.
The Warriors havenít been that spectacular but theyíre playing very well as a team. General manager Bob Myers, in his first year as general manager, has done a great job of putting together a team with great depth. Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack have been great additions as free agents, and all three draft picks Ė Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green Ė have made important contributions.
And, nobodyís even talking about Andrew Bogut. If he returns, fine, but the Warriors are winning without him.
DUH RAIDERS: Head coach Dennis Allen will be back next season but he fired four assistants, including offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. A coach who finishes 4-12 has to make some changes, if only to mollify fans.
Knapp had been under fire for weeks from columnists who criticized his zone blocking system. Apparently they were unaware that Tom Cable used the same system successfully when he was the Raiders offensive line coach.
Thereís been an increase in talk about systems among fans and writers, probably because theyíre talked about on TV. My viewpoint is that itís important to have the right system but itís even more important to have the right players. The fact that, because of injury, the Raiders did not have all the projected starters in the offensive line in place until the 15th game of the season is more significant than the system which was used. The offensive linemen all have to work together because if one breaks down, the whole line does.
The Raidersí season was a disastrous 4-12 which didnít surprise me. New general manager Reggie McKenzie had no choice but to cut many players before the season started because their contracts put both the team payroll and salary cap status totally out of control. Desperate to win before he died, Al Davis made some terrible errors of judgment and left McKenzie a mess to clean up.
Fortunately, Mark Davis realizes that, despite comments he made about being unhappy with the Raiders play, and he isnít interfering with McKenzie. Heís also talking to John Madden and Ron Wolf, who are giving him the same advice.
There were some bright spots at the end. For one, the defense showed great improvement in the last three games after being a disaster area for the first 13 games. That, despite an almost complete turnover in the defensive backfield because of players who were released and constant injuries to their replacements. Defensive coordinator Julian Tarver finally made the players understand that they had to play as part of the team scheme, instead of free lancing. Significantly, the improvement was made without any contribution from malcontent Rolando McClain, who will soon be released, and Richard Seymour, my candidate for most overrated player in the NFL.
The other bright spot was the play of Terrelle Pryor, who finally got his shot in the last game. Pryor is far from a polished quarterback but he showed he can pass accurately, though his statistics suffered because of drops by a group of receivers who have speed but unreliable hands. Allenís post-game analysis of Pryor after Sundayís loss to the San Diego Chargers was lukewarm approval, but it would be a good idea to give him substantial playing time next season. Carson Palmer certainly isnít the long-term answer and Matt Leinart has shown repeatedly that his success at USC was more because of the great players who surrounded him than his own ability.
HAPPY NEW YEAR to all of you. We had a nice Caribbean cruise with our son and daughter-in-law during which I completely forgot about sports for a week. I always do that on vacation because if I donít, itís not a vacation. But, Iím back at it again. I hope you had a good Christmas and are also eager to attack the New Year.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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