Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles; Michael Sam/Jason Collins; Barry Bonds/Brandon Belt; Derek Jeter/Alex Rodriguez
THE NFL COMBINE, a.k.a. the underwear Olympics, is interesting this year to both the 49ers and Raiders, for much different reasons.
The Raiders are drafting No. 5, which gives them options. One is to trade it for an additional pick, probably in the second round. But they also need a quarterback and there are some highly-rated ones going early. Johnny Manziel will probably be gone. So will Teddy Bridgewater. But Central Florida’s Blake Bortles will probably be there, and he seems to be a good choice.
It’s always hazardous drafting a quarterback in the first round because so many fail. Even for Manziel, who has been a very public figure in both of his collegiate seasons, there are some unknowns. Will his personality translate into a winner or a distraction? And, how will his game translate to the NFL. Scouting reports have noted that he seems uncomfortable in the pocket, preferring to get outside and throw on the run, comparing him to Doug Flutie and Fran Tarkenton. Flutie had more success in the Canadian Football League than the NFL but Tarkenton is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Teams drafting in the top five are usually there because they lack a good quarterback. At one point, I thought the Raiders would do better to trade that pick but I’ve changed my mind. They don’t have confidence that either Matthew McGloin or Terrelle Pryor can do the job. I’ve felt that McGloin would make a very good backup, capable of taking over if the starter is injured, but certainly not the one you need as a starter. I had hopes for Pryor but his play has been erratic. He’s a superb athlete so the Raiders might try him at running back or receiver.
The top quarterbacks often don’t throw at the Combine, preferring to do it at a scheduled day at their college facility. That way, they can throw to the receivers they know, instead of having to deal with ones they don’t know. Frankly, that makes a lot of sense, for the scouts as well as the quarterbacks, because they will get a more accurate picture of the quarterback’s ability.
The 49ers will probably be looking at receivers and this draft, according to Mike Mayock, the analyst for NFL.com, this draft has more quality receivers than any he’s seen. The Niners haven’t had luck with young receivers lately but at least part of that is the fact that Colin Kaepernick won’t throw to them. As I’ve pointed out before, Seattle’s Russell Wilson uses all of his receivers and he’s made a star of the undrafted Doug Baldwin. But if the Niners resign Anquan Boldin, which seems likely, Kaepernick will be throwing to Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. No young receivers need apply.
What can football people really learn about prospects at the Combine? I’ve always been skeptical because they’re not playing football. The 40-yard sprints are an example. It doesn’t do any good to have a receiver who can run very fast if he can’t catch the ball, as Al Davis proved over and over again in the 10 years before he died. And, there is also the phenomenon of receivers who run faster with the football than without. Most teams downgraded Jerry Rice when he came out because his 40 times were relatively slow, but nobody ever caught Rice from behind in his prime.
And, this is for receivers, who may be running 40 yards or more. Linemen also get tested, and rated, in the 40. How many times have you seen either a defensive or offensive lineman running 40 yards in a game?
In the ‘80s, when I was talking to Tony Razzano, Bill Walsh’s scouting director, he told me he had little faith in Combine measurements. He looked at films, talked to people at college facilities who knew the players – not coaches but workers at the facility – to learn about their characters. Razzano’s recommendations were a big part of Walsh’s drafting strategies.
Years later, I was talking to Razzano’s son, Dave, as a Stanford prospect had his pro day. Dave had inherited his father’s disdain for time trials. He had lost his regular watch and was pretending to use a Mickey Mouse watch. “Makes just as much sense,” he said.
This year, of course, there’s an added story: Michael Sam, who has already faced a barrage of questions about his sexuality at a preliminary appearance. He’ll no doubt be facing more at individual sessions.
Sam came out to his teammates at Missouri before the season started and they had no problem with that, but the NFL is a different matter. I saw an analysis the other day that made sense: For younger people, with all the changes being made (gay marriage, etc.), it’s become part of the landscape. NFL executives are older, and their experiences have been quite different. Many of them can’t let go of that and, though they would undoubtedly deny that, have an anti-gay bias.
That’s the battle Sam will face but NFL executives and coaches need to be realistic about the very real problems they have with a locker room culture which has gotten out of hand, as witness the Miami Dolphins. If they weed out the cretins who are causing these problems, they won’t have any problems accepting gays in the locker room.
If they need an example, they can look at the Brooklyn Nets of the NBA, who signed Jason Collins, who had come out publicly last year, to a 10-day contract. No hassle, none of this wailing about showering next to a gay guy, etc. That’s the way it should be handled.
THE GIANTS welcomed Barry Bonds back to the fold as a special hitting instructor in spring training, now that Bonds is clear of his legal entanglements.
Typically, a Chronicle columnist jabbed at Bonds that the Giants would have to build a special structure for Bonds in the dressing room, an unsubtle reference to the three stalls he commanded in the Giants quarters at AT&T Park. Bonds had those so he could lie down before a game and rest his troublesome back but some writers took it as a personal affront. IMO, writers who do that think waaaay too much of themselves.
In the ‘90s, I wrote that Bonds was making a mistake by shutting out writers because they’d find some way to punish him. (I wasn’t talking of myself; the one interview I had sought with Bonds was a rewarding one.) Steroids provided the excuse. Bonds was pummeled relentlessly for his steroids use, which seemed obvious though he never failed a test, and they’ve kept him out of the baseball Hallof Fame, though he was clearly the best player of his generation, even before steroids became an issue.
Even the blindest of his critics couldn’t deny that Bonds was both a great hitter and a great student of hitting.
When the Giants moved into PacBell Park, now AT&T, they built a batting cage in a room directly behind their dugout. Around the sixth inning, Bonds would go back there and adjust the machine to “pitch” lefthanded, because he knew he’d inevitably see a lefthanded reliever in late innings.
Later in the decade, as general manager Brian Sabean failed to get strong hitters to complement Bonds, pitchers would walk him semi-intentionally time after time. But Bonds demeanor never changed. He took his place in the batter’s box and never left it, concentrating on every pitch. He would not swing at a pitch outside the zone. There were games when he saw only one pitch in his zone – and he’d hit it.
If he can teach that same approach to Giants hitters this spring, it would be very welcome.
Some don’t need it. Buster Posey and Marco Scutaro seldom swing at bad pitches. Pablo Sandoval does, but when he doesn’t have a huge stomach to get around, he hits them. There’s no reason to change his style.
Brandon Belt is another matter. Belt usually has a good idea of the strike zone but he lacks Bonds’ understanding of the kind of pitches he can hit with power. A little instruction from Bonds might help him boost his home run total into the 30s, which would be a huge help to the Giants. It’s usually expected that a team will get its power numbers from corner outfielders and corner infielders but the Giants haven’t had a first baseman since Will Clark who has hit more than 30 home runs – and that was 1987!
It’s difficult for lefthanded hitters who aren’t pull hitters to hit home runs at AT&T because of its unusual configuration: The right center area is known as “triples alley” because so many long drives end there instead of over the fence. But if Belt hits consistently for power, whether it’s homers, triples or doubles, he could be a big factor. Listen to the master, Brandon.
AS DEREK JETER announced that this will be his final year with the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez remained in his own little fantasy world, certain that he will return in 2015 when his suspension for drug use is ended.
It’s hard to imagine two different teammates but they’ve existed in their separate universes ever since Rodriguez joined the Yankees in 2004.
There was at first a debate over which one would play shortstop before Rodriguez, in probably the only gracious gesture of his career, deferred to the Yankees captain and moved to third, so Jeter remained the ultimate Yankee, a great player, a great leader, a great teammate. There has never been a whiff of scandal around Jeter, though he has played 20 years under the New York microscope.
He is a superb player, of course, with a great anticipation. A’s fans remember with dismay how he corralled an off-line throw from the outfield and made a backhanded flip to catch Jeremy Giambi at the plate and end the A’s postseason run in 2001. He’ll be an easy choice for the Hall of Fame when he’s eligible, as the last of the great crop from the Yankee farm system that brought them three straight World Series championship, 1998-2000.
Rodriguez was supposed to be that guy, a tremendously talented and exciting player who was expected to have all the home run records by the time he retired. But his record has been tarnished by his drug use and even more, by his personality. He’s usually come up small in big games and he’s alienated just about everybody. If he has any friends in baseball, they aren’t vocal. He insists he’ll be back on the field in 2015 but I wouldn’t bet on that. Nobody wants that, especially the Yankee owners. Go home and count your money, Alex.
It obviously takes overwhelming ability to star in major league baseball but it also takes an enormous confidence. Jeter’s confidence was the quiet kind, never bragging, never seeking the spotlight. Rodriguez was the out-front kind. I prefer Jeter’s.
THE FLAP over the Cleveland Browns trying to “trade” for Jim Harbaugh is still another example of what has gone wrong with sports journalism.
As I pointed out earlier, there are bloggers who get no closer to games than their TV sets, who never talk to coaches, managers, players but who get cited as sources for stories!
Even in the regular media, there’s no longer and emphasis on accuracy, just speed. Once reputable news organizations will print rumors as fact if they get them first. Sadly, ESPN, which was once a fine news organization, is one of those. Not surprisingly, they jumped on the Harbaugh rumor quickly, positing it as fact. Sports Illustrated got an interview by Peter King with 49ers CEO Jed York who said it was a very brief conversation which went nowhere.
Common sense should have scuttled this one at the start but common sense is another casualty of the media wars.
One thing I always tried to do as a columnist was to develop reliable sources that I could go to for stories. Since I left The Chronicle, I no longer have many sources but I can still tell when a “story” smells. This one did from the beginning. All anybody had to do was ask one simple question: Why would Jim Harbaugh leave the Niners for the Cleveland Browns? But nobody asked that question because it would have killed the story.
ARIZONA’S LATEST attempt to jump back to the 19th century is on the desk of the state’s governor now. If she doesn’t veto this bill, which would give business owners the right to deny service to gays because that violates their antiquated religious beliefs, the next story you’ll read is that the NFL will transfer the 2015 Super Bowl, now slated for Glendale, Arizona, to another site.
There is precedent for this. In 1993 the Super Bowl was transferred from Arizona to Pasadena because Arizonans wouldn’t recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday.
Sensible Republicans in Arizona, such as Sen. John McCain, are urging the veto of this bill. So are the Arizona Cardinals. Jan Brewer, the governor, is a conservative but I don’t think she’ll side with the crazies on this one.
Meanwhile, my wife has the solution for those businessmen who don’t want to do business with those who clash with their religious beliefs: Set up your business in your church.
A RUNNING BACK commit, whose name I’ve forgotten, dropped out of his commitment to Cal, saying that they couldn’t have an effective running game with the offense Sonny Dykes is running. That’s not far from the truth. That kind of offense, without a true blocking tight end, has always had problems running the ball, especially in the red zone.
It’s also a hurry-up offense, which works fine for Oregon, which has had outstanding athletes on both sides of the ball. On a team like Cal had, it just meant more time on the field for a bad defense.
Frankly, though it may not be quite so dreadful as last season, I don’t see any real improvement in the near future. Hiring Dykes was a mistake. Giving him a five-year contract was an even worse mistake. Please tell me why Sandy Barbour, who made this decision, is still around.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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