Bad NfL teams; Raiders Drafts; Kevin Riley; R.C. (Alley Oop) Owens
Last Sunday, the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions squared off in what seemed to be a test of who was the worst team. The Rams, who had lost 17 straight over two seasons, beat the Lions, who were the only NFL team to go 0-16 last year, but only by a touchdown. It’s still a tossup in my mind.
The Rams are an intriguing story. For most of the ‘90s, they had the worst record in the league. Then, suddenly, they became the best at the end of the decade because they had acquired some very good players with their high draft picks and were well coached, with Dick Vermeil as the head coach and Mike Martz as the offensive coordinator. Now, they’ve come full circle back to the bottom of the league. The only other team in the bottom four which has plunged from such heights is the Kansas City Chiefs, who have some great teams in their past but now rank as the worst in the AFC. Bet on the Chiefs as being the first bad team to recover, though, with Scott Pioli as general manager.
When teams are really bad in the NFL, it’s usually a matter of bad management, either at the owner’s level or at the general manager’s position. In Detroit, it was clearly Matt Millen, who made bad decision after bad decision before he was sent back to the TV booth, where he belongs. In Cleveland, Randy Lerner, son of the man who bought the team, has constantly meddled. Now, he’s fired his latest general manager and says he wants to hire a strong GM and leave him alone. Don’t hold your breath. The Washington Redskins aren’t quite in the bottom tier but I wouldn’t bet against them with the combination of owner Dan Snyder and general manager Vinny Cerrato, who proved his expertise with the 49ers by pushing for the team to draft Jim Druckenmiller. Wow.
There are so many bad teams out there that the Raiders are probably only the fifth-worst team in the league this year, but for long-term futility, nobody can match them. They already have an NFL record six straight seasons with double-digit losses and the surest bet in sports is that they’ll add their seventh straight this year. They’re 2-6 headed into the bye and haven’t scored more than 16 points since their opening game.
Coach Tom Cable is an inept buffoon and facing possible disciplinary action from the league after charges from his first wife and a girl friend that he was physically and verbally abusive. If Cable iis suspended, maybe he could sit in the Black Hole at Raiders home games. He'd fit right in.
We all know where the real problem is, though, at the top with Al Davis. As Davis has concentrated his power, the team has grown progressively worse. Reader Phil Lichtenstein has compiled the Raiders season results and they are now at .500 since 1979. That’s three decades of a Commitment to Mediocrity and it will get much worse while Davis remains in charge. The team no longer mentions “top winning percentages since 1963” in its media guide, though the front of the guide still trumpets “The Team of the Decades.”
After I wrote in the Examiner last Friday that JaMarcus Russell will never be a reliable NFL quarterback and first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey was a big mistake, another reader, Tom Ryugo, e-mailed me that the Raiders had not been drafting well with their high picks for some time and sent me this rundown:
1999: lst, Matt Stinchcomb, 2nd, Tony Bryant
2000: 1st, Sebastian Janikowski, 2nd, Jerry Porter
2001: 1st, Derrick Gibson, 2nd, Marques Tuiasosopo
2002, 1st, Napoleon Harris, 1st Philip Buchanon, 2nd Doug Jolley, 2nd Langston walker
2003, 1st, Nnamdi Asomugha, 1st, Tyler Brayton, 2nd, Teyo Johnson
2004: 1st, Robert Gallery, 2nd Jake Grove,.
2005: 1st, Fabian Washington, 2nd Stanford Routt
2006: 1st, Michael Huff, 2nd, Thomas Howard
2007: 1st, Russell, 2nd, Zach Miller
2008: 1st, Darren McFadden, 2nd, traded away
2009: 1st, Heyward-Bey, 2nd, Mike Mitchell
Not much there, especially considering that the Raiders have been drafting in the top 10 for the last six years. Asomugha is a great corner, Janikowski’s leg is pretty much the Raiders offense, Miller is an excellent tight end, McFadden could still be a star if he can stay healthy and the offense is changed to make good use of him.
One further note: The extra choices in 2002 and 2003 came from Tampa Bay as part of the price for Jon Gruden. That really worked out well for the Raiders, didn’t it?
CAL QB KEVIN RILEY has had some significant ups-and-downs in his collegiate career but they haven’t affected his confidence, as he showed in taking the Bears on a long drive that ended with a game-winning field goal against Arizona State.
The commentator on the telecast went crazy when the Bears went for a gimmick just before that field goal, with Shane Vareen taking a direct snap in the “Wildcat” formation and, after two steps, stopping and passing to the end zone. I liked the call because Cal had never passed from that formation and there was a receiver open in the end zone. But Vareen, who has thrown on option plays several times this year, floated the ball and it was knocked down.
Those of us who have watched the Bears this season know why Tedford tried that: He didn’t want to put the game in the hands of Giorgio Tavecchio. Though he has a strong leg – he had kicked a 51-yard field goal earlier – Tavecchio is inconsistent and had missed earlier attempts from 34 and 39 yards. He nailed this one, which was just about two yards longer than a PAT, and he also did better on kickoffs. Nonetheless, he and Vince D'Amato will again be battling for the kicking job in practice this week. Tedford said it might be a game day decision, as it was last Saturday.
This week, the Bears will be facing Oregon State, the team that started their horrendous slide in 2007. Riley started that game as a redshirt freshman because Nate Longshore was hurt. He struggled early, then brought the Bears almost all the way back – but what everybody remembers is the last play of the game when, instead of throwing the ball away so the Bears could kick a game-tying field goal and send the game into OT, Riley tried to run and wound up with the ball in his hands as time expired.
Asked at the media lunch yesterday if he remembered that play, Riley said, “ESPN replays it all the time. How could I forget it?”
Riley didn’t play again until the second quarter of the Armed Forces Bowl. He had a brilliant game and led the Bears to victory. “But even then, they kept replaying (the Oregon State gaffe) on TV. I thought, ‘Hey, guys, I had some good plays you could run instead.’”
As those comments should indicate, Riley has a good sense of humor, which he often directs at himself. He started growing a beard after the loss to USC, vowing not to shave it until the Bears lose again. “My girlfriend doesn’t like it,” he admits, “but she has to live with it.”
The game in the desert had a happy ending but it was a sloppy game. Uncharacteristically, the Bears had 12 penalties and four fumbles, two of which they lost. They had entered the game as the least-penalized team in the Pac-10; they are now fourth. They are still tops in turnover ratio with a plus-8, helped greatly by the fact that Riley has thrown only two interceptions all season.
They still have some fundamental issues, which will not be easy to correct. The offensive line hasn’t been able to open holes for running backs Jahvid Best and Vareen against strong defenses. It’s noticeable that the offense plays at a very productive level against weaker teams but the runners especially struggle against strong defenses – and that’s what they’ll face Saturday in Oregon State.
Defensively, they still give up too many plays. Many of my readers think blitzing would cure that problem but, in fact, it might make it worse. A blitz is always a gamble because you put defensive backs in single coverage, and the Cal DBs already are making many mistakes in pass coverage; the latest was the 80-yard touchdown by Arizona State that was clearly the case of a blown coverage.
Oregon stumbled in its first game against Boise State but after its blitzing of USC seems to be clearly the best in the conference. USC, which now has two losses, is still potent, and if the Trojans win their four remaining conference games, they’ll have the tie-breaker over any team which could challenge them for No. 2. So, realistically, the race is for No. 3 in the conference. Saturday’s game will be a big one in deciding that.
HISTORY LESSON; When Vincent Jackson of the Chargers leaped high in the end zone for a touchdown against the Raiders on Sunday, TV announcer Dan Fouts shouted, “That’s like the old Alley Oop pass with the 49ers, Y. A. Tittle to R. C. Owens!”
The “Alley Oop” pass started in 1957, Owens’ rookie year. Dan Fouts was only six at the time, so it’s doubtful he knew what was going on. But, of course, his dad was the 49ers announcer. Bob Fouts was a very colorful announcer, whose commentary was full of phrases like “red dog” for the blitz. Who can ever forget, “The Red Dog is coming!” I’m sure he told the story of the Alley Oop pass to his son many times.
(Fouts also helped get Tittle into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When Tittle was traded to the New York Giants, he originally thought he’d retire, because he had a thriving insurance business in Palo Alto. Fouts convinced him to go to New York, and it was the championship games in which he played for the Giants that put Y. A. in the hall.)
Owens was a great leaper. As a teammate of Elgin Baylor on the College of Idaho basketball team, he led the nation in rebounding with an average of 27.1 per game in his senior year. When he played for the Baltimore Colts at the end of his career, he blocked a field goal by standing just under the goalposts and timing his leap to knock down the kick just before it would have gone over the bar. (Goalposts were then on the goal line; they’ve since been moved back to the back of the end zone.)
In practice in 1957, 49er coach Red Hickey noticed that Owens caught passes even when he seemed to be covered by jumping up over his defenders. So, they practiced having Tittle throw long, looping passes that R. C. would jump to catch. It became the trademark for Owens. Everybody remembered him for that; even his teammates called him “Oop.”
After his retirement as a player, R. C. came back to the 49ers in Bill Walsh’s first year and worked in a variety of jobs, the primary one being with 49er “alumni”, before retiring in 2001.
Owens will be inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame next year.
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