49ers in London, Mark McGwire, Al Davis, Jim Harbaugh, Giants Youth
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 20, 2010

PLAYING AN NFL game in London every season is a bad idea. For the 49ers to give up a home game to play there in the upcoming season is an even worse idea.

As usual for the NFL, it’s all about money, this time disguised as the desire to ‘internationalize” the game. Translated, that means a chance to enhance the coffers of NFL Properties. (A vendor for 49ers games wrote me last week to complain that he’ll lose 1/8th of his income because of this decision. Will either the 49ers or the NFL compensate him and other vendors? Don’t hold your breath.)

As far as “internationalization” goes, that’s already been accomplished. The NFL had a developmental league in Europe for years and telecasts of the Super Bowl have a sizeable worldwide audience. That’s the best the NFL can expect. American football isn’t going to overcome the entrenched sports of other countries, mostly soccer, any more than soccer will ever be more popular in this country than football, baseball or basketball.

The upcoming season is a critical one for the 49ers. The 2009 season was a learning process for both coach Mike Singletary and quarterback Alex Smith. They both need to build on that in offseason workouts and training camp, so they can hit the ground running. The 49ers also need to take advantage of their two first-round picks in the draft, primarily to get offensive line help and keep their own free agents.

It won’t take much for the 49ers to make the playoffs; another two wins should do it.

But now, they may have sacrificed one of those wins by campaigning to get this game in London. They would have been favorites to beat the Denver Broncos at home. On a neutral site in a time zone eight hours different, who knows?

Well, I hope they enjoy their visits to Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.

On another note, Singletary recovered nicely from his mistake in firing special teams coach Al Everest by hiring Kurt Schottenheimer to replace him. Younger brother of Marty, Schottenheimer has a long and distinguished career. \\

STUPIDEST COMMENT OF THE WEEK: That dubious honor goes to former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown who advised the 49ers to sign Michael Vick in his Sunday column in The Chronicle.

Vick hardly played last season with the Philadelphia Eagles so nobody can yet predict how he’ll fare if he ever gets a shot at being a starting quarterback again. But the most important factor is the fact that animal lovers in the Bay Area would protest big time if the 49ers signed him.

The 49ers certainly understand that. When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced last year that Vick would be able to return to the NFL, the 49ers immediately released a statement saying they would not sign him.

Apparently, Willie didn’t get that memo.

MARK MC GWIRE: When McGwire appeared at a gathering of Cardinals fans in St. Louis, he was cheered. When he was questioned by the media later, the questions were antagonistic, writers and TV reporters demanding that he amplify on his admission that he took steroids during his playing career.

Neither of these reactions should come as a surprise.

Fans going to the games in St. Louis were thrilled by McGwire when he blasted past Roger Maris’s record with 70 home runs in 1998, just as Giants fans at AT&T Park were thrilled by the home runs hit by Barry Bonds. Fans going to the games didn’t care then, and they don’t care now, what McGwire and Bonds were taking.

But baseball writers in particular are self-appointed guardians of the game. They were relentless in their demands that McGwire “come clean” and they’re still hammering away at him. Give it a rest.

RAIDERS COACH: Al Davis is once again taking his time on his head coach, keeping Tom Cable in suspense while he interviews other candidates.

In part, this is because Davis has always liked to interview other coaches, to pick their brains. Probably not working any longer, though, because coaches have figured that out – and only the most desperate would even think of coming to Oakland now. You can bet Davis has had a lot of “no thanks” reactions to his invitation to interview for the job.

If he chooses another candidate, it will be a retread. Jim Fassel has campaigned for the job. New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is reportedly a candidate, as he has been in the past.

I was not impressed with Cable until he benched JaMarcus Russell, but that’s the reason Davis may not bring him back. (Gary Radnich said on his show last week that Davis has told Cable to give him a plan for making Russell a good NFL quarterback. Good luck with that.)

It’s all an exercise in futility. Davis is lost in the past but refuses to yield control. His judgment on first round draft picks has been abysmal. (A reliable source has told me that Davis takes staff recommendations on lower rounds which is why the lower round picks have been so much better than the first round selections lately.)

As long as Davis remains in control, the Raiders are lost. The coach is irrelevant.

JIM HARBAUGH: With the big improvement he’s engineered at Stanford, Harbaugh is a hot coaching prospect, both for other colleges and the NFL. He’s been frequently mentioned as a possibility for the Raiders, which is particularly ridiculous; he was quarterbacks coach, 2002-2003, in Oakland, so he knows first hand how toxic the atmosphere is. He wouldn’t touch that job with a 10-foot pole.

Nor will he coach in Buffalo. The Bills were apparently ready to offer him the job last week, but he said no. That probably wasn’t a tough decision. The Bills have been having obvious problems that won’t be solved overnight, and it would be a huge shock to move from the salubrious atmosphere of Stanford to the harsh realities of Buffalo. As an NFL quarterback, Harbaugh played in cold weather cities, and he also played collegiately at Michigan, but he grew up in Palo Alto, going to high school across the street from Stanford, so it would take a serious personal adjustment to go to Buffalo, which can be brutally cold when the wind comes off Lake Erie.

For some time, I’ve written that I think Harbaugh will remain as a college coach and not jump to the NFL. His coaching style is much better suited to college ball because he wants to be a handson coach with players. NFL coaches are more like CEOs.

I’ve also written that Harbaugh would not be a Stanford lifer because it’s too difficult to win there, but there have been some changes made since Harbaugh arrived that may change that.

For openers, athletic director Bob Bowlsby has been more realistic than his predecessor, Ted Leland, in realizing that he has to pay his head coach a salary more comparable to other successful coaches. Leland, under pressure from the faculty, wanted to keep coaching salaries more in line with professor’s salaries. Bowlsby has also set up a program to help assistant coaches with housing on the very expensive Peninsula – a problem at least since I came to The Chronicle in 1963.

Meaanwhile, the admissions department has also been more accommodating than it was for Walt Harris and Buddy Teevens, Harbaugh’s immediate predecessors – and more in line with the standards for Tyrone Willingham.

Stanford’s admission requirements remain by far the highest in the Pac-10, but they’re now flexible enough for Harbaugh to succeed. He had an excellent recruiting season last year and I expect he’ll have similar success this year.

There’s another factor, suggested by my friend and former Stanford quarterback Guy Benjamin: Harbaugh understands the culture at Stanford, which is like an Ivy League school in many respects, a small private school with an excellent academic reputation but with a big time athletic program and a California location.

Guy’s contention is that Willingham also understood the Stanford culture (as Teevens and Harris did not). His Stanford players bought in to Willingham’s no-nonsense approach; at Notre Dame and Washington, Willingham wasn’t able to get through to his players in the same way.

Harbaugh and Willingham are miles apart in personality (and in dealing with the media), but Harbaugh has also connected with his players at Stanford. He may have a much longer Stanford career than I’d anticipated.

GERHART/BEST: Ending speculation, both of the star local running backs, Toby Gerhart of Stanford and Cal’s Jahvid Best, have declared for the NFLdraft.

Frankly, I never understood why anybody thought Gerhart would stay for another collegiate season. He could hardly have had a better year, coming close to winning the Heisman Trophy. He has a chance to be a first-round pick if he runs a good 40 at the NFL Combine because his speed is the only question about his NFL future. My view: He’ll surprise skeptics with his play in the NFL.

BTW, when I wrote on this subject in the Examiner, one reader suggested that Gerhart would have a bargaining chip, a la John Elway, because he’s also a baseball player. But he’s said since that he has no interest in playing baseball professionally and he hasn’t had the kind of baseball career at Stanford that would excite major league teams.

I had thought Best might stay another year at Cal just to prove he could stay healthy but I would never criticize a college player who leaves early for the big money. Best is a high quality individual, and I’m sure he’s looking to help his family with money from his signing bonus.

Best’s draft status is difficult to predict. On ability, he would be an easy first round selection, but his injury history makes him a question mark. He is an explosive player but it’s unlikely he could stay healthy if he’s an every down player. As a third down specialist on a good team, though, he could be dynamite.

ANDRIS BIEDRINS: In the least surprising development of the NBA season, Andris Biedrins continues to struggle with his free throw shooting. It’s a special problem because, if he’s on the floor at the end of a close game, opponents won’t hesitate to foul him trying to get the ball because they can be confident he won’t punish them with successful free throws.

It isn’t just his free throw shooting. Biedrins has no shooting touch. He can get his points by converting offensive rebounds, but he will never be the type of big man who can venture out and hit 15-foot jumpers.

There’s nothing that can be done for his shooting from the floor but I would echo the suggestion of Bruce Jenkins (and others) that he shoot his free throws underhanded.

That used to be the norm for basketball players on all levels because it’s the most reliable. The ball hits the rim softly, so even if it’s not exactly on target, it has a chance to roll off the rim and through the basket. But, the last NBA player to use this style was Rick Barry who, not coincidentally, was about 90 per cent from the line. Other players are afraid to try it because they think they’d look silly so, even if they’re not successful, they stick with the same shooting stroke they use on other shots.

That shouldn’t be a consideration for Biedrins. He’s already being laughed at because so many of his free throws don’t even come close. He’d be cheered if he hit a good percentage shooting underhanded. Go for it, Andris!

YOUTH MOVEMENT? Remember when the Giants talked of going young when they finally cut ties with Barry Bonds? Here are some of the youngsters who will be in their starting lineup this season: Bengie Molina, catcher, 35; Aubrey Huff, first base, 33; Freddy Sanchez, second base, 32; Edgar Renteria, shortstop, 34 (and playing much older); Mark De Rosa, left field, 35, Aaron Rowand, center field, 32.

Maybe they meant younger than Brian Sabean.

Also, a word of caution to those projecting the Giants home run figures based on the 2009 figures (2008 in Huff’s case) for the geriatric cases. Another year of age probably means diminished production, especially for Molina, who was already showing signs that he was on the decline last season. And, players coming from teams playing in much more hitter-friendly parks, like Huff and De Rosa, can’t be expected to come close to their earlier marks playing in AT&T Park.


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