Different Hopes for 49ers, Raiders
Though the Pittsburgh Steelers won as a wild card, the road to the Super Bowl usually starts with a divisional title. For the 49ers, that’s a crystal clear goal since the NFC champions, the Seattle Seahawks, are in their division.
There’s not much more in the NL West, though, a division that’s almost as weak as its baseball counterpart. Passing the Rams and Cardinals is hardly an impossible task for the 49ers, but reaching the Seahawks level will be a challenge.
Part of the answer will be revamping the front office. Mike Nolan seemed comfortable with being his own general manager when he was hired as head coach last spring, but a talk he had with Mike Holmgren after a Seahawks-49ers game last season changed his mind. Holmgren pointed out that he had faltered with the dual responsibility, to the point that he nearly resigned as head coach after last season. Since then, Nolan has talked of the need to get a football man in the front office. Mike Reinfeldt, the Seahawks vice president/football administration, has apparently been offered the job. If he doesn’t take it, the 49ers should pursue somebody else of similar stature.
The question here is not just the draft, though that’s the most visible entity. Nolan and Scot McCloughan did a good job with the draft last April, especially with their picks of Adam Snyder and David Baas, who are important parts of a rebuilt offensive line which should be a strength for the Niners next season. Ultimately, the success of that draft will be judged by how well the No. 1 pick, Alex Smith, develops, but Nolan made the right decision in going for a quarterback. It wasn’t his fault that Matt Leinart didn’t come out early, as had been expected.
It’s in the day-to-day areas where the 49ers need a seasoned football man who can pick up the phone and call other decision-makers around the league. Nolan got trapped in a number of bad situations last year, giving up Tim Rattay and Jamie Winborn for basically nothing, for instance. An experienced football man in the front office could have anticipated that and made better trades, but Nolan had only Paarag Marathe, whose background is business, not football. Nolan had talked to Aaron Rodgers’ agent and worked out the parameters of a contract if the 49ers had drafted Rodgers, but he had nothing worked out with Smith’s agent, and the 49ers wound up paying far too much for the Utah quarterback.
Owner John York, burned by the Terry Donahue experience, didn’t want to hire a general manager last year, but he’s relented since. Perhaps he realizes, after the Smith contract, how costly it was not to have a football man in place to negotiate that contract.
There are other reasons to be more confident about the 49ers future. From his public comments, Nolan seems to realize that he needs to be more flexible in his approach. He should also get more help on the offensive side of the ball, where he needs it most, with Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. We’ll never know whether Nolan would have made the decision he needed to make, to replace Mike McCarthy as coordinator, because the Green Bay Packers hired McCarthy as their head coach, incredibly. The speed with which Nolan hired Turner makes it seem he had been thinking of making that change before.
THE RAIDERS face the opposite challenge because they’re in the NFL’s strongest division, the AFC West, as they well know: The Raiders were winless against their divisional opponents in 2005.
For some time, the speculation has been that Al Davis was waiting until after the Super Bowl to pursue Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. Certainly, Davis didn’t seem to be seriously pursuing candidates in previous interviews. In the past, he’s used these interviews as a means of gleaning information about other teams, and that was probably his intent when he interviewed Al Saunders, who had been the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs.
Whisenhunt’s reputation grew as the Steelers moved through the playoffs, and the decisive touchdown in the Super Bowl came on one of his “gadget” plays, as wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a college quarterback, took a handoff from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and threw a perfect pass to fellow wide receiver Hines Ward.
That play could fit in a Raiders’ game plan, with Jerry Porter throwing to Randy Moss. On the other hand, probably the biggest single play in the Super Bowl came in the second quarter when Roethlisberger scrambled to the outside on a third-and-28 play and threw a completion to Ward on the Seahawks’ 3. Hard to envision Kerry Collins doing that.
What’s more important, though, when a coordinator moves up to be a head coach is his vision. The first time I talked to Jon Gruden and Jeff Tedford, I thought they’d be successful because they each had a clear plan for what they wanted to do. I’ve never talked to Whisenhunt, but he has one huge factor in his favor, the fact that he's coming from a very solid organization.
The Raiders have a much different operation. With the Steelers, it’s all about the organization. With the Raiders, it’s all about Davis.
When Gruden took the Raiders job in 1998, he was supremely confident that he could do the job. Because of his youth – he turned 35 that August – he also knew he would have other jobs, and that, if he were fired by Davis, it would probably be viewed as a recommendation by other organizations.
Whisenhunt is not in the same situation. At 42, he’s still young enough that he could get another shot at a head coaching job if he passes on the Raiders, but he’s not young enough to be able to assume that he could get another job if he fails with the Raiders.
Equally important, this is not the same Al Davis as the one who negotiated with Gruden seen years ago. At that point, Gruden could convince Davis he needed to be rid of some of the underachievers on the roster, and he was able to convince Davis, a year later, that he should let Jeff George go and sign Rich Gannon. Davis is no longer that flexible. In the organization, employes only tell him what he wants to hear. And any thought that a coach might have some autonomy disappeared last fall when Turner was ordered to put Collins back in the starting lineup after a one-game benching.
Raider coaches have succeeded when players felt the coaches had some independence. Whisenhunt would have no such independence. If he takes this job, it will be a sign of desperation.
THE 49ERS and Raiders are quite different organizations, but in one respect, they’re identical: Each team has won just 13 games in the last three seasons.
Early last season, it seemed the 49ers would probably win no more than the two games they had won the previous season, while the Raiders, seemingly improved with free agent acquisitions Moss and LaMont Jordan, seemed capable of making a run at the playoffs. But the Raiders lost their last six games while the 49ers were winning two at the end of the season, and they finished with the same 4-12 record.
Now, it seems there is some hope for the 49ers, but only the willfully blind among the Raider Nation can see much hope for their team.
LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section later today.
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