Raiders, 49ers, Tennis, Book
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 14, 2007

THERE IS no true offseason in the NFL because of free agency and the draft, and both the Raiders and 49ers have important questions coming up.

The draft is the key for the Raiders, because they have the No. 1 pick. Will they keep it or will they trade down? If they keep it, who should they pick?

Al Davis has not usually been inclined to trade out of a high draft position, though he’s never had the No. 1 pick before, so I doubt he will this time.

Who should the Raiders pick? Though the Raiders have many holes, it’s very difficult, almost impossible in fact, to win without a topflight quarterback.

The Raiders don’t have that quarterback now. Their free agent pickup of last year, Aaron Brooks, was a mistake, as many observers, including me, said at the time.

Brooks is very athletic and capable of turning a potential sack into a gain by eluding tacklers. He has a strong arm, and he will make big throws downfield at times. But he has been inconsistent throughout his career – and with the Raiders last season.

The most important quality for an NFL quarterback is neither his arm nor his feet but his decision making. Brooks does not make good decisions. He forces passes and throws critical interceptions. At this point of his career, we know that isn’t going to change. The Raiders should release him.

Second-year quarterback Andrew Walter was supposed to be the quarterback of the future. That “future” arrived early last year when Brooks was injured, but Walter did little to advance his cause. He looks the part, with his size and strong arm, but he has trouble eluding the rush. Given time, he’s accurate on the short- and mid-range passes, but not on his deep throws. He also has a tendency to fumble, both snaps from center and when he'’ sacked. He is not the answer.

Of course, Davis has not had much success in drafting quarterbacks in the first round, with Eldridge Dickey, Marc Wilson and Todd Marinovich. (Ken Stabler was a No. 2), so he may be reluctant to try that again. The Raiders passed on Matt Leinart last year, which was a serious mistake.

There is no easy choice this year, either. Brady Quinn was regarded as the top choice for most of last season but he stumbled badly as the end. Was that his fault, or just the result of playing for an overrated team? JaMarcus Russell was a force in the Sugar Bowl, and he’s passed Brady on many draft boards. He is an awesome talent, and he’s helped by the success of Vince Young last season because they have similar abilities.

The Raiders have a good personnel department if Davis will just let his people do their job. He’s often overriden their recommendations in the past, but as I wrote in my Tuesday Examiner column, he’s stepped back to give new coach Lane Kiffin some autonomy. If that means he’s finally realized he can’t be just a one-man show any more, that’s good news for the Raiders.

For the 49ers, the most important job is still keeping offensive coordinator Norv Turner. They dodged a bullet last week, when Dallas owner Jerry Jones picked Wade Phillips as his new head coach, but speculation arose this week that Turner might be a candidate in San Diego, after the firing of Marty Schottenheimer.

The situations are not parallel, though. Turner had a strong connection in Dallas, because he had nurtured Troy Aikman as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator. Though he was the Chargers’ offensive coordinator for one season, 2001, there isn’t the same strong connection.

The Chargers have great talent – I still think they should have been the AFC representative in the Super Bowl, which they would have won easily – that’s a minefield. The general manager, A. J. Smith, clashed often with Schottenheimer over personnel and coaches, so there’s no guarantee that there wouldn’t be the same kind of clash with a new coach.

The two Chargers coordinators became head coaches with other teams, and two other assistants got coordinator jobs in the league. One of them, linebackers coach Greg Manusky, is now the 49ers defensive coordinator. It’s to Schottenheimer’s credit that he developed such a strong staff, but the fact that they left was apparently a factor in his firing. That has the ring of the same kind of dysfunctional organization that doomed Turner as a head coach in Washington and Oakland.

Moreover, it’s going to be difficult for the new coach to find competent assistants because most NFL staffs are now fully set. An assistant trying for his first head coaching job might be willing to put up with that – or even a recently fired coach like Jim Mora – but Turner has had two shots at head coaching and he’s just had his contract extended with the 49ers, and a salary boost to $1.3 million. I think he’ll stay.

TENNIS, ANYONE? The organizers of the SAP tennis tourmament, running this week at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, gathered a top field this week with an unusual move: increasing the speed of the surface.

“We were competing for players with tournaments all over the world,” said tournament director Bill Rapp, “so we had to listen to what the players wanted. They all said our surface was too slow, so we changed it. It’s about 50 per cent faster this year.”

The USTA has several of what Rapp called “recipes” for the composition of an artificial surface. It can be made slower with more sand, faster with less. The final coat of the surface used this week has no sand. That should be especially satisfying to top seed Andy Roddick, who said that playing on the clay courts of Spain in a Davis Cup loss last year was like “playing in a sandbox.”

The result is the strongest field the tournament has had in years, with Roddick, James Blake, Andy Murray, last year’s winner, and the most intriguing player, Marat Safin, who is playing in the tournament for the first time.

Safin has won two majors, beating Pete Sampras in the U.S Open in 2000 and Roger Federer in the 2005 Australian Open. But he has struggled with injuries since 2005 and a volatile temperament.

“I hope he has his mind in the game,” said Rapp. “He had to forfeit in one tournament because he broke all four of the rackets he brought with him.”

As always, Rapp also hopes one of the top players won’t get upset on the way to the semi-finals, which is always the bane of a tennis tournament. I’ve seen Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe upset by much lesser players in earlier versions of this tournament.

I’ve always thought that the rise of golf and relative decline of tennis has much to do with the fact that golf went to medal play instead of match play, so the top players are usually still there for the final round of play.

That’s not always true for tennis tournaments, so Rapp can only pray that Roddick, Blake, Murray and Safin all make it to the semis. That could make for some riveting tennis.

GOOD READ: In this, the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in major league baseball, veteran sportswriter Steve Jacobsen has written a book I highly recommend, “Carrying Jackie’s Torch,” about the black players who came behind Robinson.

There is still considerable inter-racial tension in this country – Southern politicians are still proclaiming an obvious lie, that there are no attempts to keep blacks from voting in their region – but reading this book reminds us how truly bad it was in the ‘40s, ‘50s and even ‘60s.

Jacobsen has interviewed individual players about their struggles. Some of the chapters are especially poignant. The chapter on Larry Doby, for instance, shows how Doby was really the forgotten man. He was only 11 weeks behind Robinson as he integrated the American League, but few remember that today. He was the second black manager, but it was the first, Frank Robinson, who is remembered. Being second in both cases didn’t make it easier for Doby, a very sensitive man who had a great career but one which could probably have been even better.

Monte Irvin, as Jacobsen shows, could have been the first star black player. After the 1941 season, the NAACP thought of bringing a lawsuit against major league baseball. Irvin was 22 and hit for power and average, had the speed to steal bases and was an outstanding defensive outfielder. He was on the list for possible players to break the color line. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, the nation’s priorities changed and the NAACP dropped its plans.

In 1942, Bill Veeck attempted to buy the bankrupt Philadelphia Phillies. His plan was to stock the team with black players, and Irvin would have been among them. But when commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis learned of Veeck’s plan, he found another buyer who would keep the Phillies white. So, Irvin didn’t make it to the majors, with the New York Giants, until 1950, when he was 31. In 1951, he was the offensive key in the New York Giants’ drive to the pennant as he hit .312, with 24 homers and 121 RBIs. But the next year, he broke his ankle and his career became a matter of what might have been.

There’s much more in the book, including the many death threats against Hank Aaron as he approached Babe Ruth’s career home run make – and commissioner Bowie Kuhn’s ridiculous excuse when he wasn’t in Atlanta for Aaron’s 715th home run.

The book is available in book stores and on amazon.com.


LETTERS: I updated this today (Wednesday).

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