by Glenn Dickey
Aug 22, 2007

THE NFL pre-season is used by coaches to evaluate players, but it’s only about half of the process because what players do on the practice field is also important.

When I asked 49er coach Mike Nolan how much weight he put on game performance, he thought a moment and said, “Probably about 50 per cent. As far as making decisions, what we like to see is a player who is consistent. If he’s good in practice and good in a game, if you’re comparing players at a position, that’s an easy choice to make. Same thing if a player is bad in practice and in a game. But sometimes, you get a player who looks good in practice but bad in a game, and sometimes you get a player who is bad in practice but looks good in a game.”

Nolan thought a little more and then said, “But if I have to make a decision in a case like that, I’ll go with a guy who looks good in a game. There’s no pressure in practice. It’s just hard work. So, you want a guy who can play good under pressure.”

The 49ers have two areas which are competitive: The offensive line and the backup receivers behind Arnaz Battle and newcomer Darrell Jackson.

Third-year guard David Baas has gained weight, to 330 pounds, while remaining agile. In one camp goal line drill, I saw him catch a “touchdown” pass after lining up as a receiver. He’s pressing Justin Smiley for a starting role.

A more vital spot is at right tackle, where Kwame Harris is trying to hold off rookie Joe Staley, the second of two 49er first-round picks in April. Both have looked good in camp. Many 49ers fans hope, as I do, that Staley can move Harris out. Harris is a good run blocker but doesn’t have the quick feet a tackle needs against a top pass rusher. Protecting quarterback Alex Smith is a priority, and Staley will do that better than Harris.

There are five receivers competing for the slots behind Battle and Jackson – Ashley Lelie, Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs, Brandon Williams and rookie Jason Hill. Because the competition is so close, Nolan has said he might try to keep five receivers total, four active and one on the inactive roster.

Lelie had the best game on Saturday night against the Raiders, with four catches for 57 yards and a touchdown. He needed that. Signed as a free agent in the offseason, Lelie was injured and missed spring drills, so he hasn’t had much time to work with Smith in practice. He and Hill are probably the fastest of the receivers. The guess here is that Nolan will want really fast receivers as complements to Battle and Jackson, who are not burners, in multiple-receiver formations. Gilmore, who is also in the very fast category, had three catches for 35 yards against the Raiders and, like Lelie, needed that, because he has not been impressive in camp. Jacobs has had a very good camp but dropped a pass against the Raiders.

Nolan is also trying a different type of evaluation with his new coordinators, Jim Hostler (offense) and Greg Manusky (defense). Because both are in their first year as coordinators in the NFL, they are alternating between a box upstairs and the sidelines, to see what works best for them. Hostler was on the sidelines and Manusky in the press box for the first game, and they reversed positions for the Raiders game.

Nolan, who was a defensive coordinator in Baltimore before becoming the 49ers head coach, prefers his coordinators to be in the box. “It’s like a chess game up there,” he said, unconsciously echoing the words of Cal head coach Jeff Tedford when I talked to Tedford three weeks earlier. “You’re just moving the pieces around, and you know instantly where you are on the field. When you’re on the sidelines, you often have to look downfield to see exactly where you are.”

The downside of having the coordinator in the box is that it takes 3-5 seconds longer for the call to be relayed in to the quarterback, because it has to go from the box to the sidelines and then to the field. In the first game, Hostler got help from quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti, who was giving him immediate information. “Frank was terrific,” said Nolan. “He was telling us what the down and distance would be even before the play was over sometimes. I remember one play where (Maurice) Hicks was headed out of bounds and Frank called out the down and distance before he even stepped out.”

After the fourth exhibition, Nolan will meet with his coordinators to devise the plan for the season. Will Smith’s opinion also be solicited? “We won’t even ask Alex,” said Nolan. “He’s got enough on his plate already.”

SCRIPTED PLAYS: Bill Walsh popularized the idea of “scripting” the first 15-20 plays in a game, and the 49ers still do that, with their first 15 plays. But, they don’t always follow the script.

“Third down plays are off to the side,” Nolan said. “Basically, the script is for first and second down plays. And, Jim (Hostler) might go off the script occasionally (as he did in the first game) but he better have a damn good reason when he does.”

There’s a little bit of gamesmanship with the script, too. “Sometimes we’ll use plays so we can see how they’re defended, and then make changes when we come back to them later in the game. And sometimes, we use plays that we have no intention of using again in the game, just to see them frantically scribbling in defenses on the sidelines.”

AUDITION TIME: With injuries to Rich Harden and Esteban Loaiza disrupting their rotation, the A’s have been running pitchers in and out of starting roles all season. To evaluate them, it’s important to understand the different types of pitchers.

There are a few pitchers who are so overpowering that they can pitch high in the strike zone and get away with it. Harden is that type of pitcher, in his rare moments of good health, and so are the young Giants stars, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. They can have control problems which boost their pitch counts, but they can also get hitters out with high fast balls that would be home run balls for lesser pitchers.

In a far more common category are pitchers like Dan Haren and Chad Gaudin, who have good but not overwhelming fast balls and basically win when they can keep the ball down. Haren is the better pitcher because he has a split-finger pitch which is devastating when he’s on, but also because he’s more experienced. At 26 (27 in three weeks), he’s in his third year as an A’s starter and has won 42 games and counting. Gaudin is 2 ½ years younger and, though he came up when he was only 20, had just 10 major league starts and 159 innings before this season. He started fast and has had some rocky outings since, but he’s still learning. I think he has a bright future.

And then, there is a category in which the A’s seem to specialize: Lefthanders who can’t hit 90 mph with their fast balls and for whom location is vital. Coincidentally, their pitching coach, Curt Young, was that kind of pitcher, too.

Joe Kennedy was the first to get his shot, as the fifth starter, but he’s since been released by the A’s, and by Arizona, shortly after he was picked up by the Diamondbacks. I never liked Kennedy, even when he was winning, and hitters soon caught up to him.

Since then, the A’s have tried Lenny DiNardo, Dallas Braden and Dan Meyer, who came in the Tim Hudson trade but had been injured most of the time since then. The A’s are still high on him, though he got lit up in his one start. Braden keeps talking about learning, but there’s been no evidence that he has learned anything yet. DiNardo has been a pleasant surprise because there was nothing in his history to suggest he could win at the major league level, but he has very good movement on his pitches and he’s learning to keep the ball down. He looks like a reliable back-of-the-rotation starter.

READERS REACTION: I got some interesting e-mail on my Examiner columns about the Giants rebuilding and the Raiders failure to sign No. 1 draft pick JaMarcus Russell.

One Giants fan suggested the team should re-sign Barry Bonds and sign Alex Rodriguez as a free agent. Well, it doesn’t cost anything to dream, but the Giants are already on the hook for deferred payments to Bonds, and Barry Zito’s contract was structured so he got “only” $10.8 million this year but will average more than $19 million a year for the next six years. The estimate in baseball is that A-Rod will get $30 million a year with his next contract – which will be with the Yankees.

Another reader thought it was unfair that the Raiders should unilaterally punish Russell instead of setting a policy with other NFL clubs on how much can be offered draft picks. Unless the league reached an agreement with the Players Association in a collective bargaining agreement, that would be collusion. Baseball owners tried that when Peter Ueberroth was commissioner, and they paid for it.

Russell doesn’t have a reasonable option. If he sits out a year and goes back in the draft next year, he won’t be the No. 1 pick because he won’t be the flavor of the month. And if he finally signs a contract with the Raiders for slightly less than the new contract for Tom Brady, who has only won three Super Bowls, well, I’m sorry, but I’m all out of sympathy.

AARP PARK: I’d like to take credit for this description of the Giants park in Friday’s Examiner, but in truth, it came from Jim Quilici of Alameda. As I’ve always said, the readers have the best lines.

THE CAL BEARS will meet Tennessee in their opener and the 49ers will be back on Monday night football for their opener, and you can get tickets through the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! links at the bottom of my Home Page. Tickets are also available for Raiders and Stanford games, for Giants and A’s games and all major league baseball and NFL games. Just click on one of the links and everything will come up.

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