Alex Smith/Aaron Rodgers; Tom Cable; Jeff Tedford/Robert Gregory; Mark McGwire
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 28, 2009

WHAT IF the 49ers had drafted Aaron Rodgers with the first pick in the 2005 draft instead of Alex Smith? That’s what I recommended on my website because Rodgers had played in a pro-type system at Cal while Smith’s collegiate experience was in a spread offense at Utah.

At draft time, I heard that 49ers coach Mike Nolan wanted Rodgers but thought he could finesse it by drafting Smith, then trading him to Tampa Bay for their pick, fifth in the first round, and an additional pick. Then, he could take Rodgers with the Bucs’ pick. From different sources than mine, Ira Miller heard the same thing.

But that’s the kind of deal you work out the day before the draft. On draft day, there was no deal and Smith became a 49er. Significantly, Nolan waited until after Tampa Bay had announced its pick, for a running back, before coming out and telling us media types, “Alex is the guy we wanted all along.” It wouldn’t be the last time Nolan spoke with a forked tongue in his too long tenure as head coach.

Neither quarterback would have done well that first season with the 49ers, who had drafted first for a very good reason: They were terrible. Offensively, their line was awful and their receivers hardly better. Rodgers wouldn’t have looked as lost as Smith did, but he wouldn’t have been effective, either. At Green Bay, he sat behind Brett Favre but has proved his right to be considered in the top level of NFL quarterbacks in the last two years, while Smith has not contributed much because of injuries.

In Smith’s second year, he made great progress under Norv Turner. Then, Turner left and, when Smith suffered a serious shoulder injury that eventually required two surgeries, Nolan refused to acknowledge that his injured shoulder was hurting Smith’s play, until Smith finally went public with it.

That’s why I’m incredulous when 49er fans say Smith has had his chances. What chances? Coming to a terrible team, playing under a different offensive coordinator for five straight seasons and for a coach who lies about a serious injury? Yeah, that’s really a fair shake.

Another part of the problem is that coverage of the 49ers by my former paper has come full circle.

When I came to The Chronicle in 1963, writing assignments were based on seniority, not ability. Darrell Wilson was the 49ers beat writer, though he knew as much about football as an asparagus stalk did. He continually blamed John Brodie for 49ers losses, though a porous defense was always the main problem, and rejoiced when Steve Spurrier took over. As I pointed out, Spurrier’s arm was too weak to throw the out to the sideline, so defenses would soon shut him down, which they did. By the time Bill Walsh brought the first Super Bowl championship to San Francisco, Ira Miller was the beat writer. Later, Ira became the paper’s NFL writer, and he’s the best pro football writer I’ve known.

Now, The Chronicle has John Crumpacker as the beat writer and Kevin Lynch writing on SF Gate. Crumpacker, whowould much prefer to write on rugby and track and field, has praised Shaun Hill for “managing” the game. What does that mean? Peyton Manning manages a game because he calls plays at the line of scrimmage. Hill just used the plays the coaches sent in. Lynch said in a KNBR interview that he’d rather have Hill than Tony Romo. Oh, my.

And anybody looking to Ray Ratto or Gwen Knapp for guidance should seek help.

Smith has been pilloried by all these pseudo experts, as well as by the fans, but he’s grown emotionally since he was a rookie. He’s always had the physical skills and now he seems to have a much better feel for the game. And, he’s still just 25.

Coach Mike Singletary picked the right spot for Smith, in the second half of a road game rather than playing him in the 45-10 rout by the Atlanta Falcons at home, where he would probably have been booed when he came in.

He wasn’t the right choice in 2005, but he has plenty of time left to be the right quarterback for the 49ers.

RAIDERS WOES: Tom Cable dodged one bullet when assistant coaches testified that he had run into one assistant who fell into Randy Hanson and knocked him to the floor and broke his jaw – did you really expect the coaches to tell the truth? – so he wasn’t charged with assault. Nonetheless, with the Raiders still reeling, his time is limited as head coach of the Raiders. Best guess is that he’ll be replaced at the bye week, when the Raiders should be 2-6, and somebody from the current staff, probably Paul Hackett, will be moved up.

It doesn’t matter. The real coach of the Raiders is Al Davis. You’ll notice that the blitzes which were so effective in the upset win over the Eagles were abandoned against the Jets. Davis doesn’t believe in them. Defensive coordinator John Marshall said after the Eagles game that he’d probably get bawled out for calling so many blitzes, and he wasn’t kidding. Davis supposedly is all about winning but what he’s actually about is using his systems. He’d rather lose with his systems than win by playing as the successful teams do. He’s getting his wish.

BEARS GET TESTED: Though Jeff Tedford didn’t put it in these terms, the Cal win over Washington State last Saturday was more like a laboratory exercise than a game. Offensively, Tedford and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig used the “Wildcat” formation, probably to force opposing teams to prepare for more options. Defensively, they used a four-man front to bolster the pass rush at times. Both tactics worked, but almost anything would have against the Cougars, who probably won’t win a conference game this year.

Offensively, the Bears have run wild against weak teams like Washington State, Eastern Washington and Maryland. They also did well against Minnesota and UCLA, which has played well defensively for the most part. They got totally shut down by Oregon and USC, by far the best teams they’ve played this year.

Though the skill positions get the bulk of the attention, the key has been the play of the offensive line. This was expected to be a problem going into the year and that certainly showed up in the two losses, where the Bears were totally outplayed up front. The line showed progress against UCLA. There is no way to evaluate it off the Washington State game, which was the expected rout, but Tedford is optimistic about the progress of the linemen, especially in their ability to work together..

Arizona State will be a real test because the Sun Devils are big and fast up front, and their run defense is a strength of the team. Against weaker teams, the Bears have been a highlight role team with big plays, but Tedford cautioned against expecting the same on Saturday. “It’s not going to be that easy,” he said. “There will be a lot of runs for two yards or no yards. We’ll have to be patient with the running game.”

Stanford was patient in running for more than 200 yards, the bulk of them by Toby Gerhart, in its win over Arizona State last Satuday. Tedford praised Stanford for its patience but said there was nothing the Bears could take from that because the two offenses are so different. “They have a big back who just pounds into the middle,” he said. “We’re not that type of team.”

Defensively, coordinator Bob Gregory, with whom I talked after practice yesterday, said the four-man front wasn’t the novelty it seemed. “We’ve used it before in passing situations,” he said. “The difference is, we’ve usually put a linebacker up there, Zack Follett last year. We don’t have a linebacker who could do that this year, so we used a lineman.”

Gregory has been pilloried on Cal websites by fans who, frankly, know far less than they think they do for his supposed “bend but don’t break” philosophy. “I’ve never used that phrase,” he said. “I’ve seen that in print a lot but it’s not my philosophy. I don’t want to give up touchdowns, of course, but I don’t like to give up a lot of yards, either.

“The problem has been that we’ve given up so many big plays. We’ve got to tighten up on our pass defense and be sure we make the tackle. That’s what we’re working on in practice.”

The 3-4 defense is here to stay. “It makes it easier for us to recruit,” Gregory said. “For some reason, big offensive linemen have become rare in California high schools, so it’s easier for us to recruit linebackers than defensive linemen.”

Any system is only as good as its players. Bill Walsh had a great offensive system but his teams went 2-14 and 6-10 in his first two years with the 49ers. When he got the players he needed, he won Super Bowls. Last year, the 3-4 defense worked fine for the Bears, with Follett coming off the edge as a pass rushing linebacker. This year, they have no Follett. There’s a lot of talent among the young linebackers but they haven’t matured enough to make the defense as effective as it should be.

For the record, I think Bob Gregory is a solid defensive coordinator. More important, so does Tedford. His job is safe, no matter how much criticism he gets on Cal websites.

MAC’S BACK: It’s no surprise that St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa hired Mark McGwire, who is a surrogate son. Tony once called me at home from St. Louis to defend McGwire when I had criticized his behavior toward fans.

Interestingly, when he first came up, McGwire’s hitting theory was: See ball, hit ball; a large percentage of his 49 homers as a rookie came on first pitches. Pitchers caught on to that and he had to change.

As a hitting coach? Well, Matt Holliday and Bobby Crosby both worked with him in the offseason and neither seemed to benefit. Holliday didn’t start hitting until he joined the Cardinals. It’s clear that he only does well when he’s in a strong hitting lineup; he is not a leader. He’d be better off staying with the Cardinals, where Albert Pujols dominates the thinking of opposing pitchers, than leaving as a free agent.

Will getting back in the game help McGwire’s chances for the Hall of Fame? Probably not. Even with all the revelations of late, all the (merited) suspicions that the majority of the players are on steroids, there are still many writers who won’t vote for a player if they think he’s been on steroids. Great example of 19th century minds.

BASEBALL CHANGES: Peter Gammons, who should know better, has proposed that an additional wild card team be added in baseball. That’s a bad idea for at least two reasons:

1) There are already too many fluky things happening in the baseball postseason because, by its nature, baseball is a streaky game and the hot team has an advantage. We’ve already had wild card teams winning the World Series. Do we want to add another fluke possibility?
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2) The season is already too long. Unless owners are willing to cut back on the regular season (cue the laugh track), this would extend it even further. The World Series is already being played in November. Do we really want it during the Christmas season?

COMPUTER PROBLEMS: My computer was attacked by a virus shortly after I sent in my Examiner column on Thursday and it took my wife, who worked as a computer programmer in the early ‘80s before Microsoft made the job obsolete, and my son until Sunday night to restore it. Because my computer was down for that extended time, many e-mails went unanswered, so I apologize to those who didn’t get a reply.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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