Jim Harbaugh/Colin Kaepernick/Alex Smith; Angel Pagan/Marco Scutaro/Brian Wilson; Rolando McClain; Bill Romanowski
FANS OFTEN love the backup quarterback but so do writers. At the start of my career with The Chronicle, the 49er beat writers campaigned for first George Mira and then Steve Spurrier to replace John Brodie. More recently, Troy Smith was the flavor of the month for Bay Area writers. Now, it’s Colin Kaepernick.
They should look at the historical examples before Kaepernick. Mira washed out quickly. Spurrier had a game in which he threw five touchdown passes, but his overall career accomplishments were far below those of Brodie. Smith had a sensational game against the Rams but defenses quickly caught up with him and he’s now out of football, having been released by the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL last season.
What usually happens with young quarterbacks who have a great start is that defensive coaches whose teams have to play against this quarterback devote a lot of time to studying videos (films in earlier times) of his play, to determine his strengths and weaknesses and devise a defense to stop him.
That’s what happened to Spurrier and Smith (Mira took himself out of contention with his first start.) It’s also what happened to Kaepernick in last Sunday’s game against the Rams.
If you were plotting a graph on Kaepernick at this point, it would show a dramatic decline. He was sensational in his first game against the Chicago Bears, mediocre in his second game against the New Orleans Saints, bad in his third game against the Rams.
Or, looking at it differently, defensive coordinators have figured out, at least temporarily, how to stop him. He benefited from the surprise element in his first start. The Bears obviously figured that, with a young quarterback making his first start, the 49ers would have a conservative game plan, heavy on running. Instead, they came out with Kaepernick throwing deep and he had a couple of beauties. With the defense in a shutdown mode, the game was essentially over at halftime.
By the second game, the Saints had a good line on how to stop him. The Saints are not a good defensive team but it took an inspired effort by the 49ers defense, which returned two interceptions for touchdowns, for the 49ers too win.
In the third game, the Rams obviously had Kaepernick figured out. His completions were generally on short passes. They sacked him three times. He had one superb run, for 50 yards, late in the game, but that was the only time he hurt the Rams with his running. He lost his composure, giving up a safety when he threw the ball out of bounds from the end zone, throwing a wild pitch to Ted Ginn Jr. on a read/option play in the shadow of the goal line that resulted in a St. Louis touchdown. Coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game that it was a bad call, which it certainly was, but it was also a play that Kaepernick has run hundreds of times successfully in college, in the Pistol offense. Kaepernick also ran out of bounds on a play after his long run, stopping the clock – a factor in the Rams being able to hit a long field goal to tie the game in regulation.
The 49ers defense played superbly, not allowing a touchdown in regulation time or in overtime. But because the Rams scored eight points off Kaepernick’s mistakes, they eventually won the game.
Kaepernick has a lot of physical ability and I think he will be a successful starter in the future, but that time is not now. As both the Saints and Rams games showed, he has a tendency to lose his composure when things are not going well. And, it needs emphasizing, these have not been good defensive teams in other games. The Rams gave up 59 points to the Patriots in their game in London.
The question is whether Harbaugh is ready to admit that. I think his ego was too involved in the decision to stay with Kaepernick in this game. Remember that the Niners traded up to get Kaepernick in the second round of the 2011 draft, and that was certainly Harbaugh’s decision. Trent Baalke was in charge of the draft but he had said before the draft that he would defer to Harbaugh on quarterback decisions. Harbaugh, whose ego is immense, wanted to prove that he was smarter than anybody on his quarterback picks.
In the immediate aftermath of the St. Louis game, he said he wouldn’t make a change in his starting quarterback for the next game, Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, and he repeated that at Monday’s press conference. Whatever happened to “going with the hot hand”? Of course, we know that Harbaugh isn’t always forthcoming during the week. I hope he realizes that he’s endangering his team’s chances if he lets his ego remain the deciding factor in his decision. The 49ers should be breezing toward their second consecutive NFC West title but losing to the Rams tightened the division, as Seattle beat the Bears in overtime in Chicago. The Niners still have to play the Seahawks in Seattle, where they’re unbeaten.
I wrote in last Friday’s Examiner that he was making the wrong decision by staying with Kaepernick. There’s no question the 49ers would have won that game with Alex Smith at quarterback. There’s also no question they’re better off with Smith for the rest of the way. Pride goeth before a fall, Jim.
BRUCE JENKINS had an excellent column in Saturday’s Chron about the absurdity of the Pac-12 network. Commissioner Larry Scott assumed everybody would flock to his new network. Well, maybe in Florida, where he’d been most recently. College football is huge in Florida, especially since calling the pro teams in Florida mediocre would be an unnecessary compliment. In the Bay Area, the NFL is much more popular so most sports fans have Direct TV which allows them to get extra NFL fans. I’m not a fan and I see more than enough of the NFL without that so I have AT&T’s U-verse, with our phones also tied in. Like the Direct TV subscribers, I’m not going to change. Scott obviously set the price too high for Direct TV and AT&T to pick up his network.
There’s a much larger question here. As I’ve written before, the collegiate TV policy is driven by those schools in smaller cities where they are the biggest attraction, sometimes the only one, so people will come to the games whatever time they’re played. That is not true of most metropolitan areas, where the pros are bigger, and it’s especially true in the Bay Area, where the TV policy is driving away fans.
That’s especially true at Stanford. When I came to The Chronicle in 1963, Stanford drew huge crowds for home games, 70,000 even 80,000 for the biggest attractions. One of the big reasons was that every game was played at mid-day. Fans could plan their fall schedules around that and, with the acres of parking, tailgate parties were everywhere. I had friends who were Stanford grads, so I frequently went to them.
Now, Stanford has a new stadium which is much smaller than the old one, only 50,000, but it’s filled only for the Big Game, USC and Notre Dame. Most games, there are only 30-35,000 people there. The Pac-12 title game had only 31,000. The rainy weather kept some people away but it was also a Friday night. In the Bay Area, people often have other activities scheduled for Friday night. That probably didn’t occur to Scott.
This is also a very critical issue for Cal, which is trying to pay for the expensive re-model to its old stadium and needs people in the seats. The younger alumni only seem to be interested if the team is winning big, and there’s no guarantee the new coach will produce an immediate winner. The older alumni are much more loyal, but they don’t like to come to night games.
I don’t know what can be done, but I can tell you this: Larry Scott is not the solution. He’s the problem.
THE GIANTS made two very good moves in signing Angel Pagan to a four-year contract and Marco Scutaro to a three-year contract. The length of the contracts is a concern, especially with Scutaro, who will be 40 in October of the third year, but that was the only way to get players who were an integral part of the Giants’ second World Series triumph in three years.
Frankly, Pagan played better than I expected, covering great amounts of ground in center and into the “Triples Alley” area in right center. He also became an excellent leadoff hitter, setting a San Francisco Giants record for triples. It would have been very difficult to replace him. The Giants don’t feel Gary Brown, their top center fielder prospect in the minors, is ready yet, and Brown’s lack of progress makes me wonder if he ever will be.
Scutaro was a key player for the team down the stretch and in the postseason – and, again, the Giants had nobody in the farm system that was ready. They’ll be pursuing Ryan Thieriot as an utility infielder but he’s not anybody you want as a regular at this point in his career.
The Giants also made the right decision in not signing Brian Wilson to an expensive guaranteed contract without knowing whether he can even throw a pitch in a ball game. I also won’t miss that ratty beard, which made him look like one of the Smith brothers in those old cough drop ads. There are players who are true characters – a great pitcher, Dennis Eckersley, comes to mind with his colorful manner of speaking – but Wilson’s act was manufactured.
The baseball offseason is more interesting than ever because of all the free agency moves but it all comes with a word of caution. Last year, the teams that seemed to make the most significant free agent signings were the Marlins and Angels. Neither team made the playoffs and now, the Marlins are in the middle of their latest salary dump.
THE COVERUP: Andrew Bogut made the Warriors drop the act about what happened to him in the offseason, announcing that he’d had micro-fracture surgery in April and the Warriors knew he’d never be ready in time for the season.
The Warriors, of course, didn’t want fans to be reminded that they traded the popular Monta Ellis for the oft-injured Bogut, but sometimes a team just has to take the criticism, knowing that the trade was necessary.
Among the many trades made by Bay Area teams during my career there are two that stand out as trades that seemed logical at the time but turned sour.
The first was the Giants’ trade of Orlando Cepeda to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ray Sadecki. Cepeda was immensely popular with Giants fans but he and Willie McCovey both played first base. The Giants had tried Cepeda at third base, which was a disaster. They’d tried McCovey in left field, which worked only because Willie Mays told him, “You guard the foul line. I’ll take everything else.” They needed a lefthanded starter and Sadecki had won 20 games just two seasons before. But Cepeda went on to lead the Cardinals to the 1967 World Championship while Sadecki was overwhelmed by the pressure on him. Fans were relentless in their criticism of the trade and I love Orlando, but really, who would you rather have had as your first baseman going forward, McCovey or Cepeda?
The second was the Warriors trade of Robert Parish to the Celtics for the first pick in the draft, so they could take J. B. Carroll. Parish had a great run in Boston because he was a big man who liked to go outside and shoot jump shots. He was never much of a rebounder but he didn’t need to be with the Celtics, who had Kevin McHale and Larry Bird as forwards. The Warriors needed what Al McGuire called “an aircraft carrier” and Carroll was supposed to be that guy. Unfortunately, he always gave ten per cent; I don’t think I’ve ever seen another pro athlete who had a bigger gap between ability and performance. The Warriors were pilloried for that trade for years, though it seemed a logical one to make at the time.
The Ellis for Bogut trade is in that category. The Warriors were never going to win with Stephan Curry and Ellis as their guards because they were just overwhelmed by big shooting guards on other teams. At the same time, they needed a big man in the middle who could both score and defends. Bogut was injured and out for the rest of the season – the only reason he was available in a trade – but he was worth the gamble. I think the current group of Warriors fans, who have had a long stretch of disappointing seasons, would have been understanding if the Warriors had been more honest in their explanations. The cover-up is always the biggest problem.
DUH RAIDERS: The latest example of what Al Dais saddled this team with is Rolando McClain, the middle linebacker who has been missing in action for much of the season and now is in limbo, suspended for two games. The Raiders seem to be trying to make a deal with another club but whether they do or not, he won’t play another game for them. McClain wrote on his Facebook page last week that he was looking forward to playing for a real team. Good luck with that. Good teams are looking for real players, which McClain has not been.
The big problem is that Davis in his final years was so desperate to go out a winner that he signed players with physical ability without ever checking on their character. Even he admitted that failure when he finally cut the team’s ties with JaMarcus Russell, one of the all-time busts, but Russell was only the most obvious example.
McClain had some problems even in college, and when he went home to Alabama for his grandfather’s funeral last year, he fired a pistol behind a friend’s ear, for which he was later charged. (The charge was later dropped after a series of legal maneuvers.) As it happened, Scott Ostler and I were on Chronicle Live that Friday and we each said on air that McClain should be sent back to Oakland. Instead, Hue Jackson talked to McClain and allowed him to play, another example of why Jackson is not a good head coach. The Raiders played probably their worst game of the season against the Dolphins and headed into the final stretch when they lost five of their last six and failed to make the postseason.
New general manager Reggie McKenzie has already released 27 players from last year’s roster, several with inflated contracts. (McClain would have gotten $6.8 million next year if he hadn’t been cut.) This is a mess of monumental proportions and it can’t be solved overnight. Those calling for the firing of head coach Dennis Allen or his assistants should just shut up. Same for those saying Jon Gruden may come back. I doubt Gruden will ever leave broadcasting and, if he did, it certainly wouldn’t be to step into this mess.
THE PLAYING too long without a helmet award for the week goes to former Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski who said on The Game radio that Alex Smith should have kept playing and not said anything about a concussion to keep his job.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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