Alex Smith, Russell/DHB, Jim Harbaugh, Toby Gerhart, Big Game
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 17, 2009

BUILDING A FUTURE with Alex Smith will be as important for the 49ers as success in the remaining seven games of this season.

Stability at the quarterback position is vital to a team’s success. One of the major reasons for the 49ers dynasty in the ‘80s and ‘90s is that they had back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young. So, they never had to take a chance on drafting a quarterback in the first round. When they did, they drafted Jim Druckenmiller, a disaster from day one.

This year, coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye wanted to go with Smith from the start of the season. That’s not just my opinion; I heard it from a source close to the scene. But Smith hadn’t really played in two years because of his shoulder problems and he didn’t look good enough in the exhibition season to justify making him No. 1.

After the third exhibition game, Singletary felt he had no choice but to go to Shaun Hill, the fans favorite – and the favorite of many of the media covering the team, too. If Smith had started, he would have been booed vociferously by the 49er fans at the first home game, just as he was in the first public training camp practice.

But Hill is really no more than a reserve, a guy who can play decently in an emergency but whose limitations show when he has to play for an extended time. That’s exactly what happened when he started this year. The longer he played, the worse he looked. Singletary finally replaced him at halftime of the Houston game.
Significantly, he made the move in a road game, instead of at home the previous week, when Hill could have and should have been pulled.

Smith has had his ups and downs since then, great against Houston, good again the unbeaten Colts in Indianapolis, shaky last week in the ugly win over the Chicago Bears at the ‘Stick.

The road ahead will not be smooth. The offensive line, already shaky, has been further weakened by the loss of Joe Staley, who plays the most important position, left tackle. It’s a problem the Niners will have to address again in the draft next spring.

It will also take some time for Smith and his young receivers to get truly comfortable with each other, but I like these receivers. Michael Crabtree is going to have a great career, and Josh Morgan and Jasson Hill are the deep threats needed to clear out the secondary so Crabtree will have room to catch the medium-length passes.

The change from Hill to Smith means a much different passing offense, and that can’t be changed overnight. Smith is clearly more comfortable in the spread but, with such a short practice week before the Bears game, dramatic changes in the game plan weren’t possible. They’ll have more time to practice for Sunday’s game in Green Bay, though, so I expect to see much more of the spread.

It will be difficult for the Niners to make the postseason because they’re two games behind Arizona now, but the good news is that they’re on the right track. It all starts with the quarterback.

COMMITMENT TO DISASTER: There was a play in the first half of the Raiders-Chiefs game that symbolized what the Raiders have become. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell lofted a perfect pass downfield to Darrius Heyward-Bey, who was a step ahead of his man at the Kansas City 2. That was Al Davis’s dream, the strong-armed quarterback and fleet receiver teaming up for a long touchdown.

Then, Heyward-Bey dropped the pass.

He had another chance to redeem himself. In the last minute of the game, sub quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had led the Raiders on a drive which could have resulted in a game-winning touchdown. He threw a pass to DHB inside the 10. But, instead of reaching out for the ball, Heyward-Bey tried to cradle it against his body. The pass hit his chest, then his knee and popped into the air, where it was intercepted by the Chiefs.

Surprise, surprise. This is his history. In three collegiate seasons, he made occasional big plays but was better known for dropping passes.

Players often struggle when they move up, whether from high school to college or from college to pro, but when a player doesn’t do it consistently on he lower level, only Al Davis would think he will do it moving up a level.

JIM HARBAUGH: At yesterday’s media luncheon, Harbaugh defended his decision to go for two points when the Cardinal went up 48-21 on USC last Saturday, pointing out that there was 6:49 left in the game and he worried about the Trojans coming back..

I doubt anybody in the room believed that. There is bad blood between Harbaugh and USC coach Pete Carroll, and a history of animosity between USC and Stanford. Last year, Carroll left his starters in for the whole game as USC rolled to a 48-23 win.

Coaches don’t usually do these things because it gives the opposing coach a motivational tool for the next season, but I think the reaction of the L.A. media to Harbaugh’s decision was really over the top – especially after Carroll kept his starters in last year.

Harbaugh is a very emotional and confrontational type of coach, which makes him very popular with his own players and very successful as a coach.

Which raises the question: How long will he stay at Stanford? I’ve never thought Harbaugh would be a lifer at Stanford because the high admissions standards make it difficult to win consistently, but he was able to recruit very well this year, and that was off a five-win season. This year’s success should make it much easier.

Harbaugh still hasn’t signed the extension to his contract which was first offered last fall. At yesterday’s luncheon, he said he was certain he and athletic director Bob Bowlsby would come to an agreement after the season. The sticking point is the usual one: Stanford doesn’t like to pay the big salaries that other schools do for top coaches. But after the big win over USC, alumni may be willing to kick in to boost the offer.

He seems much better suited to the college game, though he might be tempted if his former team, the Chicago Bears, makes a run at him. Lovie Smith seems unlikely to last beyond this year, and the Bears could certainly offer much more than Stanford.

His alma mater, Michigan, might also be looking for a coach, but it’s unlikely Harbaugh will get an offer because of an Examiner column I wrote after he was hired. I had interviewed him in his office and he lauded Stanford for its academic commitment to athletes while condemning other schools for not giving atthletes a quality education. He specifically named Michigan in that, saying the school had a number of courses in which they’d enroll athletes just to keep them eligible. I wrote that, of course, and he told me the next time we talked that he was persona non grata at Michigan because of my column. He wasn't upset because he had said nothing about those comments being off the record. I’m sure he wasn’t surprised to see them in print.

TOBY GERHART: Gerhart’s candidacy for the Heisman Trophy is heating up now after he’s played a big part in the impressive Stanford wins over Oregon and USC.

“To me, he’s done everything you ask for from a running back,” said Harbaugh. “You want a back who will score, and he has 19 touchdowns. You want a back who gets a lot of yardage, and he has more than 1300 yards.”

Before the season, there was discussion about mounting a media campaign for Gerhart. “But Toby didn’t want it,” said Harbaugh. “That’s the kind of guy he is, all about the team.”

Still, Gerhart’s chances for the Heisman are slim.. “The reality is that the Heisman is 50 per cent about preseason publicity, 25 per cent about picking a player from an undefeated team and only 25 per cent on individual performance,” said Harbaugh.

ROUND ROBIN: One reason the Pac-10 doesn’t get the national recognition it deserves is that, alone among major conferences, each team plays every other team. How tough is that? Ask USC, which has been beating top teams from other conferences while losing only to conference opponents. But when teams lose within the conference, their national rankings fall.

Harbaugh and Cal coach Jeff Tedford were asked if they’d like a change in the round-robin and they both essentially punted, saying that decision should be made in the offseason by conference officials and the athletic directors of the schools.

Though it hurts the national reputation of the conference, I hope the round robin is retained. It’s the only way to determine a legitimate champion.

The decision-makers might consider another change, though: Dropping Washington State. It’s hard to see the Cougars crawling out of that deep hole because they’re at such a recruiting disadvantage now with Washington on the rebound and both Oregon schools doing very well. Long ago, Idaho was dropped from the conference for the same reason.

BEARS PROBLEMS: Reader Steve Coleman e-mailed me last week with some sensible comments about what many Cal fans think of as a very disappointing year.

Coleman lays the problem to a recruiting slump:: Rivals.com has rated the Cal recruiting classes 42nd and 34th in the country the last two years, sixth in the conference each year.

He notes that Tedford has recruited very well in previous years but he faced an unusual problem the last two years: Those idiots sitting in the trees in front of Memorial Stadium. Opposing coaches have used this against the Bears in recruiting.

As one who remembers how recruiting suffered in the ‘60s because of the Free Speech movement and the wild scene on Telegraph Avenue, I concur. It made no difference that players weren’t involved and, in fact, it wasn’t students creating problems on Telegraph. Parents of prep athletes didn’t want their sons going there.

With that cleared up and construction finally beginning on the athletic facilities that are so sorely needed, Tedford’s recruiting should improve again. In the meantime, perhaps Cal fans should take a deep breath and appreciate what they have. After beating Arizona last Saturday, the Bears have seven wins and will probably finish with eight. Tedford now has eight straight winning seasons, and you have to go back more than 80 years to Andy Smith to see that kind of consistent coaching success.

And yet, hysteria has reigned among many Cal supporters this year. When I was talking last week to Chris Avery, who runs “Bear Insider’ , he said he’d been overwhelmed by posts from readers who were certain the defensive schemes of coordinator Bob Gregory were responsible for the three Cal defeats. I’ve gotten similar e-mails.

Get a grip, people.

BIG GAME: People who come from out of the area simply don’t understand the appeal of the Big Game. One former college football writer for The Chronicle, who came from the East, always referred to it just as the “Cal-Stanford game.”

Those of us who have connections to one (or both) of the schools know what a special rivalry this is. Most of us have friends (or spouses) from the rival school. For many years, I’ve sat at a table at the Guardsmen’s Big Game luncheon that is split between Cal and Stanford alums, and we have a great time. It was hosted by Dick Schutte, a Stanford grad who was a dear friend until he died last year.

This kind of civility is not at all typical of other rivalries. The “Civil War” between Oregon and Oregon State, for instance, is aptly named, a very bitter rivalry. I hear from fans of both teams and they absolutely hate the other school.

The fact that Stanford and Cal are so close and yet so different makes it a very interesting rivalry. Both are highly rated academically but Stanford is a small,private school while Cal is a large public university.

As with all rivalry games, there’s often talk that you can “throw out the season records” in evaluating the game. The truth, though, is that the most common result is that the favorite wins, as has happened in seven of the last eight Big Games.

Upsets occur when one team is motivated and the other is not. That happened in 2007 when Cal was favored despite its terrible late season slide, which continued in a Stanford upset.

Both teams will be motivated Saturday. Stanford is favored by seven points, which is good news for Stanford supporters. On the other hand, I think Stanford will win and, given my success rate on predictions this season, that’s good news for Cal fans.

TUESDAY COLUMN: I’m posting this a day early because I’m going to the Guardsmen’s Big Game luncheon tomorrow. Next week, I’ll also have a Tuesday post because my brother is coming up from Santa Barbara to spend four days with us around the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ll be back on my Wednesday schedule the next week.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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