Alex Smith; Jake Locker/Colt McCoy/Tim Tebow; Mark McGwire; Pablo Sandoval
THE 49ERS continue to shoot themselves in the foot, the latest example the game in Seattle against the Seahawks, a game they should have won, probably by a couple of touchdowns. Because they didnít, their chances of making the playoffs disappeared.
They are making progress, though. Most important, they have a quarterback they can build around. Alex Smith is playing better and better, and heís also taking command in a way he never did before. He led the Niners on a late fourth-quarter drive that could have put the game out of reach, only to see Frank Gore fumble the ball away in the red zone. He wasnít helped by his receivers dropsies Ė the TV announcers counted nine drops, one of them by Vernon Davis in the end zone Ė or some terrible officiating. The worst was a noncall when Delanie Walker got mugged on a pass to the end zone.
It hasnít helped that the 49ers had to make a total switch in their offense in midseason, going from the run-first philosophy they had going in to the season to a pass-dominated offense. Itís good that Singletary realized that he had to change, though, because it had seemed he was too inflexible. The changed offense makes it possible to utilize the good young receivers the team has. As Smith works with them, the 49ers offense will become much more potent.
Like his quarterback, Singletary is learning on the job. He had never been a head coach before and there are still some missteps and miscommunication with his assistants, as was obvious in the Seattle game when he had to call three early timeouts because the 49ers didnít have the right formation on the field.
There is still a lot of fine-tuning to do with the offense because itís too lopsided to the pass now. There are ways to run out of a spread offense, besides just handing the ball off to Gore. A direct snap to Gore is one possibility. Pitching out to him running wide is another. And, of course, using him as a pass receiver out of he backfield is another; thatís not a run, but the result is much the same. One thing they have been doing right: Using receivers and even tight end Walker on reverses.
Singletary is keeping his team behind him and focused on the game, despite the mistakes. Players believe in him, which is the first ingredient for coaching success, and I think heíll continue to grow as a coach.
Most important, though, is the fact that Smith has settled in at quarterback. Itís interesting that, on both sides of the bay, the teams have reclamation projects as their quarterbacks. Bruce Gradkowski has brought some life to the Raiders and Smith has given the 49ers hope.
When a team has a quarterback it can build around, it doesnít need to draft one in the first round, which is always a big gamble. One theory of drafting, in which I believe, is to always take a quarterback on a lower round, because you never know. Tom Brady was a sixth round choice. So was Gradkowski, though he didnít stick with the team which drafted him.
The 49ers followed that strategy by taking Nate Davis on the fifth round this year. Davis has a learning disability which slows his progress but heís got a great talent. I think heíll be in the mix next year but, barring injury, Smith should be the starter for the foreseeable future. Th 49ers are in good hands with him.
BAD NEWS BEARS: Just when I thought I had Cal football figured out, the Bears did another U-turn last Saturday in Seattle.
After the back-to-back disastrous losses to Oregon and USC, the Bears recovered nicely to save their season. They won five of their next six games, and the one loss, to Oregon State, came in the game in which Jahvid Best was injured, which took all the steam out of them, understandably. They might have lost the game in any circumstances because the Beavers are a very talented offensive team, but after the Best injury, the Bears were demoralized and had no chance.
The most significant factor of their wins was that, except for the gimme against sadsack Washington State, they were all close games that were decided at the end. The Big Game was the most impressive because the Bears fell behind, 14-0, early but then dominated the rest of the game and, most remarkably, won it with an interception in the end zone at the end.
But against the Huskies, they reverted to the Oregon-USC pattern, when bad quickly went to worse. I only watched the first half because I could see where it was going and had no desire to further torture myself.
Frankly, Iím mystified by this team. I just hope the team that won five conference games shows up in their bowl game, not the team which laid a huge egg in Seattle.
DRAFT PREVIEW: Washington coach Steve Sarkisian is optimistic that Jake Locker will return for his senior year but when Locker talks to NFL teams, I think heíll decide to go into the draft. Itís likely heíll be taken as the first quarterback, though Colt McCoy of Texas has better statistics.
Iíd have to go back to John Elway for a physical comparison with Locker as a collegiate quarterback. Locker, who has been timed in 4.4 for the 40, is even faster than Elway; he can not only scramble but run away from defensive backs. And he has a strong and accurate arm, able to throw deep or short passes with touch. He hasnít played much in a pro-T, but so many college quarterbacks are playing in spread offenses now, pro teams are going to be using some variety of spread Ė though not one which requires the quarterback to do much running Ė in the very near future.
McCoy will certainly be a high pick. Jimmy Clausen, coming out after his junior year at Notre Dame, should go in the first round. I havenít heard anybody connected with the NFL say that Tim Tebow will be an NFL quarterback; estimates of his future position include a Paul Hornung-type running back, capable of being effective with an option pass, or an H back, used primarily as a receiver.
Of course, most NFL people projected that Steve Young would be a running back in the NFL. Maybe if Bill Walsh hadnít seen his potential, he would have been.
COMPUTER PROBLEMS: Iím still having problems getting on the Internet, so I havenít been able to answer many e-mails, for which I apologize. Hopefully, Iíll get that corrected soon.
HALL OF FAME: The first name I checked off on my ballot was Mark McGwire. I have reservations about McGwireís entire career, but Iím tired of moralistic writers voting against McGwire because of supposed steroids use.
By now, we should realize that steroids use has been widespread in baseball for many years. More than 100 players tested positive for steroids when they were told in advance that theyíd be tested. What does that tell you?
Some big names have emerged from that list, including Alex Rodriguez. Interestingly, Barry Bonds has yet to be proven to be a steroids user. The Feds have been wasting taxpayersí money trying to prove that he committed perjury when he testified that he didnít knowingly take steroids, but their case is full of holes an elephant could walk through. The attorney general should tell the agents to drop it and go after serious criminals.
What we do know is that both hitters and pitchers have been taking steroids. So, if a hitter and pitcher are both on steroids, who has the advantage?
In fact, the power surge is due to many elements, including smaller parks, a juiced baseball and over expansion. The last element is often overlooked but expansion always brings in many pitchers who would otherwise still be in the minors. Donít forget that Roger Maris, who never hit as many as 40 homers in any other season in his career, hit 61 in an expansion year, 1961, breaking Babe Ruthís record. Should we regard that as tainted?. (The story that Marisís record had an asterisk at the insistence of commissioner Ford Frick, once a ghost writer for Ruth, was never true. Frick suggested that but for years, the record book listed both Ruth and Marisís records, for 154 and 162 games, which was silly.)
The moralists who insist all proven or suspected steroids users should be banned from the Hall of Fame are being ludicrous. That would rule out, among others, Rodriguez, Bonds and Roger Clemens, the top players and top pitcher of the era. Are you kidding me? The likely result of that would be a groundswell to take the HOF voting away from baseball writers Ė and Iíd approve of that. Too many writers, old and young, have unreasoning prejudices, including this one.
The criterion for voting should be simple: Instead of worrying about statistical standards from previous eras, simply judge the players against those of their own era. By that standard, the three mentioned above belong, beyond question.
Beyond that, there is one standard Iíve always used: How were the players regarded by their peers? Thatís why I voted for Jim Rice for many years, because when I talked to pitchers of his era, his name always came up as one of the most feared hitters. For the same reason, I voted again this year for Jack Morris and Dave Parker. Morris was always a guy you wanted to pitch an important game and Parker was always a guy you wanted at bat in crucial situations.
Thatís also why Iíve never voted for a couple of pitchers who have impressive stats. When Bert Blyleven was pitching, hitters talked about his curve Ė but they didnít fear him. He was never regarded as one of the best pitchers in baseball, so why should he been in the Hall? Similarly, Lee Smith racked up a lot of saves but teams didnít think, ďWeíve got to win the game before Smith comes in to shut the door.Ē I think Smithís stats are a byproduct of the ridiculously generous method of determining saves.
JACK CUST: I was highly amused to read that Cust was a free agent possibility for the Giants. Even Brian Sabean wouldnít be crazy enough to sign Cust because the Giants would have to play him in the field. The story reporting the Cust rumor referred to him as an ďiffyĒ fielder. A better description would be ďterrible.Ē His glove should be donated to trash pickup, to be melted down for its metal content.
Iím hoping the Aís will finally release Cust, who is really a novelty item. He hits home runs and walks a lot, so his on-base percentage is high, but because he strikes out a lot, he canít be used in the middle of the lineup because he would kill too many rallies. And Aís manager Bob Geren, who apparently is going to keep his job because heís close to general manager Billy Beane (I can see no other reason to keep him in place) canít seem to resist the impulse to put Cust in the field and use a regular heís resting, like Kurt Suzuki, as the DH. At some point this next season, the Aís will bring up prospects Brett Wallace and Chris Carter, both of whom are valued more for their bats than their gloves, so they may see some DH time. They donít need Cust around to clutter up what passes for Gerenís mind.
CLEANUP HITTER: Thereís one advantage to the Giants having Pablo Sandoval as their cleanup hitter: Other teams wonít be able to walk him intentionally, as they did with Bonds.Sandoval has never seen a pitch he couldnít hit.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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