Alex Smith vs.Shaun Hill; BASHOF Memories; T.O.; Matt Cassel; Randy Johnson
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 11, 2009

ALEX SMITH RETURNS: After re-structuring his contract to a figure less than half what he was owed, Smith yesterday re-joined the competition for the starting job as 49ers quarterback next fall. Niner fans, even those who were disgusted with Smith earlier, better hope he wins the competition. Going with Shaun Hill would doom them to mediocrity.

I’ve often heard from readers who wonder why I’m down on Hill, despite his 7-3 record as a starter, while being cautiously optimistic about Smith. There are two reasons: (1) I know how NFL coaches plan for games; and (2) I consider the circumstances in which the two have played.

Hill has been under the radar for NFL teams. He had not started anywhere until he was thrust into the lineup after Smith and Trent Dilfer were both sidelined with injuries in 2006. By the time Hill started, opposing teams knew they had little to worry about with the 49er offense. They played a version of the “prevent defense” for the whole game, giving Hill plenty of room to complete the short passes he throws well.

Last year, the 49ers started with J. T. O’Sullivan, and that sent NFL coaches scrambling for video on O’Sullivan, who had played so little. If you remember, O’Sullivan had some success early because he was still unfamiliar to opposing teams. His play went downhill after that, with a flurry of interceptions and fumbles. The interceptions were understandable, because he was trying to make big plays downfield, as offensive coordinator Mike Martz wanted. The fumbles were the breaking point. The just-elevated Mike Singletary brought in Hill in the second half of the loss to Seattle, and Hill remained the starter.

Once again, opposing teams knew very little about Hill. Even so, the Arizona Cardinals figured him out after a half and shut the Niners down in the second half. The Dallas Cowboys completely befuddled Hill in the first quarter, and the game could have been called at that point.

The most telling, though, was Hill’s second game against the St. Louis Rams, the weakest team in the weakest division in the NFC. Hill lit up the Rams in the first game, with probably his best performance as a pro. With the advantage of looking at the video of that game, the sadsack Rams shut Hill down for three quarters in their rematch in St. Louis. Hill recovered enough to get a win for the 49ers, but you can be sure the defensive coaches for the teams the 49ers will play this season have that game video in their library. Hill won’t surprise anybody this season.

It’s no longer any mystery how to defend Hill. Basically, you shut off the short passes and gamble that he won’t beat you with the deep pass – not much of a gamble because his deep passes float. In the trade, they’re called jump balls. Singletary knows this, which is why he has not simply named Hill the starter, going no further than to say that he’d be No. 1 going into training camp in what will be a spirited competition.

Smith’s experience has been the opposite of Hill’s. He was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, the first of Mike Nolan’s disastrous stint as head coach, but came to a team which had a porous offensive line and mediocre receivers. He had the added disadvantage of having played in a spread offense in his two years in college and had played only one year of high school ball in San Diego, where his chief job was to hand the ball off to Reggie Bush. Not surprisingly, he had a miserable season.

The next year, with Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator, Smith showed real progress. But then, Turner left. Then, Nolan threw him under the bus. As Smith tried to play through a shoulder injury, Nolan kept saying the injury wasn’t a factor in his play. Smith finally had to speak up and say that, yes, it was a factor, and he would need surgery. That ended his 2007 season and, when the shoulder still wasn’t right, he had to have another surgery, spending last season on the injured list.

The 49ers made it plain that they would not have Smith on the active roster unless he restructured his contract. He could have told them he wanted to opt out of his contract and go elsewhere, but as he told writers in a conference call yesterday, “I had unfinished business here.”

I watch the 49ers in practice as well as games, and there’s never been any doubt that Smith could make all the throws. He’s finally ocmfortable in the pro-T, and his experiences have taught him how to be mentally tough. Physically, he told writers yesterday, he feels capable of making all the throws, and he’ll be doing that, starting with drills next Monday. I’d be very surprised if he isn’t the 49ers starting quarterback this fall.

BASHOF MEMORIES: The Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame celebrated its 30th year with a Monday night banquet that was as good as any I can remember – and I’ve been at all but a couple of them.

The Raiders’ great tight end of the ‘70s, Dave Casper (“Ghost to the Post”) joked about his college. “To get into Notre Dame, you have to be either smart or Catholic.”

Casper was both. Presenter Tom Flores, who was Casper’s position coach and later head coach for two Super Bowl championships, said Casper was one of the smartest athletes he’d ever met. “Dave got it the first time,” said Flores, “but that was a double-edged sword because he got bored with all the repetitions. He said to me one time, ‘I know all this stuff. Can’t I just skip the meetings?’ I told him, ‘If I have to go to these meetings, you have to go, too.’”

Gaylord Perry joked that, in 1964, he had fallen so far out of favor that “My teammates didn’t even know I was on the team.” He wasn’t far off in that assessment. He had been relegated to long relief and was very close to being released when, in a bullpen session, Bob Shaw taught him how to throw a “spitter”.

Perry’s breakout game came in May in New York in the second game of a doubleheader against the Mets. After 12 innings, the game was tied. “I was the only pitcher left,” said Perry. He then threw 10 innings of shutout ball. Soon after that, he was in the starting rotation, on his way to the Hall of Fame.

On Sept. 17, 1968, Perry threw the first of successive no-hitters at Candlestick Park (Ray Washburn threw the second for the Cardinals the next afternoon). “After the seventh inning,” Perry remembered, “the plate umpire reminded me how close I was to a no-hitter. He did the same thing after the eighth inning. I realized he wanted to call a no-hit game. For the ninth inning, my strike zone was this wide. (Perry held his hands as far apart as they would go). I didn’t have to throw the ball over the plate to get a strike.”

Craig Morton, who starred on otherwise bad Cal teams and went on to quarterback two Super Bowl teams – the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos – joked, “The writer of my bio is obviously a great friend of Joe Kapp’s because there’s as much about Joe in there as me. He’s got his own plaque and half of mine.”

I was the writer, of course, and Craig, Joe and I had laughed about this during the VIP reception before the banquet.

When I had interviewed Craig, we had talked of the time when he was a senior at Campbell High and wavering between Cal and Stanford as his college choice. Kapp talked to him and left, convinced that Craig was going to Cal. But a few days later, Morton announced that he’d be going to Stanford.

The next day, Craig’s mother told him, “Joe Kapp is out in the backyard. You should go out and talk to him.”

Craig said, “Are you crazy? He’ll kill me!”

I couldn’t leave that out of his bio!

Morton not only played at Cal but is now working as a fundraiser for the $300 million project to retrofit Memorial Stadium. Before he left the podium, he exhorted parents in the audience, “Tell your kids to go to Cal!”

There was one big gaffe in the program: BASHOF director Tom Martz referred to Pappy Waldorf as a Stanford coach. But Martz redeemed himself by telling the audience that, in 1999, he was “Bear Backer of the Year” – though he isn’t even a Cal graduate. The largely Cal-favoring audience cheered him.

COACH TALK: I got an e-mail from a reader the other day who said Matt Cassel was a “systems quarterback,” proving only that he reads those sportswriters who pick up coach’s talk to try to prove they know something.

Coaches use that phrase as a shortcut to say a quarterback does better in one system than another. Kurt Warner would be an example of a quarterback who thrives in a system which emphasizes passing downfield, as he did in St. Louis and Arizona. Joe Montana would be an example of a quarterback who thrived in a system which emphasized shorter, high percentage passes. But Warner can throw accurately on short passes, too; his success has been due more to having topflight receivers with both teams than the system. Montana was a very accurate passer who could throw deep passes with accuracy. So could Steve Young. But Bill Walsh reasoned, correctly, that both would be more effective throwing high percentage passes – as would almost any quarterback.

Calling Cassel a “systems quarterback” is meaningless. He’s only played in one system, the Patriots, and had a very good season. I saw him against the 49ers and he looked capable of throwing any kind of pass. He won’t have as good a season in Kansas City as he had last year because the Chiefs surrounding cast is much weaker than the Patriots’. He wouldn’t have been as effective with the 49ers, either, for the same reason.

Another example of coach talk is the “digital offense.” I first heard that phrase when Norv Turner was the 49ers’ offensive coordinator. Bay Area writers used the term as if it explained the success of Turner’s offense. The next spring, I asked Turner’s replacement, Jim Hostler, about it. Turns out all it means is that coaches use numbers instead of letters to designate plays. The plays are the same.

That’s why I try to avoid “coach talk.” Readers deserve to get straight information, not meaningless “information” from writers who are trying to pretend they know more than they do.

BIG UNIT: I had hoped the Bay Area media would be sophisticated enough to forget about the worst nickname in sports when the Giants signed Randy Johnson, but alas, my hopes were in vain.

In the bad old days, writers often attached nicknames to players that alluded to physical characteristics (“Splendid Splinter” for Ted Williams) or accomplishments (“Sultan of Swat” for Babe Ruth). They were silly, but that was the temper of the times.

Now, nicknames are fairly rare, and they only make sense if that’s what their teammates use. Lawrence Berra was Yogi to everybody. But do you think his teammates call out, “Hey, Big Unit?”

Let’s just drop it, please. Just calling him Randy would suffice.

LETTERS: I got an angry response from Buffalo residents, past and present, to my Tuesday Examiner column in which I discussed the incongruity of Terrell Owens going to the Bills, so I’ve posted a small sample of them in the latest updating of “Letters.”

The column was not intended as an insult to Buffalo or its residents, but this is not the first time I’ve been made aware of how sensitive Buffalo residents can be.

In 1968, when I was the beat writer on the Raiders for The Chronicle, we had a week between games and stayed in Niagara Falls. For a midweek story, I did a satirical piece on Buffalo, a la Jim Murray. It wasn’t very good. I’m not that kind of writer, and nobody has ever successfully imitated Murray. My story was buried on the sixth page of the sports section, which is what it deserved.

But a former resident of Buffalo, living in San Francisco, clipped it out and sent it back to a friend working on the Buffalo newspaper. Soon, my story was highlighted on the front page of the paper, and it got a huge response. I got a telephone call in Houston, where the Raiders were about to play the Oilers, asking if I’d be willing to come back to Buffalo to appear on television and radio shows. I was, for a fee, so on Monday I returned to Buffalo for those appearances. The radio show was especially interesting because I took calls – and the majority of the callers agreed with me!

Four years later, as a columnist, I returned to Buffalo with the 49ers and learned that, as a direct result of my story, the city’s Chamber of Commerce had initiated tours for visiting media, to improve the type of coverage the city was getting.

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