Mike Singletary/Alex Smith; Lew Wolff; Tiger Woods; Don Nelson; Jim Harbaugh
THE 49ERS wonít make the playoffs this year but theyíre building a foundation for a solid run next year and, hopefully, for several years.
This has been a learning year for the 49ers, for the team as a whole and for coach Mike Singletary and quarterback Alex Smith individually. Both have grown into their jobs and will be much better next season.
The biggest change for Singletary was becoming flexible in his approach. He started the season talking about the need for the 49ers to be a strong physical team, and the centerpiece was supposed to be a strong running game, which the less creative members of the media called ďsmash mouth football.Ē That worked for a short time but opponents, aware that Shaun Hill wasnít going to challenge them downfield, put eight men in the box and stopped the running game.
The nadir was the blowout by Atlanta, a middle-of-the-road NFL team, at Candlestick. The next week in Houston, the 49ersí dreadful play continued for the first half, so Singletary changed quarterbacks, going to Smith, who nearly brought the team all the way back in the second half, throwing for three touchdowns.
Since then, Smith has been the quarterback. Heís had his ups and downs but he has shown enough to make it clear that heís a quarterback the 49ers can build around. By next season, Nate Davis should be advanced enough to be a solid No. 2 quarterback. Because Smith and Davis have similar skills, it wouldnít be necessary to make a dramatic change in the offense, as happened when Smith replaced Hill.
The 49ers will have to figure how to get the maximum out of both Smith and Frank Gore, and that may take a lot of work next spring and summer. Smith obviously feels more comfortable in the spread/shotgun while Gore is more effective running out of the pro-T.
When Steve Young was interviewed at the Monday night game, he said Smith has to go back under center, but that may be more his own bias than expert testimony: Steve never liked working out of the shotgun.
Improved offensive line play would also make it easier for Smith to work out of the T. The advantage for him working out of the Ďgun has been that he hasnít needed to have as much time because he can spot his targets immediately. Operating out of the T, heís often been swarmed before he had a chance to even look for receivers.
Smith also needs to have the time to work with his receivers, to improve the timing between them. Remember that he missed so much time because of his shoulder injury and two operations, he wasnít back in top playing condition until this last summer. Then, a contract dispute kept Michael Crabtree away. Now, the 49ers have the basis for a dynamite passing offense with Smith throwing to wideouts Crabtree, Josh Morgan and Jason Hill and tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
Meanwhile, the defense has shown signs of brilliance Ė and has also totally collapsed at times. More growing pains. Sometimes it takes teams awhile to realize how good they can be, and I think thatís been the case this year with the Niners.
Next year, I think it will start to come together for the 49ers. They have their quarterback, which is always the place to start. Singletary has taken great strides as a coach, and heís held the team together in adversity. He has the chance to have a long, successful career as a head coach in the NFL.
All of this is good news in another regard: It gives the fans hope Ė and that gives the 49ers good news for their proposed stadium.
The plan for a new stadium in Santa Clara is a good one, but money, as always, is the big question. PSLs will certainly be part of the financing plan, and thatís a much easier sell if the team is winning. It will also be much easier to get outside investors if the team is winning. Itís still a long shot, but the odds are shortening some as the 49ers improve.
A RECEIVERSí TALE: I hear from 49er fans who are upset that the team didnít draft DeSean Jackson, but everybody passed on him in the first round and, if the Eagles hadnít taken him in the second round, he might have slipped to the third round. NFL teams knew Jacksonís collegiate history. He had made some big plays but was an undisciplined receiver who sometimes was sloppy in running his pass patterns and occasionally missed team meetings. Remember that he didnít start in the Armed Forces Bowl, missing the entire first quarter, because of that.
He got smart when he heard reports from pro scouts and hired Jerry Rice to work with him. Rice taught Jackson a great work ethic and worked very hard on his route running. Now, the Eagles are benefiting from a newly-disciplined Jackson who has become the consistently explosive receiver he should always have been.
The other extreme is Randy Moss. Probably the most physically talented receiver who ever played, Moss has a well-deserved reputation for dogging it when he doesnít feel like giving his best. He played his way out of Minnesota and Oakland. Then, he set an NFL record with 23 touchdown catches in his first year with the Patriots, but now the old, familiar stories are cropping up, reports that heís not running out all his pass patterns, that heís ďshort-armingĒ on passes (Raider fans know that one well). Though quarterback Tom Brady defended him, the numbers say that Moss is no longer Bradyís preferred target.
Talent is not enough without the right attitude. Jackson learned it when he was downgraded in the draft, so heís now maximizing his talent. Moss has never learned that, so his career will never be what it should have been.
OAKLAND CHALLENGE: A special group formed to find possible ball park locations in Oakland has come up with four sites, three of them in the Jack London area.
This is a direct challenge to Aís owner Lew Wolff, who has been openly campaigning for a move to San Jose. Apparently, Wolff enjoys banging his head against the wall. A clause in the Giants contract with Major League Baseball prohibits putting another team in Santa Clara County, in which most of San Jose resides.
Wolff obviously thought he could get his friend, commissioner Bud Selig, to allow him to sidestep that provision but Selig hasnít even put it to a vote of owners. Seligís MO is to get most, and preferably all, of the owners behind him before he calls for a vote. The reality is that, putting another team in San Jose would seriously impact the Silicon Valley supporters who are a significant part of the Giants fan base. That would mean a significant drop in attendance at AT&T, which would affect both the Giants and visiting teams. Why would National League owners vote for that?
Building a park in the Jack London area would dovetail nicely with the retail development planned there. Those sites all have good freeway access and are fairly close to BART lines, from which, shuttles could be arranged. The apartment building project of Jerry Brownís, of which I was very skeptical, has worked out well. New restaurants have opened in the midtown area and thereís a lively night life there. Putting a park in the Jack London area would complete the circle.
None of this matters to Wolff, who has done everything he could to drive down attendance in Oakland, so he could move the team to San Jose. But Oakland has a rich baseball history, including four World Series championships, which is four more than the Giants have in San Francisco. When they had a caring and generous owner, the late Walter Haas, the team thrived and set attendance records.
With a new park and a new owner, the Aís could thrive again. Sell, Lew, sell!
JIM HARBAUGH: The Stanford coach was a big topic in the rumor mill the last few weeks, first with a report that he might be going to Notre Dame and then when the Kansas City media claimed with absolute certainty that he would take the Kansas job.
Wrong both times. Stanford and Harbaugh finally announced last weekend that he had signed a contract extension weeks before. Harbaugh had said at a media luncheon the week of the Big Game that he expected agreement on the contract extension shortly, and thatís what happened.
But, Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby didnít announce it. An announcement would have squelched all the rumors but thatís not the Stanford way. As long as Iíve been covering Stanford sports, athletic department spokesmen have often played the old childhood game of ďThatís for me to know and for you to find outĒ with the media.
Iíve assumed that Harbaugh would not stay at Stanford indefinitely because the schoolís high admissions standards make it difficult to recruit, but heís been able to recruit well. Stanford coaches know their recruiting pool will be relatively small but the successful ones have been able to play on the theme of ďan Ivy League school with a big-time athletic program and good weather.Ē They really have no competition in that niche. Harbaugh has an added advantages in his charismatic personality. His players really like him, and Iím sure the parents of recruits do, also.
TIGER WOODS: Youíve probably noticed that I seem to be the only sports columnist in North America who hasnít given advice to or scolded Tiger for his adulterous behavior.
There are two reasons for that:
1) Iíve never been one to write on athletesí personal lives. I donít like to gossip and Iíve always thought that athletes only owe us their best possible performance on the field, not a spotless personal life. The one time I deviated from that philosophy was to give Joe Montana advice on family planning. Many fans told me how stupid that was. Unfortunately, they were right.
2) I realize that male athletes are young men with raging hormones and the major difference between them and other young men is much more opportunity to satisfy their physical desires. (If you havenít already, you should read Jon Carrollís excellent column on this subject, which is now on SF Gate.)
My first exposure on a consistent basis with the relationship between athletes and women came when I was on the Raiders beat, 1967-71.
At that time, the Raiders trained at the El Rancho Tropicana in Santa Rosa, staying in the motelís rooms and practicing on a field they had built behind the motel. (They have a similar setup at the Marriott in Napa now.)
After lunch, the players had a couple of hours of free time before practice to rest. Reporters Ė there were seldom more than half a dozen at any time Ė could interview players in their rooms. But if the curtains were drawn, we knew better than to knock. The players werenít resting.
There was another memorable incident for me. At that time, the Raiders went on three-game road trips in the East, staying there between games to save money. On one trip, before a game in New York, we were staying at a hotel in East Orange, N.J. Al Locasale told me it was to ďKeep the players away from the girls.Ē
One night I was reading in the lobby. The Raiders had a midnight curfew, and assistant coaches checked the players rooms. Just before midnight, the elevators opened in the lobby and a group of giggling young women came out, walked across the lobby and then walked up the fire escape outside, to go back to the rooms theyíd just left. Even in East Orange, they found the players.
So, Iím never surprised when an athlete has an adulterous relationship. Itís between the athlete and his wife. From a selfish standpoint, I hope Tiger returns to the tour soon. I donít follow golf closely but heís a great golfer and he belongs on the course. But Iím not going to tell him what to do. He can get that advice from my sanctimonious colleagues.
DON NELSON: It pains me to watch whatís happening to Nelson these days.
Iíve long enjoyed Nelson, both as a man and as a coach. We had many extended conversations when he was in his first stint as coach of the Warriors, and they were always enlightening. His coaching strategies have always been fun to watch because theyíre so different from the norm.
But now, I wish heíd retire. Coaching an NBA team is no job for a 69-year-old, with all the travel and varying schedules. For years, Nelson has abused his body, gaining considerable weight during the season, then dieting it away in the offseason.
When he came back to the Warriors, he left the personnel moves to Chris Mullin, but when Mullin was pushed out by Little Bobby Rowell, Nelson had to stick around for the draft. I took part in a small media pre-draft meeting with new general manager Larry Riley, and Nelson was brought down to talk to us. He was one grumpy old bear. The first thing he said was, ďIím not going to answer questions about the draft.Ē It went downhill from there.
The only reason heís sticking around is to get the all-time wins record, but itís not worth it. Heís had a bout of pneumonia, so he couldnít make the latest road trip. His body is trying to tell him something. He should turn everything over to Keith Smart and play golf in Maui. Heís earned it.
VACATION: My wife and I are going on a Panama Canal cruise with our son and daughter-in-law so this will be the last website column until January 6. The Examiner asked me to write a couple of columns ahead; those columns will appear on Dec. 22 and 29.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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