Raiders/Lelie; Riley the Man for Cal
Last spring, after Jim Hostler had been named offensive coordinator in what turned out to be a bad move (mostly because head coach Mike Nolan kept poking his nose into an area about which he knows nothing), I intterviewed Hostetler and asked him what he thought of Lelie, who had been signed in the offseason.
Hostetler wouldn’t comment directly because he said he hadn’t seen Lelie in a workout yet. But he made a very telling comment: “There were three wide receivers taken in the first round of the 2002 draft (Lelie, Donte Stallworth and Javon Walker). All three are with a different team. When you see movement like that with first-round picks, there’s usually a reason – and it isn’t a good one.”
Sure enough, Lelie failed with the 49ers. Writers kept wondering why the Niners didn’t throw more to him because he was the only real deep threat among their wide receivers. I wondered at first, too, but then I started talking to people and learned why. There were actually two reasons: He didn’t practice well and he didn’t run good pass routes. Quarterbacks couldn’t rely on him to be in the right spot on timing routes.
So, when I was talking to Mike Martz this spring and he repeatedly said that receivers had to trust that the quarterback would get them the ball and quarterbacks had to trust that receivers would be in the right spot, I knew that Lelie wouldn’t be with the 49ers this season.
There were still NFL clubs other than the Raiders who wanted to sign Lelie. Teams always look at a problem player who has the physical ability and think they can be the ones who bring it out. But a problem player remains a problem player.
And now, the Raiders have two of the problem receivers from that 2002 draft.
If this were 40 years ago, I’d say this is a good thing, because the Raiders did very well in those days with discards from other teams. The defensive ends on the 1967 team, the first Raider team to go to the Super Bowl, were Ben Davidson and Ike Lassiter, who had been cut by other teams.
But, there were two factors then which no longer exists: 1) If a player, especially a black player, ever talked back to a coach, he was immediately labeled a trouble-maker and usually released; 2) Teams didn’t scout very well, so they didn’t know when a good player had been cut.
Now, though, players are thoroughly evaluated, so there are few surprises. And, with free agency, physically talented players are free to act outrageously and often do, and only occasionally are they disciplined by team or league.
At least, the Raiders got Lelie at the minimum wage. They’ve paid highly for Walker, who has already had to be talked out of quitting in training camp by Davis. That doesn’t bode well for the season.
Even if both Lelie and Walker clean up their acts, another offseason acquisition – offensive tackle Kwame Harris – will negate anything they can do. Harris was a failure at pass blocking with the 49ers and the Raiders are, incredibly, putting him at left tackle, the player who has to protect the blind side for a righthanded quarterback. Again, the reasoning apparently was that Harris’s weaknesses could be overcome by different coaching. Surprise! He’s still a pass blocking liability.
The Raiders offensive line in general is a good run-blocking unit but poor at pass protection. The hope is that they can control games with their running game to set up play-action passes and rollouts by quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who throws well on those plays.
But opponents will also run well against the Raiders porous run defense, and if the Raiders get in a position where they have to have Russell drop back and pass…cover your eyes. It won’t be pretty. It doesn’t matter how fast your receivers are if your quarterback is on the ground.
CAL’S TWO-QUARTERBACK system is history. When I asked Bears head coach Jeff Tedford whether he would use Nate Longshore for a couple of series against Washington State on Saturday, he said no. “Kevin Riley has earned the chance to run the team,” he said,, “by his play in the bowl game last December and this game against Michigan State.”
Tedford said he was impressed by Riley’s command as quarterback. One example: Riley was always aware of the time left to run a play; he didn’t get any delay-of-game penalties but neither did he rush a play as the seconds ticked off. “That’s his experience starting to show,” Tedford said. “You always want your quarterback watching the clock but he wasn’t aware of it last year.”
It isn’t just in the games that Riley has had to learn to watch the clock. Tedford has it running in practice, so after awhile, it becomes second nature for the quarterback to be aware of it.
Perhaps Riley’s most sensational play came when he was in the grasp of Spartan defenders but still managed to get off a pass to tight end Cameron Morrah, who was not the primary receiver. “I thought he was going to run,” said Morrah, “and then, I saw the ball in the air and thought, ‘Oh, oh, I’d better get that.’”
Each time the Spartans scored, the Bears offense answered with a touchdown, which is very encouraging. “It’s easy to be a leader when everything is going right,” said Troy Taylor, once a Cal quarterback and now doing color on the radio game broadcasts. “It’s like the old saying, ‘Success has a million parents, failure is an orphan.’ When things are going bad, that’s when you need somebody to step up.”
The Bears have only to look at last year to see what happens when nobody steps up. In the offseason, Tedford stressed leadership and accountability, and the lessons seem to have taken.
Leadership starts with the quarterback, and Riley stepped up against the Spartans, but he had help from the dynamic tailback duo of Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen. Best ran for 111 yards, caught five passes for 63 yards and ran down Michigan State defensive back Otis Wiley as Wiley threatened to take an end zone interception all the way back. With the Bears on their own 19 and holding just a touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, Vereen broke for an 81-yard touchdown.
Vereen also caught four swing passes, but look for him to be used more on deep patterns in games later this season. He sometimes played wide receiver in high school, and he’s an accomplished receiver.
Tedford was a little concerned that Longshore, who got so much criticism last season, would have his confidence shaken after his two-interception appearance. If Riley is injured at some point, Tedford wants to have a reliable backup ready, and he likes Longshore as a person. “He’s been a real leader on this team. He organized a lot of things to bring the guys together in practice, and he’s always put the team first.”
But right now, it’s all about Riley. Given the opportunity to start the first game, he played impressively against a good team. And, he’s probably only scratched the surface of what he can be.
PULLMAN MEMORIES: Tedford isn’t happy about having to play a conference game so early, but it may be better to play the Cougars in Pullman in September, when the weather is good. Later months can be a problem.
Broadcaster Lee Grosscup remembers a game in 1981 in fierce weather conditions. “There were winds that were almost hurricane strong,” he said. “On one play, the Cal punter’s kick went back over his head.”
COLLEGE FOOTBALL is here and tickets are available for hot matchups like USC-Ohio State, Michigan-Notre Dame and Arkansas-Texas, as well as Cal and Stanford games, on TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS!:. New York is hosting the top tennis stars – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the Williams sisters – for the U.S. Open. On the concert stage, Tony Bennett will be at the San Francisco Symphony on Sept. 14. And, Madonna is back in the spotlight with her October tour. Just click on the local or national links and everything will come up.
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