Alex Smith/Shaun Hill; Al Davis; David Ortiz; Pete Rose/Lefty O'Doul; Brian Sabean
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 05, 2009

WHEN THE 49ers opened practice last week, Alex Smith was booed and Shaun Hill was cheered by the fans who watched the open practice in Santa Clara.

Neither reaction surprised me (I was at the practice). Nor did it surprise, or even bother Smith, who smilingly told the media after the morning workout that “You have to get used to boos if you’re going to play in the NFL.”

Fans judge by results, and Hill has unquestionably had better results when he’s started for the 49ers, so, I understand why the fans prefer him. But pro football is much more complicated than fans understand, and what really bothers me is that writers who should know better fall into the same trap.

NFL teams have a very narrow focus. Coaches don’t look at teams and players around the league, only at the team they’re playing the next Sunday. They have videos of the last three games the opposing team has played; Bill Walsh used to make certain he used the majority of his plays from the fourth game back, for which the other team had not prepared.

Hill has been operating under the radar for the most part. When he first started, in the 2007 season when both Smith and backup Trent Dilfer were injured, NFL teams had no information on him because he hadn’t thrown a pass in a regular season game. So, they played it safe, basically a version of the “prevent defense”, with defensive backs playing deep enough to cut off long passes but conceding short ones. Of course, that played right into Hill’s strength, his accuracy on short- and medium-range passes.

Last year, when J. T. O’Sullivan started the season at quarterback, teams were scrambling for videos of him because he had played so little. If you remember, his best games came early, before defenses had a chance to figure him out.

When Hill took over, he was still largely an unknown factor. Even so, there were signs teams were catching up to him. Arizona did it in the second half. Dallas totally disrupted his timing from the start and put away the game early.

Most telling was his experience with the Rams, the only team he faced twice. He lit up the Rams in the first game, with his best game as a starter. In the second game, the Rams intercepted him three times in the first three quarters. He led a nice rally in the fourth quarter to win the game, but this was the Rams, after all. Only the winless Lions were worse in the NFC.

This season, Hill won’t take any team by surprise. They all know how to defend against him: Tighten up the defense on the short throws because the chances that he can beat you with a deep throw
are very slim..

Smith can make those deep throws, now that his shoulder has recovered from two surgeries. He made some in the afternoon practice Saturday – which got him some cheers – and he’s made others in subsequent practices.

He’s also matured greatly since he came to the 49ers as a 21-year-old in 2005, with only two years of operating out of a spread offense behind him. “I was going out there and trying to be perfect and not screwing up,” he said. “That’s a bad mindset to have. Now, I’m going out and trying to make plays and win the job. That’s the mindset I have to have.”

Especially if they can get Michael Crabtree signed, the 49ers have the best set of receivers by far that they’ve had since Smith was drafted. The improvement is especially obvious in the number of receivers who can be deep threats – Crabtree, second-year receiver Josh Morgan, free agent Brandon Jones, third-year receiver Jason Hill and even veteran Isaac Bruce, who isn’t as dangerous as he was in his prime but still knows how to get behind a defense.

Smith can take advantage of those receivers. Hill can’t. That’s why I’ve said for some time that the 49ers have a shot at the postseason only if Smith wins the starting job. With Hill, it would be another lost season.


DEEP THINKING RAIDERS: The Raiders spent most of the first week of training camp doing mental work, reviewing their assignments before they took the field.

Most teams use the multiple mini-camps and OTAs (Organized Team Activities) to do this, but the Raiders have made more than their share of mistakes in the recent past.

Of course, many of those mistakes have been made by the front office, but rest assured that Al Davis has fired every one of the people who made those mistakes.

HALL OF FAME: Bob Feller, the oldest living Hall of Fame player, told a writer last week that Pete Rose should not be in the Hall of Fame but Lefty O’Doul should be. Wrong on both counts.

Rose was banned from baseball by the accidental commissioner, Fay Vincent, there only because of Bart Giammati’s sudden death. Vincent wasn’t much of a commissioner and he was totally irrational on Rose, who foolishly bet on games as a manager but has never been proven to have bet on games as a player. Rose belongs in the Hall.

O’Doul doesn’t. He had a short career as an outfielder, which is how he’d have to be considered, and his gaudy hitting statistics came in an era when the ball had been juiced up. In 1930, O’Doul hit .383, but was only fourth in the league. Bill Terry hit .401, the last National Leaguer to top the .400 mark. The Philadelphia Phillies hit .315 as a team while finishing last, 40 games out of first place.

O’Doul was a great ambassador for baseball, introducing Japan to the game with tours in between seasons, and he was a colorful manager for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. If baseball waned to honor him with a special citation, it would be appropriate. But he does not belong in the Hall as a player.

DAVID ORTIZ: When Ortiz was named as one of those who tested positive for steroids in the presumably secret testing to see if MLB should develop a stronger drug testing program, I thought back to a conversation I’d had with a friend who is an ardent Red Sox fan.

My friend had watched Ortiz on the Bob Costas show and, though he’s a big supporter of Ortiz, he couldn’t miss the disconnect between the way Costas castigated Barry Bonds but did nothing but praise Ortiz, though there was a picture of Ortiz as a Minnesota Twin that clearly showed his body had changed exactly as Bonds’ had. Not to mention that Ortiz had gone from a hitter who had hit 48 home runs in 1150 at-bats for Minneosota to one who hit 31, 41, 47, 54 and 35 homers in his first five seasons with the Red Sox..

Evan also commented that, “Whenever a player vehemently denies taking anything, I’m sure he’s done it.”

Ortiz declared earlier this year that any player who tested positive should be banned for a year. Last week, Ortiz’s positive test results were leaked to the media. Surprise.

The test results were supposed to have been sealed but they were seized by Federal prosecutors who have since given up the names of several big names. I don’t know what their motives are. Given the way they’ve bungled Bonds’ perjury trial, it may be simple incompetence.

This has led to several people, Hank Aaron being the latest, who have said all the names should be released. I don’t agree because those who propose that couple it with talk about moving on from the steroids era. No chance that’s going to happen. Given that players knew this test was coming, only the most stupid got caught. Jose Canseco’s estimate that 80 per cent of major league players are taking them is probably realistic. They’ll keep taking them, too, because players are always looking for an edge.

Some writers are beginning to understand this. Bruce Jenkins wrote a good piece in The Chronicle last week advising writers to accept this and simply judge players by the standards of their era, as I’ve been urging for some time.

Then, there’s Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times who is as irrational as the bloviators on Fox News, figuratively frothing at the mouth at the Dodger fans who cheer for Manny Ramirez, despite his 50-game suspension when he got caught for taking steroids.

But, fans who go to the game don’t care; Ortiz got a standing ovation at Fenway when he hit a home run to beat the A’s. It’s only older fans watching on TV and writers like Plaschke who get incensed.

Anyway, I highly recommend Plaschke’s columns for their comedic value.

BAD NEWS OF THE WEEK: The A’s are apparently going to reactive Jason Giambi; it may even happen today. I had hoped that Giambi’s going to the DL would be a sign that he would retire.

As I’ve written before, the A’s need to draw the curtain on Giambi and Nomar Garciaparra and concentrate on the young players who are part of their future.

As for Bobby Crosby’s complaint that he isn’t playing shortstop since Orlando Cabrera was traded to the Twins, he had his chance and blew it with all those subpar offensive years; his average with the A’s is .239. He needed to change his hitting approach when he had the job. He didn’t, and he’ll soon be history. I don’t think many A’s fans will miss him.

BRIAN SABEAN: A reader asked me last week if I thought new Giants managing general partner William Neukom would bring back Sabean (see the latest posting of “Letters”). My answer was that I don’t know, but neither do the writers who say Sabean should come back.

Sabean is popular with those covering the club, whether as beat writers or columnists, because he’s much more accessible now than in his earlier years. They’ve excused his many mistakes in recent years as ones forced on him by former managing general partner Peter Magowan. An even more extreme position was one told me in the press box last week: that Sue Burns had forced Sabean to keep Bonds because he was a favorite of hers.

In fact, the decision to keep Bonds, and even re-sign him for a year in 2007, was a good one because he was the most feared hitter in baseball, until the rigors of having to play in the field caused him to break down about midway through August of 2007.

The problem with the Bonds strategy wass that, after Jeff Kent left, Sabean was unable to pick up another hitter to give Bonds some support, so Bonds just set one record after another for intentional walks – and the Giant slipped to a four-year period in which they were below .500.

Now, the Giants have revived, thanks largely to a once again productive farm system., and they may get into the postseason as a wild card. Sabean obviously thinks that will be necessary to save his job, so he traded away the pitcher who had been regarded as No. 2 in the farm system, Tim Alderson, to get gimpy-legged Freddy Sanchez. It does no good to plan for the future if you think you won't be a part of it.

TV: I'll be a guest tonight on Comcast's "Chronicle Live" program at 5 and 11 p.m.

LINE OF THE WEEKS: Reader Robert Gregory writes, “The deal I would have liked to see the Giants make was to apply the $4500 from the “Cash for Clunkers” program to buy out Barry Zito.”

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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