Shaun Hill vs. Alex Smith; Bill Walsh, Al Davis, Steve Mariucci; Barry Zito
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 26, 2009

FOOTBALL IS the hidden game, for fans and often for writers, too.

Baseball is relatively easy for fans to understand, because most of it is out in the open. Managers and players obviously have access to more information than fans, so they can (hopefully) make the right decisions, but anybody whoís played or watched the game for many years knows the basic strategy. Fans in the stands will debate strategic alternatives at key moments, and their thoughts often make the points that announcers and writers in the press box are making.

Hitting and pitching statistics are another measure fans can use to assess players and teams. (Fielding stats are much less reliable because a high fielding percentage often means lack of range, as Giants fans have seen with Edgar Renteria this year.)

Basketball is even easier to understand on a basic level, especially the NBA game today where the usual strategy is ďGet ball, shoot ball.Ē

Football is a much more difficult game to understand. It is nearly impossible to make accurate evaluations from the stands (and often from the press box as well) because there are so many hidden factors.

Iíve had some advantages in that regard. I learned a great deal from Al Davis when I was covering the Raiders, 1967-72, and much more from Bill Walsh, in an association that started when he was hired at Stanford in 1977 and lasted right up to his death. Now, I have a close relationship with Cal coach Jeff Tedford which has given me more insights.

Iíve also known coaches over the years who would show me videos of past games to illustrate what they were trying to do. Until then, I always laughed at coaches who declined to comment on a play or players because they hadnít seen the film/video, but once I started looking at the videos, I understood what they meant. Thereís so much happening that is simply not apparent when youíre watching a game.

When he was coaching the 49ers, Steve Mariucci had sessions in which heíd invite writers who covered the team to look at these videos. Not all writers took advantage of these sessions, but I did, and they were very worthwhile.

But even with all that help, I still donít have anywhere near the knowledge of coaches dealing with their current teams. Theyíre watching practice every day and filming it, after which they break down the videos to see what every player is doing. I try to get out to as many practices as I can, but Iím not watching the videos. (Not that Iíd want to on any kind of regular basis. Thatís hard work.)

One thing I can do, though: Because Iíve talked to so many coaches over the years, I know how they think. That is why I knew that Mike Singletary wanted Alex Smith to step up and take the quarterbackís job with the 49ers.

Many of my readers thought differently. They thought Hill had proven that he deserved the job with his 7-3 record in his 10 starts. One reader sent me a ton of statistical comparisons between Smith and Hill, which really meant nothing because they werenít placed in context. The most important piece of information about Hill was this: Opposing teams knew so little about him that they couldnít adequately prepare for him. Fans ignored that, but then, so did writers covering the 49ers.

Some myths spread up along the way, the chief being that Hill didnít practice well. In fact, he hardly took any snaps in 49ers practices until the 2008 training camp because he was the third quarterback and not expected to play. In 2008, when he was nominally in competition with Smith and J. T. OíSullivan, and this year, he took many more snaps Ė and he practiced the same way he performed.

As I wrote in yesterdayís Examiner, I believe Singletary thought Smith would have a good game against the Raiders last Saturday night and prove he belonged. He didnít, so Hill was named the starter.

At that point, Singletary really had no choice. He had said it would be an open competition, and Hill won it by default. Now, theyíre trying to put a brave face on it; offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye claimed that Frank Gore was always going to be the key to the offense. Well, Iím sorry, but that isnít true. Gore is an outstanding back, and rookie Glen Coffee looks good, too, but championship teams in the NFL have been built around passing attacks, not the running game, for a very long time.

I believe the 49ers will have a better season than the Raiders, but thatís not saying much because the Raiders are in disarray. I donít think 49er fans have to plan for anything beyond the regular season.

GREATNESS OF THE RAIDERS: I like and respect Greg Papa but when you do Raiders games, you have to pay homage to the shrine. So, working the Raiders-49ers exhibition last Saturday night, he included a mention of what a nice guy Tom Cable is (when heís not punching you out?) and the halftime activities included a tribute to the Raiders gloried past. No mention of the last six seasons, of course. That would have been a good time to talk about the good young players Ė Darren McFadden, for openers Ė to try to persuade viewers to buy tickets, but with the Raiders, itís not about selling tickets. Itís all about. . . well, you know.

Thatís why the KPIX version of that exhibition game is much preferable. Dennis OíConnell does a nice job and heís not told to slant the facts by the 49ers.

PET PEEVE: When baseball game announcers say that a player is 7-for-12 against a pitcher and act as if that is meaningful. Worse, there are managers who treat a stat like that in the same way, though they should know it means nothing because it is such a small sample. The nature of baseball is that hitters have hot stretches and cold stretches and you need at least 100 at-bats in a season to get any kind of meaningful reading.

Bill James once did a study of hitters month-by-month, and used Eddie Murray as a prime example. Murray was regarded as a very consistent hitter in his prime, with one eight-year stretch in which his batting average varied only from a low of .295 to a high of .316. Yet, James took Murray month-by-month and showed that he would hit, say, .150 one month, .450 the next to reach those consistent season numbers.

Every manager in the game should go back and read that treatise.

BARRY ZITO: Iíve been getting a lot of e-mail from Giants fans lately praising Barry Zito. I think itís amusing that six weeks of good pitching has made them forget 2 Ĺ seasons of bad Ė and the effect that Zitoís huge contract has had on the Giants.

Because of that contract Ė and some others by Brian Sabean, who always overpays Ė the Giants payroll is restricted. Sabean could not go after the true power hitter the Giants needed, either in the free agent market or in a midseason trade. He had to settle for Ryan Garko, who is only slightly above average as a hitter nd well below that as a fielder. I had seen Garko compared to Jason Giambi in the field, and I understood why when I saw him flailing around trying, in vain, to catch a short popup in a game at AT&T and then cutting off a throw from Nate Schierholtz that would have cut down the runner at the plate in a road game.

The worst contract for a pitcher is usually believed to be the $121 million contract the Colorado Rockies signed Mike Hampton to in 2000, which is more, adjusted for inflation, than Zitoís $126 million contract. But the Rockies were able to get rid of Hampton after two seasons.

Which brings up an interesting point. Now that Zito is pitching well, the Giants might be able to unload him and much of his contract on a team seeking pitching help down the stretch.

Oh, but I forgot: The Giants still think theyíre in the wild card race. Dream on.

PAY COLUMNS: This fall, I will be going to a pay system for my website. The system isnít fully established yet, but I will give at least two weeks notice before doing it, so keep watching this space. The charge will be $12 a year ($1 a month) and I have a PayPal account where you can pay.

For those who donít want to use PayPal, I will also be setting up a post office box, so you can mail me a check and Iíll put you on a list to get my column as an e-mail.

With the economy crashing, all my sources of income for my website have disappeared. I am not a blogger, using this to get attention. I am a professional journalist who has been covering professional sports and top collegiate games since 1963, and being a professional implies being paid. At the start of this year, I decided I had two choices: (1) I could close down the website; or (2) I could put it on a paying basis. Iím trying the second option for a year. If I get enough response, Iíll keep going. If not, Iíll go to my first option after a year.

E-MAILS: I took the day off yesterday, as my wife and I had lunch in Sausalito and played tourist, so I didnít get to any of my e-mails. Iíll try to catch up later today.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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