Hank Stram; Colin Kaepernick/Aldon Smith; Dennis Allen/Matt Schaub/Derek Carr; Dwight Clark/ Paul McCartney
NFL EXHIBITION games, always a bad joke, are even worse now because the starters hardly play. They will this week, in the third game, but then, the key players will be kept out of the fourth game. Don’t even bother watching that on TV unless you enjoy watching players who won’t be on the roster for the regular season.
When I first started covering pro football, with the Raiders in 1967, there were some coaches who actually tried to win these games. The Chiefs’ Hank Stram was one of them. For most teams, the Raiders especially, training camp existed for getting into shape. The Raiders had two-a-day drills virtually up to the start of the season. So, the players were running on very tired legs in the exhibition games. The Raiders lost to the Chiefs, 48-0, and also to the Denver Broncos in the final exhibition. Two weeks later, the Raiders started the regular season with a 51-0 win over the Broncos and they beat the Chiefs twice in a 13-1 season that took them to the second Super Bowl.
Many things have changed since then, including the fact that most athletes stay in shape in the offseason because there’s so much money to be made. Now, the coaches’ main concern is keeping them healthy, not just for the present but because of suits by former players which are draining money from NFL coffers. Keeping them healthy is also vital to success during the season and the collision of steroids-buffed players in games often causes injuries which last into the season. Coaches much prefer to have those injuries suffered by players who will be at the end of the roster or not even on it.
It makes no difference to me. The last time I went to an exhibition game was in my last year at The Chronicle, when Glenn Schwarz assigned me to cover one as penance for being more popular with readers than his pets, Ray Ratto and Gwen Knapp. Since then, I haven’t watched even “highlights” of these pretend games on TV. There’s no point.
Of course, I’m not putting together a Fantasy Football team, either. Another waste of time.
THE REGULAR season will probably be rocky for both teams.
As I’ve written before, I don’t think the 49ers will be able to overcome their weakened defense with a stronger offense. Everybody’s waiting for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to announce Aldon Smith’s suspension, but the consensus seems to be that it will be 6-8 games. That’s a huge blow to the defense, and I don’t think the Niners’ offense can be good enough to overcome that. The games should be exciting, though, more like the games in the ‘50s when the Niners had great offensive numbers but couldn’t stop anybody. Those with long memories can also remember that those teams didn’t win any championships.
I’m betting that coach Jim Harbaugh will tell quarterback Colin Kaepernick not to do any more running than absolutely necessary because an injury to Kaepernick would be fatal to the Niners’ chances. Blaine Gabbert has never looked like a competent NFL quarterback, but he and Josh Johnson, a backup at Cincinnati last year, are the current backup. Pray that neither has to play for an extended period.
Further adding to the 49ers’ problems are the strengthening of the NFC West, which appears to be the strongest division in the NFL now. The Seattle Seahawks are defending Super Bowl champs, of course, and the Arizona Diamondbacks won 10 games last season and may knock the Niners out of the runnerup position in the division.
But, hey, the new Levi’s stadium is a huge update on Candlestick, for those who can afford it. Won’t be many hardcore fans there, I’m betting, but if you’ve got a wide screen TV, just settle in with some friends and you’re in business.
AS I MENTIONED last week, I was on NBC Nightly News last Friday night, talking about the highs (Dwight Clark’s “The Catch”) and lows (1989 earthquake) of all the games I’d watched at Candlestick, dating back to the 1961 All-Star game, when I was working for the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian.
The young man who was interviewing me kept trying to get me to say it was an “iconic” structure but the most I could say was that it was important because it was the first really new baseball structure since the early part of the 20th century. Indeed, there are even a couple of historic parks from that early era, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, both of which have been significantly renovated.
But, Candlestick was a disaster from the start as a baseball stadium. Horace Stoneham scheduled night games only on Tuesday and Friday nights because it was so cold and windy. If you sat in the sun for day games, it could be pleasant; I used to leave the press box and sit in the stands just behind the press box – the same area that was used for the auxiliary press for the 1989 World Series. I’d talk to fans when I was there, which was a bonus for me.
(Oddly, the only time I sat in the press box for a Giants World Series was the first one, in 1962, when I was still in Watsonville. There were relatively few writers then, so there was room for me. That’s where I was, too, for the All-Star game. But since then, the press box has been reserved for beat writers for the opposing teams as it should be, so I’ve been in the auxiliary area – or home, watching on TV. )
Candlestick worked better as a football stadium, when it was converted for the 49ers, but it’s always been difficult to get into. I found some shortcuts over time. When I told that over lunch with Lou Spadia, then the president of the 49ers, he said, “I should put that route up on the scoreboard.” I begged him not to and, out of friendship, he did not.
So, I wasn’t surprised that people had so much trouble getting to the Paul McCartney concert on Thursday night, and I’d be willing to bet that most of them had never been to a football game at the ‘Stick.
There were some great memories at Candlestick, with “The Catch” definitely No. 1, but I was very happy when it was replaced as a baseball park, especially since AT&T is such a fantastic place. I doubt it will be more difficult for me to get to the Niners’ new stadium but it’s a moot point because I’ll do most of my watching on TV.
THE RAIDERS have stadium issues, too, but they also have an easy solution: Move into the 49ers stadium, which was built with the idea of double occupancy. Take that ridiculous tribute to Crazy Al and put it in the Coliseum parking lot.
There is a reality that Mark Davis seems unwilling to accept: Nobody is going to pay for a new stadium for the Raiders. City and county taxpayers are still paying for updates for the old one when the Raiders came back from Los Angeles 20 years ago. The idea that private investors would pay for it is equally fanciful. In this era, football stadiums are so expensive, they have to be built with public and private money, so the NFL will “lend” them money from a special fund. Since that money is repaid from the visiting team’s share of the box office, it’s really a gift, not a loan.
Meanwhile, some writers seem obsessed with the idea that the Raiders might move. The San Antonio story was big for a time, but there’s no reality there. The city doesn’t have the economic/media structure to support an NFL team and the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans would do everything they could to keep the league from approving such a move.
The “Raiders to L.A.” story is equally absurd. There’s no stadium for them to play and no support for them, with most of their fan base in prison. I e-mailed one writer who has been pushing this possibility and he told me his “sources” tell him Dallas owner Jerry Jones is giving advice to Davis. Really? I wonder who those sources might be. I doubt that Jones is one. Neither are John Madden or Ron Wolf, who have been advising Mark. Most likely, they’re other writers. That’s what happens often these days: Writers get together and come up with the same story.
Meanwhile, the Raiders seem to be improved, though with their schedule, generally regarded as the toughest in the NFL, finishing at .500 would be a major accomplishment. That would certainly save coach Dennis Allen’s job because it would be a big improvement. I’ve said all along that you can’t judge a coach if he doesn’t have the players, but the Raiders have enough now to show improvement.
RIDICULOUS COMMENT of the week: After a judge ruled that collegiate athletes should be paid, and after the NCAA had allowed schools to put more money into athletic scholarships, Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff had a rant about how this would ruin the NCAA basketball tournament because the big schools could afford the best players, freezing out the smaller schools.
So, you’re saying that preserving the brackets for the office pools is more important than making certain the athletes have money to spend on things like food and clothes? Great sense of values there.
Unfortunately, this is just another example of how the writing in Sports Illustrated has slipped. Once, it had great writers like Frank Deford and Ron Fimrite. Now, much of the writing is no better than the blogs by guys who get no closer to athletes and events than their TV sets.
I WROTE on the A’s in today’s Examiner; I still think they’ll be in the postseason but it won’t be easy because the Angels are very good.
The Giants may make the postseason, too, but it will be almost by default, not because they’re a good team. They’re caught in the middle now, between a veteran team and one which is rebuilding.
There is one real positive: Joe Panik has taken over second base and looks like he’ll be there for a long time.
Otherwise, the Giants are set in right field with Hunter Pence, at shortstop with Brandon Crawford, at first base with Brandon Belt (when he recovers from his concussion problems) and at catcher with Buster Posey. Despite some who think they should shift Posey to third, the Giants feel his greatest value is as a catcher, and I agree.
Pablo Sandoval has greatly improved his fielding, now that he has lost enough weight to bend over. After an early season slump, he’s been hitting for average and power, but the real question will be whether the Giants can afford to pay him when he becomes a free agent. Frankly, I think that, if they sign him, there should be a clause in his contract that penalizes him if he regains his weight. I have no confidence that he’ll keep it off.
As for this year, the Giants’ postseason hopes are based on the fact that the Dodgers are falling, mostly because of injuries. But, the Giants haven’t won a series from a team with a winning record in months. Even if they make the playoffs, it will be a quick exit for them. No Cubs and Mets in the postseason.
THE END…SORT OF: This is the last regular column I’ll write and I’m putting it out early to give me some time to prepare for our trip to Tennessee next Tuesday. But, I have plans to write more on my website, though not on a planned basis. I’m going to open it up to everyone next month. No more subscriptions, no Pay Pal. When I have something to say, I’ll put it out. I’ll also have information about novels I’m writing for the Amazon Kindle program. So, check out my website in late September for more information.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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