Jahvid Best, Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith, Bill Walsh/George Seifert
Earlier in the week, I had been interviewed by David Talbot for a PBS documentary on what the Bill Walsh 49ers had meant to San Francisco. In the course of the interview, Talbot asked me if football had become the “guilty pleasure” that boxing is, with observers knowing that the participants were getting hurt even as spectators were thrilled by the exchange. In fact, I had lost interest in boxing years ago, after I had covered some fights for The Chronicle. Before that, I had watched only on TV. Believe me, it is a much different experience at ringside.
Ron Kroichick, the Chronicle beat writer on Cal, and I were discussing the Best situation before yesterday’s media luncheon. Ron said he would not let his son play football. I had made a similar decision with my son many years before. (As it happned, that never became an issue because Scott developed asthma and never played team sports, though he played tennis and had lessons in ice skating and gymnastics.) Our reasoning was the same: We’ve both spent time on the sidelines where you realize how physical the game is. You don’t get the same sense of that watching on TV or from the stands or press box.
It’s become an even more damaging game in the last 20 years because players are bigger and faster than before, and the collisions are that much more violent. No, it won’t make me stop watching or writing about football, but it is indeed a guilty pleasure.
Cal coach Jeff Tedford has been texting Best about his condition. Asked if he thought Best would return to the playing field this season, Tedford said, “We haven’t even discussed that and it’s really the furthest thing from our minds when he’s going to play football. The No. 1 concern is his health and well being. If he doesn’t play again this year, so be it.”
Tedford didn’t use Best’s injury as an excuse for the loss to Oregon State, and neither would I; the Beavers were clearly the superior team. But he noted that. It was a sobering experience because we went from a celebration to this. I went over to check on him and finally came back to the players and told them that Jahvid was breathing and able to move his legs and arms. It was a somber mood with the players.”
This was the second concussion for Best; he suffered a mild one in the win over Arizona State the previous week. I’d be surprised if he returns this season, even for a bowl game. After that? It will be a medical decision and I’m not a doctor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if his football career is over.
HARBAUGH RUMORS: Stanford’s stunning upset of Oregon will no doubt give life to the Jim Harbaugh to Raiders rumors, but I’m going to assume that Harbaugh hasn’t suddenly lost 50 IQ points and wouldn’t go there.
I’ve never thought Harbaugh would be a lifer at Stanford because it’s too hard to win there consistently with the school’s high admission standards, which have gone up since Tyrone Willingham was there. Cal and UCLA are second and third in the conference in admission requirements, and neither school is very close to Stanford’s. The Arizona schools and Oregon State require little of top athletes but the ability to breathe.
(A parenthetical thought: For those who wonder why Dennis Erickson has been a successful college coach, look at the schools he’s coached: Washington State, Miami, Oregon State, Arizona State. He’s never had any worries about getting an athlete he wanted into school.)
But I realized last fall that Harbaugh wasn’t going to leave Stanford quickly when he redshirted freshman quarterback Andrew Luck. If he had been trying to fatten his resume for a quick exit, he would have used Luck last season because he did not have a quality quarterback. Instead, he allowed Luck to watch and learn for a year, and that move is paying dividends. Many observers think Luck is the best quarterback in the conference now, with the capability of becoming the best in the country by next year. Historically, Stanford has thrived with good quarterbacking, even when they’ve lacked talent otherwise. In his first stint at Stanford, Bill Walsh took his team to two bowl games, largely on the talents of quarterbacks Guy Benjamin and Steve Dils, and top receivers like James Lofton and Ken Margerum.
When he leaves, I think Harbaugh is more likely to go to another college than to the pros. His style is much better suited to the collegiate game. He’s a highly emotional, hands on type of coach, which works well with college players. In the NFL, coaches are more like CEOs, setting the tone for the team but leaving the game plans to their coordinators and the actual coaching of individual players to the position coaches. I can’t see Harbaugh in that position.
As for the Raiders, Al Davis will continue to run has-beens and never-wills (tom Cable) through the coaching mix. After the Lane Kiffin fiasco, no promising young coach will ever come there until Davis is gone.
49ERS AT MIDSEASON: It sounds strange to say this about a 3-5 team, but I still think the 49ers have a shot at the playoffs.
They have some obvious flaws, the most serious an offensive line that struggles to block both for the passing and running game. Losing Joe Staley for six games really hurts, and the 49ers may have to draft an offensive lineman, preferably a tackle, next spring. Free agency moves have not worked.
The key is obviously quarterback Alex Smith and, as I wrote yesterday in the Examiner, they should go to the spread as their basic offense. Smith is more comfortable and more effective that way.
Their defensive problems have been acerbated by the inconsistency of the offense. If they can develop more consistency on offense, the defense won’t have to be on the field as much.
ANGRY FANS: When a team doesn’t do as well as expected, fans get very angry, and coaches are usually the primary object of their wrath.
Just ask Pete Carroll. During Carroll’s very successsful run, USC fans have come to expect winning the Pac-10 title as a given. The Trojans’ seasons are regarded only as a success when they play in the national championship game. This year, the Trojans will not win the conference championship and the best they can do in the postseason is the Holiday Bowl. Fans are enraged, and Carroll is really feeling the heat.
Cal fans have much lower expectations but even so, they expected much better from this team, as did I. The primary target for their ire has been defensive coordinator Bob Gregory. The criticism I’ve heard regularly is that Gregory’s schemes are bad and that he should be calling for more blitzing.
In the 46 years I’ve been covering Bay Area sports, I’ve known a great many coaches, good and bad. The only two I’ve known who really made a difference with their schemes were Walsh and George Seifert, when he was defensive coordinator for the 49ers.
Seifert was every bit as innovative on the defensive side as Walsh. Several of his ideas eventually became part of the defensive schemes for other teams. One of them was the idea of situational changes. At the time, defenses basically stayed the same defenses throughout the game. Seifert would make changes on passing downs – which all teams do now – to get his best pass rusher into the game.
In the January, 1985 Super Bowl at Stanford, Miami coach Don Shula thought he would thwart that strategy by using a no-huddle offense, so Seifert wouldn’t have time to make changes between plays. Bad idea. Seifert just put in his best pass rushing linemen and they harassed the Dolphins’ record-setting quarterback, Dan Marino, throughout a 38-16 49er win.
When I was working on “Building a Champion” with Walsh in 1990, he and Benjamin, who was working with us, showed me how Walsh triumphed over Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys by designing plays which, for instance, isolated a running back on a linebacker in a passing situation. In the 1981 season, the 49ers beat the Cowboys badly in the regular season and then in the famous “The Catch” game in the NFC championship games. Walsh’s schemes played a big part in both of those wins.
But the year before, Dallas had beaten the 49ers, 59-14. Walsh’s schemes didn’t make a difference then because he didn’t have the playerrs he needed. Any scheme is no better than the players using it.
Before the Cal-Oregon State game on Saturday, I was at a tailgate and talking to a fan who described what he thought was the ideal defense to stop Oregon. Boise State had used it in beating the Ducks in the season opener and Stanford was using it Saturday.
The defense was a good one, but Stanford eventually gave up 42 points to Oregon, though their 51 points got them the victory. Boise State gave up only nine points. The difference? The players.
Bob Gregory has run successful defenses for Cal in the past. I don’t believe he’s suddenly gone dumb. College coaches will not criticize their players, and they shouldn’t, and Gregory won’t say this, but I believe he’s trying to limit the damage. He has only one good pass defender, Syd’Quan Thompson, and nobody who can rush the passer as Zach Follett did last year.
Again, a system is only as good as the players. The Bears aren’t as good as we thought they were, and no amount of game-planning by the amateur experts on the Internet will change that.
ALLEY OOP: In my item about R. C. Owens and the Alley Oop pass last week, I referred to Y. A. Tittle winning championship with the New York Giants. There were no NFL titles, of course, but the championship games Tittle played in New York got him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
WARRIORS (YAWN): In a strange way, the Warriors and Sharks are on a parallel line.
Not in organizational structure. The Sharks are by far the best-run sports organization in the Bay Area. Only the existence of the Raiders keeps the Warriors from being the most dysfunctional.
But the Sharks have never gotten beyond their small, though rabid, base. Sports fans usually follow those sports they either played or watched when they were young, and few Bay Area fans were familiar with hockey in their youth. So, the Sharks have sold out their arena consistently but without much expansion of their base. They get more television watchers in the playoffs but, since they’ve been losing early, they don’t keep them.
The Warriors started out with a huge advantage because so many Bay Area fans grew up with basketball, but they’re rapidly becoming irrelevant to most of them. There’s still a hardy group who come to games, but increasingly, the reaction of others who like the sport is “Who cares?”
The problem, as always, starts at the top. Owner Chris Cohan keeps putting his buddies in charge. Now, it is Little Bobby Rowell, who ran Chris Mullin out of the building and consistently makes decisions that only boost his ego while dismantling the team. Don Nelson is hanging on by his fingertips so he can set an NBA record for most coaching wins before heading off to Maui – despite his ridiculous assertion that he would coach next year for nothing because the Warriors had treated him so well. Don’t hold your breath on that one.
The latest salvo in the Stephen Jackson saga, with Jackson’s agent hurling a lot of phony charges against Nelson and the Warrriors, trying to force a trade for his client, is the latest example. Who cares? With or without Jackson, the Warriors are also-rans.
Wake me when Cohan, Rowell and Nelson are gone.
HAWAII WORLD SERIES? In response to my criticism of the World Series being played on cold November nights in the East, reader Michael Skarpelos proposed playing the Series in Hawaii. That would mean games played in warm weather and, because of the time differential, afternoon games would be in prime time in the East, to keep the TV people happy.
That will never happen, of course. The World Series has been played in the cities of the competing teams for more than 100 years, and baseball is a sport which reveres its traditions. But the idea reminded me how smart Pete Rozelle was when the Super Bowl was first proposed and he immediately said it would be at a neutral site. Because there was no precedent, nobody objected – or strongly enough to change the decision – so the NFL has been able to schedule most Super Bowls for either warmer weather cities or for domed stadiums. Since it has become a February game, that’s esspecially critical.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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