Colin Kaepernick/Frank Gore/Joe Staley/Mike Iupati/Eric Reid; Pete Carroll/Jim Harbaugh; Sonny Dykes/Sandy Barbour; David Shaw;Grant Balfour/Brandon Belt
THE 49ERS warmed up for their showdown with Seattle on Sunday at Candlestick by smothering the St. Louis Rams, 23-13 in a curious game.
The Rams seemed to have revived their offense in the previous two games, with 38- and 47-point outbursts against the Colts and Bears but the 49er defense shut them down. Defensively, the Niners seem to be even better than last year, with a specific improvement at free safety with Eric Reid. Thereís an asterisk there, though, because Reid has already had multiple concussions. At some point, his doctor has to tell him that heís risking Alzheimerís in his 40s if he continues playing. More and more, weíre hearing from former athletes who are having serious problems because of untreated concussions during their playing days; Brett Favre is the latest.
Meanwhile, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell mandates serious restraints on tackling, heís also pushing for an expanded season, reminding us again that the NFL is all about money.
Defensively in Sundayís game, the Rams concentrated on stopping the run, which they did; 49ers running backs gained only 62 yards. Injuries to Mike Iupati, who missed the game, and Joe Staley, injured during the game, didnít help. Trent Baalke, the 49ers general manager, has built depth in the offensive line, but you canít replace Pro Bowl players that easily.
Iím also starting to wonder if age has finally caught up with Frank Gore. Historically, there have been very few running backs who were still effective at Goreís age, 30. He also took a beating during the Mike Singletary era when every team knew the 49ers would try to run up the middle most of the time. Gore has been grinding this season but he hasnít often shown the burst that has made him a premier back, and the leading ground gainer in Niner history. At this point of the season, though, itís difficult to change the run game even if Gore is no longer what he was.
The Ramsí concentration on stopping the run opened up passing lanes for Colin Kaepernick and he had a good statistical game, but most of the yardage came between the 20s. For the first three quarters, the 49ers had only one touchdown. Their second touchdown came in the fourth quarter when a botched fake field goal play by the Rams gave the Niners the ball on the St. Louis 17. Kaepernick then hit Vernon Davis for the touchdown.
Michael Crabtree made his 2013 debut and had a spectacular play, when he got open to take a 20-yard pass and then ran for another 40.
All season, Kaepernick supporters have said he didnít have enough quality receivers but he now has Davis, Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Can you tell me of any team with better receivers Ė or even as good? There are no excuses left.
The 49ers also got a boost when the Arizona Cardinals lost, 24-21, to the Philadelphia Eagles, whose quarterback, Nick Foles, is now just one touchdown short of Peyton Manningís rookie record of throwing 20 touchdown passes before throwing an interception. This is totally shocking to me. I saw Foles in college, when his Arizona Wildcats played the Cal Bears, but I had no idea he would be this kind of quarterback in the pros. The Raiders, of course, got him started by being absent on defense when they played the Eagles: There was little pass rush and terrible coverage in the secondary.
AROUND THE NFL: I would say there are three NFC teams which have a chance to play in the Ice Bowl in New Jersey in February: Seattle, New Orleans and Carolina. But after the way the Seahawks demolished the Saints in the Monday night game, the field perhaps should be narrowed to Seattle.
The 49ers? After they beat the Packers, who would be a playoff team if Aaron Rodgers hadnít been hurt, theyíve lost the next four games theyíve played against playoff-bound teams, the Seahawks, Colts, Panthers and Saints. Thereís certainly no reason to be optimistic about their chances. They may still have to beat the Cardinals in Arizona in the last game of the season, and that would only give them a chance to play a wild card game on the road.
The Seahawks Monday night win also virtually clinched the divisional title but theyíll be playing hard on Sunday at Candlestick because they want to finish with the best conference record and coach Pete Carroll hates Jim Harbaugh. I canít understand why. Harbaugh is such a lovable person.
The NFC East is a model of what the NFL calls parity and I call mediocrity, a battle of so-so teams. Whichever one wins that battle is not likely to be a serious contender for the Super Bowl.
Denver is clearly the class of the AFC, as expected. The New England Patriots are just one game behind the Broncos but theyíre barely winning games they used to dominate. In fact, they almost lost to the Houston Texans who may be the worst team in the conference now. Kansas City is also just a game behind the Broncos but has lost twice to them in a three-week span. Theyíll be in the playoffs but as a wild card. The Colts havenít been the same since losing receiver Reggie Wayne, and mediocrity abounds in the conference.
Iím saving my thoughts about the Raiders for my Wednesday column in the Examiner.
THE GOOD news for Cal football last weekend was that the Bears didnít lose a game because they had none left. Thank goodness De La Salle wasnít scheduled.
The bad news off the field continued. Quarterback Zach Kline, a redshirt freshman, and sophomore Freddie Tagaloa both announced theyíd be transferring. I donít blame either one of them. Though Kline loves Cal, he also has a shot at the NFL, and he had no chance to show what he can do playing behind Jared Goff. (Iím not saying he should have started; Goff is an outstanding quarterback.) This is much like Vince Ferragamo transferring to Nebraska because he didnít want to play behind Steve Bartkowski in 1974. Ferragamo was a good quarterback and the hero of Calís 1972 Big Game but Bartkowski was better, the No. 1 pick in the 1974 NFL draft. Some think heís the best quarterback in Cal history though my vote would go to Craig Morton.
Two recruits have also backed out, defensive backs Jaleel Wadood and Jeremy Winchester. There will probably be more. This is a program going nowhere. Head coach Sonny Dykes is coaching a system that historically has worked only on lower levels or if a team had superior players, Oregon being the classic recent example. It goes without saying that Cal does not have those kinds of players.
Iíve been reluctant to criticize defensive coordinator Andy Buh because he didnít have many good players but two things were obvious: (1) There was no improvement during the season; and (2) Even in the final game, the Big Game disaster, players were still whiffing on what should have been easy tackles. Makes you wonder what Buh was doing in practice.
The biggest problem, though, is athletic director Sandy Barbour. I thought she would surely be fired after the Big Game but it appears Cal has another chancellor who canít pull the trigger.
Barbour canít be blamed for everything but she has been the one in charge while graduation rates for football and basketball have plummeted. (Graduation rates for those who football players who came in for the 2007 season are supposedly up to 68 per cent.) She proposed what would have been a monumental mistake, putting the 2014 Big Game at the 49ers new stadium; the howl of protest from alumni made her back down on that. She proposed eliminating the baseball program though there was money in the budget for it because she knew she could extort money from alums who had played baseball. The program was restored and Cal won the College World Series.
From what I hear from alumni, Barbour has little support. But if the chancellor isnít willing to pull the triggerÖ.
The Cal football program has had more downs than ups since I started following it as an undergraduate in 1956. Jeff Tedford had the longest run of winning seasons since Andy Smith in the Ď20s and even Tedford had problems at the end.
But, they were nothing like this. Until Cal gets a good athletic director and a good coach, the football program will go nowhere. And, good luck with raising the money to pay the stadium debt.
TO MAKE it worse, Stanfordís program is probably at its highest point since John Ralstonís teams won consecutive Rose Bowls in 1971 and í72. Now, they have another shot at the Rose Bowl, if they can beat Arizona State in Tempe on Saturday night. That could be tough because the Wildcats have been very good in the second half of this season.
Harbaugh started the rebound for the Cardinal after the dreadful Buddy Teevens/Walt Harris run, getting his team to two bowl games, the Orange Bowl the second time, after which he signed a contract to coach the 49ers.
But David Shawís teams have been even better. I criticized Shaw last week for not appearing at the Guardsmenís luncheon but overall, heís a very solid guy, a good coach who is soft-spoken and defers credit to his players. Heís a Stanford lifer, having played there as well, so he understands the school and loves it, which gives him a special advantage in recruiting.
It really bothers many Cal alums to see Stanford in the Rose Bowl since the Bears havenít been there since a very forgettable appearance in 1959, but Iíd rather see Stanford there than, oh, to take a name out of the hat, USC.
SPEAKING OF USC, athletic director Pat Haden named Steve Sarkisian as the new USC coach, replacing fill-in Ed Orgeron, who had a 6-2 record after replacing Lane Kiffin. When Pete Carroll was coach, Sarkisian and Kiffin were co-offensive coordinators.
Sarkisian played Al Davis beautifully in 2007, interviewing for the vacant Raiders head coaching job when his only intent was to get more money from USC, which he did. Davis turned to Kiffin, who was using the job only to get back into college coaching. USC was his preferred destination but he went first to Tennessee, then to USC. There are two constants in Kiffinís career: He alienates people while proving he canít coach. Still a great recruiter, though, oozing sincerity.
Sarkisian is no prince, either. He lured Tosh Lupoi from Cal in the middle of recruiting season last year, not because Lupoi is a great coach but because heís a great recruiter. Now, Lupoi is apparently going to USC with Sarkisian.
READY FOR some baseball? Both the Giants and Aís have been active lately, surprisingly so for the Aís who have more financial restraints.
The Aís first signed lefthanded starter Scott Kazmir to a two-year deal for $22 million, then traded infielder Jemile Weeks and the famous player to be named later to the Baltimore Orioles for closer Jim Johnson who has led the majors in saves the last two seasons.
The Aís had made no attempt to resign Grant Balfour, who will get a very big contract from some club. I think thatís a good move. For all his success, Balfour always seemed one pitch away from disaster. Several times, Aís outfielders made leaping catches at the wall to prevent home runs. The club which signs Balfour better have deep fences.
Johnson, by contrast, pitched in what is widely considered a hitterís park in Baltimore. He should welcome the Oakland Coliseum, which is much more of a pitcherís park than AT&T, despite its reputation.
It saddens me to see Weeks go because he was such an exciting player as a rookie, but his play regressed after that and the Aís obviously believed he wasnít going to regain his old form.
They also showed with their pitching moves that they donít want to bring Bartolo Colon back as a 41-year-old with the big contract heís asking. Theyíre deep in starting pitching, too, and may even trade Brett Anderson, an outstanding pitcher but a bad athlete who often puts himself in position to be injured with his awkward moves.
The Giants also tendered contracts to five arbitration-eligible players: first baseman Brandon Belt, outfielder Gregor Blanco, pitcher Yusmeiro Petit and infielders Joaquin Arias and Tony Abreu. All are considered signed with the size of their contracts to be decided in arbitration.
Belt is the most important of these players because, in the second half of last season, he learned how to hit for power with more consistency. He should be in the mid-20s home run range. For first basemen on other contending teams, thatís not enough, but the Giants havenít had a first baseman hit more than 30 homers in a season since Will Clark.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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