NFL: Popularity and Danger;49ers vs. Giants: Goodbye WBC?Pac-12 in NCAA; Todd Linden?
If you had any doubt about which sport most occupies the minds and hearts of American fans, it should have been answered in the last week. The NBA and NHL seasons are nearing the playoff time, college basketball is about to be caught up in “March Madness” and baseball has not only spring training but the World Baseball Classic. So, what was the biggest story last week?
The opening of free agency in the NFL.
The NFL has pretty much become a year-round operation, as far as sustaining fan interest. It wasn’t always this way. When I started covering pro football full time in 1967, the Super Bowl was held in the first 10 days of January, the draft was held in February and then, teams shut down until training camps opened in July, after which they played six exhibition games and 14 league games. There was one round of playoffs between the conference champions in what were then two leagues, the NFL and the AFL, and the two winners met in the Super Bowl.
Pretty simple. But the NFL people looked at the way baseball stretched its publicity year with the winter meetings in December, so there was only a two months gap between that and spring training. Football was about to do them one better.
The first step was to move the draft to April and put in the Combine in Indianapolis for potential draftees. Not mandatory but important enough that most of the top players showed up. (Quarterbacks often skip it because they want to be tested on their home field with their usual receivers, which makes sense.)
Many football people scorn the Combine, with good reason because there’s so much emphasis on the “measurables” – speed and strength – which don’t always translate into football skills. Many years ago, Tony Razzano, the director of scouting under Bill Walsh, told me he thought it was important to see prospects at their home fields and talk to the “little people” around them, like the equipment manager, to get a real idea of their character. In contrast, Al Davis placed overwhelming importance on a player’s speed. We all know how that worked out.
But, of course, the Combine is less for the football people and more for the draftniks around the country, to further speculation. It always amuses me that, though football is by far the least transparent of the major American team sports, there are millions of people, mostly men, who have Fantasy Football teams and are absolutely convinced they know everything about the game. The Combine gives them a chance to show off their supposed knowledge by speculating about how the draft will go and who their home town teams will/should draft.
It doesn’t stop there. The baseball season has begun but the NFL has mini-camps or Organized Team Activities (OTA) – if there’s a difference, besides the name, I don’t know what it could be – for the next two months. The only break is in June, for about a month before training camps open and the NFL publicity machine resumes.
Frankly, I think NFL players overtrain now. Their bodies never get a chance to rest, which makes them more prone to injuries. But all this activity builds a crescendo of excitement by the time the Super Bowl arrives, at which time a significant portion of the country zooms in on the main event.
I was amused recently when a local columnist claimed the Giants were now more popular than the 49ers in the Bay Area, because the San Francisco share of the TV rating for the World Series was much higher than the 49ers for the Super Bowl. But that was apples and oranges. The World Series has become an event that has relatively little interest for those outside the cities who are represented. When a West Coast team is playing, its games start around 8:30 Pacific time, which is 11:30 in the East. How many people do you think are watching? So, the Giants had a big piece of a small pie.
The Super Bowl, though, is an Event, played in prime time in the East, starting about 7-7:30, and on a Sunday, when relatively few people are working. The TV ratings measure how many sets are on, not people watching, and many, many people watch the game at parties. I got a glimpse of that when I was shopping two days before the Super Bowl and the crush was similar to pre-Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas shopping, not just the numbers of people in the store but the way the carts were piled high with grocers for, yes, Super Bowl parties.
When I came to work at The Chronicle in 1963, baseball was king and the Giants were the biggest local story. By the time I started writing a column in 1971, the 49ers were the biggest story and they’ve remained that. Giants general manager Brian Saben, speaking to the fact that few American blacks are now playing major league baseball – and none on the Giants – said last week, “We’re no longer the national pastime.”
He’s absolutely right. Football is king. The Giants have done a great job, on and off the field, but the 49ers are still tops in the Bay Area and northern California.
THE NFL, though, has a ticking time bomb with the injury problem, especially concussions, which league officials and owners ignored for too long.
The group suing the league on behalf of former players brought up another issue last week, the helmets. The Blomberg report had a story saying league owners ignored an idea for a different type of helmet which theoretically would reduce injuries because of a long association with Riddell.
Football and rugby are similar action sports; when I was in school at Cal, the rugby team consisted primarily of football players. But rugby has nothing like the number of injuries that football has. There are several reasons for that but one big one is the fact that rugby players don’t have fancy equipment. Football players have padding of hard plastic that causes injuries in itself.
And then, there are the helmets. When I started my career in Watsonville, the high school athletic director, Emmett Geiser, who had been a very successful football coach, told me he thought the helmets caused head injuries. The old leather helmets fit right on the head and absorbed blows. The new helmets, which are still used, delivered blows to the players’ heads after they were hit by opponents.
I think Geiser was on to something, especially in light of all what we’re discovering about concussions in football. But the helmets of today carry out the warrior theme that football people, and the media, love to promote; just think of all the war-like descriptions that are used about football players and games. That’s a big part of football’s popularity, but it is also the reason that the sport will eventually be abolished in this country. Not in my lifetime, I’m sure, but even as it has become more and more popular, it has been sowing the seeds for its eventual destruction.
GOODBYE WBC? Once again, Bud Selig’s brainchild, the World Baseball Classic, is of interest only to those countries playing baseball – basically, the United States, Japan and the countries in the Caribbean or on the northern rim of South America. Even Bay Area residents haven’t been turned on by the games at AT&T, despite heavily discounted tickets, as low as $8 on Stubb Hub. That barely buys a hot dog during Giants games. The final game, with the Dominican Republic beating Puerto Rico, was like the Caribbean World Series. Too bad it wasn’t in San Juan, where it would have meant much more.
There have been suggestions about change for the WBC, none of them good. One was to play only one round in the spring and the rest in an expanded time around the All-Star game. But, why take emphasis away from a real showcase for MLB? Another was to play it after the World Series, but getting American players to do that is a real nonstarter.
I have a better idea: Drop the silly thing altogether. It won’t be missed.
COLLEGE BASKETBALL: When I reported last week that Jarron Collins had said on “Chronicle Live” that he expected five Pac-12 teams to make the NCAA tournament, some of my readers were skeptical – as I was, too, frankly. But, that’s exactly the number that did make it.
That doesn’t mean they’ll go far, though. Oregon might have but the Ducks have been stuck with a No. 12 seed which will make it very tough for them to advance. UCLA, the conference champion, lost a key player, Jordan Adams, to injury, which pretty much dooms the Bruins. Arizona looked strong early but faded as the season went on, which is not a good sign. Colorado played very well at home, not so well on the road – and the Buffs won’t have any home games in the tournament.
Cal got a break with a first-round game in San Jose, where they can count on having many of their fans watching, against Nevada Las Vegas, but if the Bears win that, they’ll face a tough road because they’re a No. 11 seed.
I don’t follow college basketball closely but those who do have written that the Pac-12 teams were all seeded lower than they should have been, based on their RPI ratings. This is nothing new. West coast basketball has seldom gotten the respect it deserves from other areas, especially the east coast. There’s a reason for that: Few in the Eastern media ever see games on the west coast, which start at 10:30-11 p.m. Eastern time and go past midnight. It takes real dedication to watch games that late, so I’ve become resigned to the east coast bias.
Meanwhile, Stanford barely eked out a win in the opening game of the NIT. The Cardinal won the tournament last year but it has been a long time since it was relevant. I covered the tournament in 1999 in New York and was happy that the Bears won but crowds were sparse, and mostly Cal alums who had made the trip East, and stories on the tournament were buried in the New York papers.
Stanford has had the players to do much better than it has under Johnny Dawkins, but Dawkins remains a great recruiter and below average coach. One of his problems is his desire to play a lot of players instead of sticking with his starting five, as Bill Walton pointed out last week, and he almost lost Tuesday’s game because he gave his starters an extended rest in the first half.
Dawkins was given a two-year extension on his contract by Bob Bowlsby before he left his post as Stanford athletic director. Bowlsby was 1-for-2 on picking coaches. He came up with a winner in Jim Harbaugh in football but the Dawkins choice was a clunker.
THE WARRIORS are looking better and better, and that is tied directly to the extended and improved play of Andrew Bogut.
Bogut is playing more, at least 30 minutes, even in back-to-back games, and playing much better. He has more flexibility in his surgically-repaired ankle, so he can defend much better. He had four blocked shots in his last game and that’s only part of the story because it doesn’t tell how many times he’s forced players to alter their shots or even stay out of the lane.
With Bogut playing well and a remaining schedule that is heavy in home games, the Warriors are in good position to finish at least sixth in the Western Conference, which gives them a much better chance of advancing to the second round.
On my last appearance on “Chronicle Live”, Mark Kreidler and I were asked if we thought the Lakers would be a serious problem for the Warriors. Mark said yes, I said no because I thought the age of the Lakers’ best players would catch up to them. Kobe Bryant, who had been having a spectacular year, was the first to stumble, now sidelined by an injury. Without Kobe, the Lakers are DOA.
SPRING TRAINING continues, even longer this year because of the WBC but as silly as ever. My sympathy is with writers who have to keep coming up with stories when there are so few meaningful ones. I know that from my own experience. None of the columns I wrote from spring training over the years were memorable. I can’t even remember them myself.
One of the favorite topics of writers is the one-time prospect trying to gain traction as a veteran. One such this year is Todd Linden, who was regarded as a top hitting prospect by the Giants when he first came up in 2003. What that showed more than anything was that the Giants management was worthless at judging position players at the time. It’s only been in recent years they’ve done well at that – with a different set of men in the front office. Now, three starting infielders and the catcher have come from the Giants farm system.
Linden could easily have won a starting position if he’d shown anything at all, but all he ever showed was a proclivity for striking out frequently. Managers don’t mind that now if a hitter also has a lot of home runs but that was never the case with Linden. He soon faded into obscurity. Now, he’s trying again, at 32. I suspect he’ll do as well as he did the first time around.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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