49ers, Giants, Big Game
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 04, 2007

THERE WAS a report out of Houston earlier this week that the 49ers would make a trade with the Texans, giving up Arnaz Battle and draft choices for Andre Johnson, who caught 103 passes for the Texans last season.

Reading it on the internet, I didn't read to the bottom where it said that it was an April Fool's joke. Before I heard from readers about it, I had checked with the 49ers, who said there was no validity to the report. The Texans, though,are shopping Johnson, mostly because they have so many holes and want to pick up draft picks, and his agent is throwing out rumors. The 49ers were a logical target because they have cut wide receiver Antonio Bryant because of his erratic behavior and are still looking for the receiver quarterback Alex Smith needs.

“Alex needs an outside threat,” said new offensive coordinator Jim Hostler when I talked to him at Santa Clara. (I also wrote on this interview for The Examiner on Tuesday.) “Vernon Davis can supply a deep threat because of his speed, but that will be in the middle of the field. Alex needs that guy on the outside. Joe Montana had Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman had Michael Irvin. You can debate whether it’s the quarterback who makes the receiver or vice-versa, but you need both."

The 49ers have signed free agent Ashley Lelie, who has the ability to be that kind of player but hasn’t shown it consistently. Hostler was an assistant at New Orleans when Lelie came out, so he has some background on the receiver.

“There were five receivers that were highly rated in that draft,” he remembered, “Ashley, Donte Stallworth, Javon Walker, Deion Branch and Bryant. In some ways, we thought Ashley was the most talented of the five, not quite as fast as Stallworth but close. (The Saints drafted Stallworth.) But none of the five has really made it big. Now, they’re on their third team, and Bryant will be on his fourth. There are reasons for that, and they’re not positive ones.

“It’s the mental approach players have that determines whether they make it in the NFL. For whatever reason, these guys haven’t been able to put it together yet.”

So, Hostler is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward Lelie. He’s talked to him and seen Lelie working out at the Santa Clara complex but says, “If he makes it for us, it’s a bonus.”

Hostler is hoping the Niners will also be able to add a wide receiver or two in the draft. In theory, that should be easy to do because there are usually more wide receivers who have the potential to play in the NFL than players at any other position. The trick is finding the right ones.

There were two wide receivers selected ahead of Rice in 1985, for instance, Eddie Brown and Al Toon. Neither came close to Rice’s accomplishments. In the great 1986 draft, the 49ers picked up John Taylor in the third round. "“It really makes your draft when you get lucky like that,” said Hostler.

When the 49ers were looking for a replacement for Norv Turner, I wrote that Hostler would be the best choice if they went in-house, as head coach Mike Nolan had said they would. After talking to Hostler, I’m even more convinced that he is the right choice.

Hostler has coached under proponents of the two main offensive schemes in the NFL, those taught by Bill Walsh and Ernie Zampese. (Paul Hackett in the first case, Turner the second). He has worked the last two years with Smith as the quarterbacks coach, and he will continue the system Turner used last season, so Smith should continue to improve.

The 49ers have done well in free agency in the offseason, and they have those extra picks in the draft, giving them a chance to bring in young players to build with. Right now, this looks like a playoff team – even without Andre Johnson.

OPENING DAY: You have to give the Giants credit: They know how to do Opening Day. Well, if you forget that annoying little part about the game, anyway.

It’s always been big for the Giants, and for owner Peter Magowan, who started watching the Giants when he was growing up in New York. “That was the only day my dad would take me out of school,” Magowan said yesterday. “I could have pneumonia and he’d send me to school, but he took me out so we could go to Opening Day.”

This year’s celebration was tied in to the All-Star game, which the Giants are hosting in July, so players who have worn Giants uniforms when they played in All-Star games were paraded out in the infield in pre-game activities. One sad note: Willie McCovey had to be driven out and supported himself with two canes. McCovey has battled knee problems since he was in high school.

Most of us in the media have been pessimistic about the Giants’ chances this year – Sports Illustrated picked them to finish last in the NL West – and their dismal play in the opener did nothing to change those views. The only compelling story lines this year will be Barry Bonds’ drive for the career home run record and the possibility that this may be the breakthrough year for Matt Cain.

With a lineup that is even older on the average than last year’s, there won’t be any other breakthrough years.

SPORTS JARGON: One of the things that irritates me mightily about my sportswriter colleagues is their attempt to show that they’re in the know by using the jargon used by those in the sports they’re covering.

One example: the offense currently used by the 49ers is termed the “digital offense.” That simply means a different way of designating plays. Teams use a shorthand for plays, with numbers and letters, so players know what the blocking assignments and pass routes will be. Hostler illustrated this for me by writing out the two ways to characterize the same play. But have you ever seen that explained by another writer?

Another example, from baseball: Writers say a player can still “pick it.” That’s a common expression among players, coaches and managers, referring to a good fielder. So, why not just say that and skip the jargon? You’re only impressing yourselves, guys.

BIG GAME TICKETS: Cal season ticket holders were enraged when they got their renewal packages and learned that the Big Game at Stanford is not included in this year’s package.

For the last several years, with Stanford playing in a very large stadium while its fan base was eroding, it was simple to include the Big Game as part of the Cal package. Indeed, there have been so many Cal fans at the recent Big Games at Stanford, it seemed almost as if Cal were the home team.

That dynamic changed when Stanford switched to a new 50,000-seat stadium last fall. Though the stadium capacity can be increased to 58,000 with temporary seats, there is no way all Cal fans can be accommodated for the Big Game.

That led one reader to suggest that the game be played at Candlestick, which I think is a terrible idea. Though there are exceptions – Army-Navy, USC-UCLA – I think traditional college games should be played on campus. One of the big attractions for the Big Game is its placement on campus, especially at Berkeley, where the students are so involved.

Putting it at Candlestick would change the whole nature of the game, and not in a good way.

WARRIORS HOPES: I’m sorry, but I can’t get excited about the Warriors’ playoff hopes, not with them still four games below .500 as of this morning. One of the worst features of professional sports is the expansion of playoff teams to include teams at .500 or below. It would be a sham if the Warriors go in with their record, not a reason to celebrate.

TV: I’ll be a guest on the FSBA pre-game show at 6:30 p.m. Friday, before the Giants-Dodgers game.

SPORTS, CONCERT TICKETS: Tickets for the May 5 Kentucky Derby, the NHL playoffs and major league baseball tickets, including the All-Star game at AT&T park, are available on the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! link at the bottom of my Home Page. Tickets are also available for the Altar Boyz musical, which plays at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco through April 8, and for hot summer concert tours featuring The Police, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Kenny Chesney. Click on the Bay Area or national links below and the whole list will come up.

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