Awful Niners, Raiders; Cal QBs; College Offenses
In their second and third seasons, 1961 and ’62, the Raiders were awful, losing 19 straight in a stretch over the two seasons, but the 49ers were only mediocre, with 7-6-1 and 6-8 seasons. Al Davis turned the Raiders around in 1963 and the team was often great and always good until he moved it to Los Angeles in 1982, the first sign that Davis was losing his mind.
The 49ers in that stretch were only sporadically successful, but they started a dynasty run with Bill Walsh and then George Seifert in 1981.
Now, the Raiders were an NFL worst 19-61 over the last five seasons and are approaching an NFL record six straight seasons with double digit losses. They are on their fifth head coach in those six seasons and will certainly have a seventh next year.
The 49ers have been only marginally better, 25-55, over the last five years, although they’ve fallen behind in the fired coaches race; Mike Singletary is only their third in that period. It’s possible he may be retained for next year, while it’s certain that Tom Cable is only an interim choice for the Raiders.
Both teams are just 2-6 for the first half of this season, and only the wildly optimistic fans could envision either team winning more than two games in the second half. The Raiders have already started cutting their overpaid offseason transactions. Cornerback De Angelo Hall was cut on Monday and wide receiver Javon Walker should be the next. Davis talked Walker out of retiring in training camp but he should have saved his breath. Walker has retired, anyway, even if he suits up each week.
Singletary’s big change was to install Shaun Hill as his starting quarterback, but it shouldn’t take NFL defensive coordinators more than a couple of weeks to figure out how to stop Hill. So then, it will be back to Square One.
No matter how many coaches are changed or players are released, though, it’s obvious that the real problem for both organizations is at the very top, with their owners.
John York was convinced he could run the team when he succeeded Carmen Policy as team president and his brother-in-law, Eddie DeBartolo, as the owner (or husband of the owner). The first time I interviewed York he told me he'd been successful running horse racing tracks for Ed DeBartolo Sr. and was sure he could do the same with the Niners.
In fact, though, running a track and running a football team are two distinctly different operations. Horses can’t talk, and they don’t demand signing bonuses. A race track is a performance-based operation; horse owners get paid only if their horses finish in the top four places (though bettors win only on the top three). The track puts on the races and makes its money on its percentage of the betting handle, including off track bettering, and attendance. Football players and coaches, though, get paid even if they don’t perform well, let alone win. Mike Nolan will be paid for the last year and a half of the five-year contract he signed. Alex Smith has collected millions, but the 49ers have gotten only one decent season, his second, out of him.
Now, York has turned over the reins to his son, Jed, who’s a bright young man and hard worker, but who also has no football background. This is not like the Rooney family in Pittsburgh, or the Mara family in New York.
What the 49ers desperately need at the top of their organization is a football man, like Mike Holmgren. Jed could learn from him and be prepared for the job in, say, three years. He isn’t now.
The Raiders, of course, have the opposite problem. Davis has 48 years of pro football experience, starting as an assistant coach with the San Diego Chargers in 1960. But his mind seems permanently stuck in the earlier years, mostly the ‘60s and ‘70s. He wants to cling to both the offensive and defensive systems that worked well for the Raiders in those decades and even until the midpoint of the ‘80s.
The only period of success for the Raiders since their return to Oakland came under Jon Gruden (I credit Gruden for the Super Bowl years because it was his team and his system. We saw what kind of coach Bill Callahan was the next year.) Gruden used an offensive system that had its roots in Bill Walsh’s, but Davis wants no part of that.
Davis desperately needs help in evaluating players. Hall is the best example. He looked good playing in a zone defense, the “Cover2” that Tony Dungby popularized years ago, but was incapable of playing the tight man-to-man Davis wants, being beaten consistently for big plays. It’s stunning that Davis couldn’t recognize that.
Yes, both teams need help at the top, but York refuses to acknowledge that and Davis has become ever more adamant that he should be the one to make all the decisions. As long as these conditions prevail, there is no hope for either team.
QB MERRY-GO-ROUND: The Cal quarterback shuffle seemed to be over when Kevin Riley started strong against Oregon, despite an early interception when he was hit as he started his throwing motion. He came back immediately, leading the Bears on a 71-yard touchdown drive, completing five straight passes and throwing a beauty for the touchdown, 22 yards to Jeremy Ross..
And then, he suffered a concussion when he took a jarring hit after he scrambled for a good gain. It seems very unlikely he’ll play at all against USC on Saturday because he wasn’t entirely coherent answering questions last night. Cal coach Jeff Tedford doesn’t want to take any chances with Riley’s health.
That leaves Nate Longshore to play quarterback against a Trojan defense which has allowed only an average of seven points a game this season. Doesn’t leave me very optimistic about the Bears’ chances.
VARIED OFFENSES: One reason the college game is often more interesting than the NFL is the variety of offenses used.
The NFL basically went to the T formation after World War II because it is the most efficient offense with specific skills required. A quarterback has to be able to pass well; it’s a plus if he’s mobile enough to run for yardage on occasion but that’s not a requirement. Running backs have to be good runners. They rarely pass the ball.
In the college game, though, USC was successful in 1951 with Frank Gifford as the tailback in the single wing and UCLA was even more successful with that formation, winning a national championship in 1954.
Since then, the Wishbone formation was very successful for a time. Now, variations of the spread offense are very popular. The spread is similar to the single wing because the quarterback, who is like the old single wing tailback, must be able to both pass and run.
These formations wouldn’t work in the pros. I remember asking a 49er defensive coach, Mike Giddings, about the Wishbone in the ‘70s and he pointed out that the faster and more skilled defensive players in the NFL would be able to keep Wishbone runners from getting to the outside and, with no real passing threat, would be able to stack up runners inside.
Many of the quarterbacks running the spread for college teams today are more skilled as either runners or passers. Oregon’s quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, for instance, is a nifty runner but no more than an average passer. He can still complete passes against most college team secondaries – though he struggled in the rain against Cal – but he’d be eaten up by a pro defense.
But there are times….I’d have loved to have seen Steve Young as a tailback in the old single wing. As good as he was as a quarterback, he’d have been even better as a tailback. I even asked Young about that one time. His response: “What’s the single wing?”
APPLE CUP: I can hardly wait for this matchup between Washington and Washington State. Reminds me of a conversation I had with Robert Berdahl, when he was chancellor at Cal. Berdahl was at Oregon when the Ducks were really bad, and their bitter rivals, the Oregon State Beavers, were equally bad. When Oregon won the “Civil War” battle one year, Berdahl remembered, Ducks fans chanted, “We’re No. 9!”
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