Saturday, August 30, 2008

What QB controversy? Cal's Riley ends all doubt

California v Washington

Say goodbye for good to Cal’s quarterback controversy.

I watched it end Saturday night at Memorial Stadium when Kevin Riley threw for two touchdowns and 202 yards with no interceptions while Nate Longshore, coming off the bench, threw two huge interceptions in Cal’s 38-31 win.

Of course Cal coach Jeff Tedford didn’t announce the official end to Longshore’s hopes of regaining the job he owned the past two years. That’s not his style. He’s too loyal to and too protective of his players to ever pile on just minutes after the final gun.

Tedford didn’t have to make any grand pronouncements in his post-game interview. The play of Riley and Longshore spoke for itself.

Riley won the starting job in training camp, but there was an asterisk that came along with his coronation: Tedford said Longshore would get some playing time against MSU, too.

What’s more, he said he wanted to see how Riley handled the pressure when the roles were reversed, with Riley opening the game instead of coming off the bench as he did last season in relief of Longshore, helping Cal overcome a 21-0 deficit and beat Air Force 42-36 in the Armed Services Bowl.

This hardly sounded like a done deal earlier in the week. That was then, before Cal’s victory over MSU.

It was Riley, a redshirt sophomore, who showed the poise of a veteran against Michigan State and answered every question. It was Longshore, a senior who started the past two seasons, who threw two killer interceptions. Strong safety Otis Wiley picked off one Longshore pass in the end zone. He picked off another deep in Cal territory, returning it 31 yards for a touchdown.

“I tried to play a mistake-free game,” Riley said.

In terms of avoiding fumbles and interceptions, that’s exactly what Riley did. But he also made a handful of huge plays at crucial points in a game that easily could have gone the other way.

“I thought he did a nice job of making good decisions, protecting the football,” Tedford said.

If you have a heart that beats, you have to feel for Longshore. Less than a year ago he was the quarterback of a 5-0 Cal team that was ranked second and had designs on a national championship. But he suffered a severe ankle injury in that fifth win, over Oregon, and never was the same as the Bears imploded, losing six of their next seven games.

Then Longshore lost his starting job in a tight battle with Riley that lasted throughout most of training camp. Now this. He threw two picks and once again heard the boos of unhappy Cal fans rain down on him at Memorial Stadium.

When the boos erupted, Riley turned to the student section behind Cal’s bench and signaled for fans to stop booing his teammate.

“I don’t think it’s really respectful for our own fans to boo a player,” Riley said. “He went in there and did his best. Things didn’t work out the way he wanted.”

Riley completed 17 of 24 passes, taking what the Spartans gave him and rarely taking chances. Earlier in the week he said he learned a big lesson last year when he lost his head late in the game against Oregon State when he started for an injured Longshore.

With time running out in that game and Cal out of time outs, Riley tried to scramble for a touchdown instead of throwing the ball away and settling for what would have been a game-tying field goal.

This time there were no late-game disasters, just cool, calm decisions.

I still remember the day Riley signed his letter of intent with Cal. Tedford raved about Riley’s touch on the deep ball as we watched videotape of his high school games. We saw that sweet deep touch again Saturday when Riley lofted a 42-yard rainmaker that landed softly in Sean Young’s arms at the Michigan State 6 midway through the third quarter.

“I thought he did a great job,” Young said. “He was a leader out there. He made us feel comfortable. I knew he could do it all along. We’ve been working together for years as backups. He made it happen. I was excited.”

Moments after his deep strike to Young, Riley rolled right and hit tight end Cameron Morrah, wide open in the end zone, for a 4-yard touchdown. The Bears had handed MSU a touchdown early in the second half after punter Bryan Anger couldn’t handle a high, hard snap. But just like that, Cal was back on top by 10 points, 24-14.

Longshore entered the game with 6:13 left in the first half and Cal leading 10-0. Fans greeted him with a smattering of boos mixed with polite applause.

On his first play, Longshore hit Morrah in stride deep down the left sideline for 50 yards to the Spartans’ 28. It was a perfect start, but after completing two more short passes, Longshore made the type of critical mistake that haunted him down the stretch last season.

Longshore tried to hit Morrah over the middle in the end zone, but Wiley cut in front to intercept then returned 53 yards to Cal’s 47.

A few more boos rained down on Longshore. But Cal’s defense held. So no harm, no foul. Then Longshore forced another pass into traffic, as in four Spartans and only one Bear in the vicinity. Wiley cut in front, picked off the gift and raced 31 yards for a score with 2:30 left in the half, cutting Cal’s lead to 10-7.

This time Cal fans weren’t so kind. The boos grew longer and louder.

With 2:24 left in the half, Riley returned to a loud ovation. He immediately hit Best on a screen pass that went for 42 yards to the Spartans’ 28. Then on his next play, Riley threw a beautifully timed 24-yard pass along the left sideline to Young. Two plays later, Jahvid Best scored on a 2-yard run around right end, putting Cal on top 17-7.

If Tedford wanted to see how Riley responded to adversity, he got his answer. Each time MSU scored, Riley answered.

And he did it with ABC’s cameras rolling and his dad/high school coach, Faustin Riley, watching him play in person for the first time in his Cal career.

“He’s happy,” Riley said of his dad, who coached him at Beaverton High School in Oregon. “I didn’t make any mistakes. Just ran the offense.”

After MSU had cut Cal’s lead yet again to three points with a 97-yard TD drive, Riley had one final answer. He marched the Bears 59 yards for a touchdown, hitting fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou on a 5-yard scoring pass. But it was Riley’s 26-yard pass to Morrah on third-and-13 that keyed the drive. He made that throw while being dragged to the ground, threading a pass to Morrah, who had single coverage.

“I stepped up in the pocket,” Riley said. “I was trying to throw and a couple guys grabbed me. It was one-on-one and the (defender) had his back turned. I thought Cam had a good chance to make the play.”

Morrah’s grab gave Cal a first down at MSU’s 23. Then after Best gained 19 yards around right end, Riley threw his second touchdown pass of a night that wasn’t perfect but was close enough to end whatever remnants of a quarterback controversy that remained.

Friday, August 29, 2008

49ers' Johnson making up for lost time

For front-line NFL players, the final exhibition game is typically as meaningful as a promise that the check’s in the mail. Most of them barely work up a sweat – if that – before taking a seat on the sidelines.

Of course there’s an exception to every rule. Friday night at Monster Park, that exception was 49ers wide receiver Bryant Johnson.

After missing the first three exhibition games with a hamstring injury, Johnson made his long-awaited debut for the 49ers against the San Diego Chargers.

He wasted little time making a good impression. On the first play of the 49ers’ first drive, Johnson ran a deep post, broke wide open over the middle and caught Alex Smith’s 23-yard strike.

When Johnson bounced back up to his feet, he pumped his fist. There’s no fist-pumping in exhibition games by expected starters. Well, in Johnson’s case, we’ll let that exuberance in a glorified scrimmage slide.

“I felt good,” Johnson said after the game. “Going into the last preseason game it felt good to get out there and get in a game atmosphere with a new team. I was hampered by the hamstring early on, but I’m starting to feel good. I felt good out there today.

“That competitive nature takes over once you get in the game environment. You put all that other stuff behind you, like your injury.”
Johnson caught three passes for 41 yards in the first half. He looked smooth and fast and sure-handed in the 49ers' 20-17 loss.

For 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz, the sight of Johnson sprinting downfield – pain free – and making catches had to be a beautiful thing.

Johnson signed with the 49ers during the offseason as a free agent after spending his first five NFL seasons at Arizona, where he caught 210 passes for 2,675 yards and nine touchdowns. He was one of the 49ers’ most important free-agent catches on offense.

But early in camp, Johnson pulled a hamstring, forcing him to the sidelines for three games and numerous practices. He finally returned to full-time work on Tuesday.

Mad Mike can draw up the Xs and Os, but he needs someone to carry out his plans. And Johnson is a key element in Martz’s grand plans to bring the 49ers offense back from the dead.

In Johnson and former St. Louis Ram Isaac Bruce, another key free-agent pickup, the 49ers have two legitimate, experienced NFL receivers. No, not spectacular, but solid, which is something you haven’t been able to say about the 49er wideouts for longer than they’d care to remember.

Martz’s offense is new to Johnson, but he said he learned it quickly during the offseason, so he’s not behind on the “learning curve,” just in the number of repetitions in games and practices. He said he knows the offense well enough to know he’s a great fit.

“It definitely fits me,” Johnson said. “It’s a precise offense. It’s an offense based upon trust. You have to trust guys are going to be where they’re supposed to be, and I love it.”

On his first play as a 49er, Johnson lined up left and broke wide open over the middle where he grabbed Smith’s pass.

“It’s good to see him out there,” Smith said. “We need him. He’s such a big target. He’s such a smart guy. He works so hard. No question I think he’s a good fit.”

While Johnson was out, rookie Josh Morgan made a push for the starting lineup. But Morgan missed Friday night’s game and the entire week of practice because of an illness. So Johnson looks like the logical starter opposite Bruce for the 49ers’ season-opener against Arizona, his former team, next week. Johnson said he certainly expects to start that game.

Ashley Lelie, another veteran wideout battling injuries, made his 2008 debut, too, but in less spectacular fashion after missing the first three games with a calf injury.

Lelie didn’t catch a pass, despite playing much of the game. His blazing speed , though, could be too tempting for Martz and coach Mike Nolan to resist. He ran his routs hard and seemed to be healthy. We’ll find out today whether he earned a job. The 49ers must cut their roster to 53 by 1 p.m.

“It’s out of my control,” Lelie said. “I know how I feel about myself as a player.”

If nothing else, Friday night’s helped confirm that Martz made the right call by choosing J.T. O’Sullivan over Smith as his starting quarterback.

O’Sullivan had the night off. Smith started, and although he made some nice throws, he also made the type of mistakes that killed his chances to win the starting job.

Smith was intercepted twice. On the first misfire, Smith badly overthrew a wide-open Battle deep in Chargers territory. Cornerback Cletis Gordon caught the gift.

On his second interception, Smith forced a pass to wide receiver Jason Hill into double coverage. The pass was deflected, and Gordon grabbed it for his second theft of the night. If Gordon hadn’t dropped a Smith pass in the first quarter, he would have had an interception hat trick.

In the second, he made amends, of sorts, throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Billy Bajema. Smith rolled right and threw as he was hit. Bajema made a great fingertip catch along the right sideline inside the 5, then spun away from a defender and sprinted into the end zone.

On that play, Smith trusted Bajema to be at the right spot and unloaded his pass before Bajema made his break. It was the type of pass Martz has been trying to get Smith to throw.

“I let it go and made a good play,” Smith said.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cal's Best back at full speed

It’s been over nine months since Cal tailback Jahvid Best suffered what he thought was just a minor hip injury while blocking as a freshman on a kickoff return against USC.

Best said he was “kind of bummed for a second” but figured he’d miss just a few days of practice then get back to work.

Well, a few days stretched into a few weeks – he missed Cal’s final three games – and then a few months. For a time, Best even saw his football career flash before his eyes.

“I took some MRIs and it was worse than I thought it was,” Best said Tuesday. “It was kind of shocking.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘There goes my season.’ And then they started talking about other things and I was like, ‘Am I going to still be able to play next year?’ It was kind of a sad moment of my life.”

What’s a young football player to do with his career in jeopardy? Well, Best said he “prayed a lot and put it in God’s hands.” He also put in countless hours of rehabilitation as his injured hip bone healed.

When Cal opens its 2008 season Saturday against Michigan State at Memorial Stadium, Best will be in the starting lineup. And it would be hard to find a Bear who’s more anxious to play or appreciative of the opportunity than Best.

“I’m real excited,” Best said. “I’m anxious. A little bit nervous, but I’m ready.”

As far as news goes, it doesn’t get much better than that for a Cal team that will open the season with eight new starters on offense. The offense will revolve around Best and his breakaway speed. Cal will use him as a runner, a receiver and even a kick returner. The key is getting the ball in his hands and letting him run.

Last year he averaged 7.6 yards per carry. He scored on a 64-yard run against Colorado State. And in Cal’s opener against Tennessee, he debuted with 46 yards on four carries.

“As far as numbers of touches, I don’t know,” Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. “It depends on the game and what comes to us. We’re not going to force things to him, but obviously it’s important to get the ball in his hands. He’s a great playmaker.”

Even as it became clear during the offseason that Best’s hip was healing, he still had concerns. What makes him a special football talent is his exceptional speed. But he knew there was no guarantee that he’d be the same speedster who as a senior at Salesian High School in 2007 won the 100 meters crown at the California State Track and Field Championships, clocking a 10.31.

“That was a big concern for me,” Best said. “We had a lot of rehab to go through just to get my strength back the right way and then a lot of stretching to get my flexibility back the right way to make everything piece back together.”

Best said he’s as fast as ever. Cal center Alex Mack will vouch for that fact.

“We see him in practice, and people who have an angle on him to catch him, they just don’t,” Mack said. “It’s impressive. It’s going to be exciting. Hopefully we can open up some holes and get him into some open field where he can really show off that speed.”

Best passed a series of physical tests during his comeback. Soon after training camp open, he proved he and his hip could take a hit.

“For the first couple weeks, it was still in the back of my head,” Best said of the injury. “As far as right now, I’m good. It’s not even fazing me anymore.”

Now his only concern is Michigan State’s defense. He said MSU has some speed in its secondary but is primarily an aggressive, physical, “beat down on you” defense.

“Speed is definitely our edge,” Best said.

Especially when the ball’s in his hands.

Monday, August 25, 2008

49ers' Staley has plenty of answers

In just his second 49ers season, offensive lineman Joe Staley is making the transition from right tackle to left tackle, considered to be the toughest and most critical spot on the offensive line. Staley will be responsible for protecting quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan’s so-called blind side this season when he’s not busy opening holes for running back Frank Gore.

I caught up with Staley on Monday morning in the 49ers' locker room and asked him about his transition to the left side and his outlook approaching the 49ers’ Sept. 7 season-opener against Arizona.

Here’s some of what Staley had to say. And yes, he talks a pretty good game, too. Just ask a question and get out of the way.

Q: How has the transition been going?

A: “I feel like it’s gone well. I’ve made progress in every game. The first game was a little shaky against Oakland. I definitely played a lot better in Green Bay, and my last game (against Chicago) was my highest grade-out game. As far as grading out, it was one of my better games I’ve had in my career so far, just as far as my plusses or minuses. So I was pretty happy with that. It gives me some good confidence going into the regular season coming up. I’m not going to get a whole lot of work (Friday) against the Chargers. So that game, we got 60 plays, which is a ton. It’s almost like we played a full game from a plays standpoint. So, going against (Chicago’s first string) and getting that confidence and moving the ball, scoring a lot of points, it was a good game, as far as all-around. Feeling good going into the season. I definitely have a lot of things I need to work on, like always, practicing, just making it consistent so I don’t have those games like the Oakland game where I didn’t play very good.”

Q: After the Oakland game, coach (Mike) Nolan said the left side of the line started a little soft. Were you a little tentative at first?

A: “I don’t know what it was. I didn’t have that aggressive attitude like I usually have. It was just kind of almost just trying to get by. It really showed in my play. Learned a lot from that game. The next couple games I practiced real hard and played a lot better. I’m feeling pretty confident going into the year. As far as from an offensive standpoint, too, we’re showing a lot of confidence on the field with us moving the ball. As we learn this system, because it’s so complex and we’re doing so many different things, you’re going to see the offense start coming together and really be on the same page a lot.”

Q: Have there been a lot of changes in the blocking schemes?

A: “Yeah. It’s simpler but at the same time also more complex. It’s simpler in the fact that we’re not redirecting every single protection and taking care of every little problem we have, like a safety or corner. …. The quarterbacks kind of take care of it… It’s simpler in that aspect but you have to be exact and know exactly who you’re taking care of and what protection. Because last year we’d be like, we’d see a problem here, it doesn’t matter what the protection is, we’re going to take care of it. Offensive linemen were supposed to take care of everything. Now it’s like, you see a safety come down, you have to know, in this protection do I have him, or am I going to stay tight inside? So it really solidifies the protection front… But as far as knowing your responsibilities, you can’t just like fall into things like we did last year. … You have to be really on as far as knowing exactly what your responsibilities are and what you’re supposed to do.”

Q: Have there been changes in the run blocking this year? Last year the expectations were so high and for whatever reasons, it just didn’t happen.

A: “The same plays are in basically. Every team has the same basic plays, your powers, your zones. It’s when you call them, how often you call them. It seems to me we want to get outside a little more, as opposed to the inside runs as we were last year. It’s really good because Frank (Gore) is such a shifty back. Same with DeShaun (Foster). They’re such shifty backs, and they have that quick explosion. They make one guy miss on the outside, it’s wide open. You saw that in the Chicago game. That first drive, probably five of the eight runs we had were outside zone calls. The big runs we had, that one that Zak Keasey had was an outside zone call. He made one guy miss and then we had 20 yards right there. I think the play-calling, same plays. Just the way that we’re calling them is a little bit different than the way we did last year. And also, last year where we had a lot of problems, they were forcing us to pass on them because our passing game wasn’t very good, so we were seeing eight, nine in the box every play. And this year with our offense and the way we’re passing the ball and the way this offense is run, the structure, we’re getting a lot more cleaner looks as far as the fronts, so we’re having more success.”

Q: That’s a lot more fun.

A: “Well yeah. You don’t have to deal with an extra guy. Last year we always had a guy in the box that we couldn’t get (to). And he’s the guy making the plays. I think we’re going to get a lot more cleaner looks this year because they have to respect our passing game and what we do on the outside.”

Q: Is moving to left tackle a point of honor?

A: “I think it’s more in the spotlight so it puts more pressure on yourself. I know I put more pressure on myself to perform well because I’m on that side because it’s really looked at as being, in the media and by the fans, as being the premier position on the offensive line. But as far as the way I look at it, I think it’s just another position on the offensive line, and we all have to work together. Because no matter whether the left tackle is getting beat or the center or the guard – any position – he’s going to get to the quarterback. It’s not like the guy on the left gets there quicker if you get beat. Everybody has to work together. I find it’s just as important as any other position, but I think it’s blown up because you’re protecting the blind side. And the right tackle has maybe a little easier time because with a right-handed quarterback he can see it and step up or make an adjustment. But the back side, he’s just sitting there. If you get beat, he’s a sitting duck, so it puts more pressure on you to be exact with your technique and footwork. That’s what I’ve been really working hard at this training camp.”

Q: You’re typically matched up against their best pass rusher, right?

A: “I feel it was that way. I feel like more so, especially in our division, we’re seeing speed guys. The game has gone to more of speed on both sides. Typically in the past you’d have your run stopper play against the right tackle. You’d have your mauler type over there, and you’d have your athletic guys, pass rusher on the left side. In our division, for example, you have Leonard Little, who plays over our right tackle. You have (Patrick) Kerney, who’s their pass rush specialist, playing over the right side. I think you’re seeing a shift where you have pass rushers on both sides so you have to have equally athletic tackles on both sides.”

Q: What’s been the biggest challenge with the switch?

A: “It’s always a challenge just getting your technique and being exact with that and very consistent. That doesn’t change. Last year was the same, me moving from left to right. I played left in college and moved to the right side. It was just the challenge of getting your technique exact. And also, one of the other things is playing next to a different person. You’ve got to know exactly how they play, their style of play. So just getting that camaraderie with that person next to you and being comfortable playing with that person next to you.”

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Raiders take a pass on scoring

Raiders coach Lane Kiffin said he wanted to see what his offense could do if he opened up the playbook Saturday night against the Arizona Cardinals and let quarterback JaMarcus Russell drop back and fire at will.

Well, he saw. And you couldn’t have blamed Kiffin if he had requested a blindfold long before the first half ended in the Raiders’ 24-0 loss.
And I’m not even talking about the knee injuries to wide receiver Drew Carter, one of the Raiders’ key free-agent pickups, and fullback Oren O’Neal, a cog in the running game and on special teams.

With Russell throwing pass after pass after pass for three quarters, the Raiders came up empty.

“Unfortunately, I think I saw what I already knew,” Kiffin said. “And that’s if we try to just throw the ball around, you’re going to get penalties, you’re going to get your quarterback hit. He’s going to start running around a lot and you’re going to be in trouble.

“I think you saw what would have happened last year and what would have happened this year if we tried to be one-dimensional.”
Kiffin didn’t storm out of the post-game interview room. He kept his cool. But he seemed to be channeling Denny Green. He as much as said, “We are who we thought we were.”

In other words, get ready for another season of grind-it-out Raiders football.

Russell completed 14 of 28 passes for 140 yards with one interception. His passer rating was 49.7. He was sacked four times. Ouch.

Want the good Raiders news? The defense looked sharp in the first half, intercepting three of Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart’s passes and holding the Cardinals to a mere field goal. And Javon Walker finally caught a pass. Four, in fact.

Then there’s this. When the Raiders face Denver in two weeks in their first game that counts in the standings, Kiffin will be dialing up plays from his entire playbook with a heavy emphasis on the ground game.
Russell has a big arm and has shown considerable poise for a second-year pro with one regular-season NFL start on his resume. But he’s not ready to carry a huge load. And neither, apparently, is his receiving corps, especially now that Drew Carter is out.

Russell should be better when Kiffin asks him to play a supporting role to what promises to be a dominant running game.

Russell’s best drive was his first. The Raiders opened with an empty backfield and Russell in shotgun formation. Russell hit tight end Zach Miller over the middle for five yards. Then he fired three more passes. Twelve yards to Miller over the middle. Thirteen yards to Walker on a deep in. Seven yards to Carter on a quick out – he was hurt on the play.

On the first drive, Russell dropped back to pass eight times. He completed five of seven passes for 44 yards and was sacked once in a drive that stalled at the Arizona 36 when Russell misfired on fourth-and-8.

If there was one Raider other than Russell under Kiffin’s microscope it was Walker. Kiffin has been riding Walker hard almost from the minute he reported for the Raiders first offseason workout. He was too heavy, Kiffin said then. He needed to slim down and speed up.

Then there was the whole incident in Vegas that didn’t stay in Vegas. Walker spent a night partying and spraying champagne on people at a nightclub. Then early that morning he was assaulted and wound up in a Las Vegas hospital.

When camp opened, Walker struggled so badly that he contemplated retiring and giving his multimillion-dollar signing bonus back to the Raiders. Al Davis had to talk him out of it.

At times, though, Kiffin has sounded as if he wished Davis had kept quiet and Walker had moved on. During camp, Kiffin has been relentless, reminding Walker and everyone else that someone with such a big contract needed to earn his money. Approaching Saturday night’s game, Kiffin said he wanted to see Walker DO SOMETHING, already. Wanted to see him get open and catch the ball.

So how did Walker do? Not bad at all. He caught four passes for 60 yards with a long of 27.

“I know what type of player I am,” Walker said. “When I’m in the zone out there, I feel like I can’t be stopped. That’s the only thing you can think of and motivate yourself as a player. To get out there, get some opportunities and catch some balls going into the regular season feels good. I know what I can do. I know what I can bring to the table.”

Walker bristled when a questioner mentioned that he had dropped “a couple balls” in previous games.

“Not drop a couple balls,” Walker said. “It was one ball. I dropped one ball, which I should have caught. I had three attempts in two games.”

One man’s one drop is another man’s two or three. Hey, it’s preseason. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter. The key is that Walker is looking more like the 100-catch Walker of old.

“It was good to see him with the ball in his hands,” Kiffin said. “He looked more comfortable as the game went along. … He looked good. He had good energy about himself.

"Even though a guy has had two big seasons throughout his career, a guy’s confidence can get shaken, having no catching coming into this game. Watching him catch a couple balls, he looked more confident as the game went along.”

Walker didn’t buy Kiffin’s take about newfound confidence. He said he never lost confidence. He just lacked opportunities.

“I know everybody’s been making a big deal about a dropped ball,” Walker said. “A dropped ball in two games. All any receiver asks for is just opportunity. This game I had more opportunity, and you see what happens when more opportunities come. You get in a groove, you start making plays.

“One thing I take a lot of pride in is making catches, and I don’t drop balls. Look in my history. But when you get one ball thrown to you and it’s one drop, then obviously that’s a lasting effect. I know what kind of player I am. When I’m in a groove and everything, I catch everything that’s coming my way. … Like I said, they ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Actually, maybe they have. Listening to Kiffin, you get the idea Walker had better work on his blocking.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Remembering a Raiders legend

I was stunned when I heard the news Thursday of Gene Upshaw’s death from pancreatic cancer.

Upshaw was larger than life, first as a guard for the Oakland Raiders during his Hall of Fame playing career, then as the leader of the NFL players union for over a quarter of a century. He was such a tower of strength, such an intimidating presence.

Now he’s gone at 63, and the Bay Area, not to mention the entire NFL, has lost a legend and a lightning rod, a cock-sure man who possessed a rare mix of power, charisma and intelligence that took him so far as a player and union boss.

The story of Upshaw’s life would make for good cinema. He was raised in a small Texas town, attended a small Texas college and wound up becoming not only a Hall of Fame player but also the first black union boss in NFL history.

Of course there are some who wouldn’t pay to see that flick. For the final few years of his life, Upshaw took massive criticism from former players, including Mike Ditka, who complained that he hadn’t done enough to help the game’s pioneers, many of whom are in desperate need of medical assistance.

Upshaw bristled at the complaints and often fired back in anger and frustration. Well, Upshaw probably could have done more to help the old-timers. He wasn’t perfect. But that criticism shouldn’t overshadow his accomplishments and legacy.

Upshaw was a dominant offensive lineman, one of the best guards in NFL history. For most athletes, that would have been the pinnacle. But for Upshaw, known to his Raiders teammates as “The Governor,” in part because they thought he was aiming for a career in politics, it was only the beginning.

It was under Upshaw’s leadership that NFL players won the right to true free agency. Most of today’s players never saw Upshaw play in the NFL, but they can thank him every time they cash their six-, seven- and even eight-figure checks.

The NFL salary cap is $116 million per team. Players will earn close to 60 percent of the league’s total revenues. According to team owners, players will pocket $4.5 billion this year.

Some accused Upshaw of being too close to the owners and particularly to ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. But as Upshaw told me during one interview, he kept his friends close and his enemies closer. If Upshaw got bamboozled or got too close to Tagliabue, then why are the owners now crying that they can’t afford the deal? Why did they opt out of the contract and set the stage for what could be a cataclysmic collision between the union and team owners?

The money players are making today wasn’t fathomable in 1987 when Upshaw led a players strike that was quickly aborted, thanks in part to team owners deplorable use of so-called “replacement” players.

Today’s players should thank Upshaw for turning a lost strike into the catalyst for a resounding court victory. The players decertified their union and took the owners to court, accusing them of antitrust violations. That turned out to be a brilliant strategy.

Upshaw and the union won that court battle, and the prize was true free agency. Now, so many years after that victory, it’s easy to forget Upshaw’s crowning achievement off the field, not to mention his accomplishments as a Raider.

But this is a time to remember one of the greatest figures in NFL history.

Monday, August 18, 2008

49ers' Morgan catching on quickly

It’s a little early to reserve a spot for 49ers rookie wide receiver Josh Morgan in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it’s not too early for me to make a semi-bold statement after watching him Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers at Monster Park: He’s the best wide receiver the 49ers have drafted since taking Terrell Owens in 1996 in the third round.

Morgan, a sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech, leads the team with nine catches for 182 yards and one touchdown through two exhibition games. He debuted with a four-catch, 68-yard game against the Oakland Raiders. Then he backed that up by catching five passes for 114 yards in a 34-6 win over Green Bay.

Morgan has already flashed more potential than any of the 11 receivers the 49ers drafted since taking Owens. Make that 12 if you count Iheanyi Uwaezuoke, a fifth-round pick in 1999 out of Cal.

The rest of the list, in chronological order: Ryan Thelwell (7th round, 1998), Tai Streets, (6th, 1999), Cedrick Wilson (6th, 2001), Brandon Lloyd (4th, 2003), Arnaz Battle (6th, 2003), Rashaun Woods (1st, 2004), Derrick Hamilton (3rd, 2004), Rasheed Marshall (5th, 2005), Marcus Maxwell (7th, 2005), Brandon Williams (3rd, 2006) and Jason Hill (3rd, 2007).

Of those, only Battle and Hill are still with the team.
This is a franchise that was once known for its wide receivers, from Dwight Clark to John Taylor, Owens and the great Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest receiver in NFL history.

The 49ers have been searching in vain for years for their next big-time receiver. Maybe Morgan will turn out to be that guy. If so, he’ll go down as one of the biggest draft-day steals in franchise history.
Morgan dropped in the draft in large part because of a brush with the law at Virginia Tech. He wound up getting pepper sprayed and arrested but served no jail time.

So despite catching 122 passes during his college career, Morgan lasted until the 174th pick. So far, Morgan has been a model citizen, off and on the field, where he’s a big (6-foot, 219 pounds), fast receiver with hands that appear to be covered glue.

Against Green Bay, he beat man-to-man coverage, made a nice adjustment and grabbed a 59-yard touchdown pass from J.T. O’Sullivan.
Veteran wideouts Bryant Johnson, Ashley Lelie and Battle have all missed time with injuries. Morgan has stepped into the starting lineup and taken full advantage. Those vets might not want to miss any more time or Morgan just might never let go of the starting job.

I talked to Morgan after the game in the 49ers’ locker room. Here’s some of what he had to say:

Q: How important was it for you to have back-to-back big games? Is that important to confirm that the first time was real?
A: “Yes sir. That’s very important. You want to stay consistent out there. That’s what my coach gets on me for a lot, about staying consistent. Just basically keeping your production level up, playing the same way every play. I feel that it’s very important to have a game like this after the first game so you know, yeah I’m here. I’m just trying to go out there and make all the plays I can, do everything coach tells me and is teaching me to do. Just get better, continue getting better. It’s a great learning experience for me. I’m just trying to take full advantage of it.”

Q: On the touchdown, did you sense early it was man coverage and that you had a shot to run by that guy?
A: “Yeah. (Offensive coordinator) Mike Martz, you’ve got to give it to him. He’s a great offensive coordinator. He noticed the defense. He just gave me a shot. The quarterback made a great throw. I just went to go get it and try to make a play.”

Q: That was a called play, he called a play that featured you?
A: “Yeah. I was telling Isaac Bruce earlier. I said, ‘Every time I see coach Martz, I think he’s thinking of a play.’ He noticed the defense they were playing, and he made a perfect call. That’s just the type of guy he is.”

Q: Do you think you’re making a push to be a starter? Some guys are hurt, but you’re taking advantage of the opportunity.
A: “I’m not so sure about that. I’m just out here trying to make plays and take full advantage of my experience. I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m just a rookie, and I’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m going to keep on working and getting better and learning from the guys.”

Q: In this offense a lot of guys get opportunities. You don’t have to be one of the top two receivers do you?. The third guy will get a lot of chances.
A: “The third guy, the fourth guy, even the fifth guy might come in and get an opportunity. You never know, the way coach Martz has been throwing that ball. I’ve just been trying to take full advantage of it. You’ve got guys like Isaac Bruce, who’s been in the league 15 years. Bryant Johnson has been in the league a while. Ashley Lelie. When you’ve got all those guys teaching me something, you can’t do nothing but be a sponge and soak it all up.”

Q: Getting drafted in the sixth round, do you have a little chip on your shoulder driving you?
A: “You most definitely got a chip on your shoulder. But you use it to stay level and stay humble and keep working, keep working hard every day, thank God for the blessing he gave you. Sixth round, that was kind of low. I could have slipped and ended up not getting drafted. But God gave me the blessing to get drafted and get drafted by the team that I loved watching as a kid. That’s just a blessing.”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

49ers' faithful should believe in Martz' QB call

Repeat after me, 49ers fans: In Martz We Trust.

You’re going to need to believe in Mad Mike. You’re going to need to have faith in the man and his offensive system as the 49ers approach the dawn of the J.T. O’Sullivan era in San Francisco. How strange does that sound, the J.T. O’Sullivan era? Odd, isn’t it?

O’Sullivan started his second straight exhibition game Saturday night, a 34-6 victory over the Green Bay Packers. He’s clearly the winner in the supposed three-way battle for the starting job with incumbent Alex Smith and Shaun Hill, although 49ers coach Mike Nolan won’t publicly acknowledge the obvious. Or, more likely, he’s waiting for Martz to give him the final results.

O’Sullivan was equal parts horrific and terrific against the Packers. He threw an interception deep in 49ers territory – two Packers but no 49er was in the vicinity. He nearly got running back DeShaun Foster killed on one pass, leading him directly into the path of a speeding Packer.

But Sullivan made amends by hitting sensational rookie Josh Morgan with a 59-yard touchdown strike late in the second quarter and by leading the 49ers on back-to-back touchdown drives. After Morgan scored, O’Sullivan sprinted down the field to celebrate – he was the second 49er to reach Morgan.

“I do get excited,” O’Sullivan said after the game. “He made a great play going to get the ball. That was fun.”

At times, O’Sullivan makes you reach for the blindfold. But at other times, he makes you understand why Martz wants him to lead his quick-strike offense. Consider this fact: O’Sullivan completed just eight passes in 17 attempts, but of those eight completions, six went for at least 13 yards and three went for more than 20. He’s aggressive and, at times, a bit arrogant, just like his coach. There are worse things to be as a quarterback or coach.

This is Martz’s system, his offense. No one knows it better. No one’s better suited than Martz to make the call at quarterback. You might not be sold on O’Sullivan, a quarterback who appears to be on a mission to spend time with all 32 NFL teams. But you’ve got to believe that Martz knows what he’s doing when it comes to quarterbacks. If he wants O’Sullivan, that’s good enough for me.

And when it comes to his ability to develop quarterbacks in his system, Martz deserves your faith. As offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in 1999, he lost starting quarterback Trent Green to a gruesome knee injury during the exhibition season. No problem. He plugged Kurt Warner, the former supermarket stock boy and Arena Football League quarterback, into the starting lineup.

The Rams scored 526 points and won the Super Bowl that year. Warner directed what came to be known as the “Greatest Show on Turf.” He threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns and was named the league’s MVP.

Before Warner became Superman, he had been cut by the Green Bay Packers – forcing him to the supermarket job – and had thrown exactly 11 NFL regular-season passes. The point is, Warner didn’t look to be anything close to an MVP-caliber talent. But he fit Martz’s offense. He had a quick release. He could hit his spots. And he hit those spots on time, a must in Martz’s offense.

As offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions the past two years, Martz turned journeyman quarterback Jon Kitna into a 4,000-plus-yard passer, an amazing feat on a team that has been so offensively-challenged for so long.

Is O’Sullivan the next Warner? Let’s not get carried away. He’s probably not even the next Kitna. But don’t be surprised if he exceeds expectations.

Like Warner, he seems to fit Martz’s system. Quick release? Check. Accurate? Well, a semi-check. One thing’s clear. O’Sullivan tries to throw to spots before his receivers arrive. He’s not afraid to let it rip and rely on his pass-catchers to be where they’re supposed to be.

O’Sullivan was asked what it is about his skills that translate so well to Martz’s scheme. For the most part, he sidestepped the question as if it were a blitzing linebacker.
“I just try to be as coachable as I can be and try to soak up everything he’s asking us to do and try to do it exactly like he’s asking us to do it,” O’Sullivan said.

The numbers told a tale of two O’Sullivans. In the first quarter he was 3 of 10 for 30 yards and an interception. His passer rating was a Blutarsky: 0.00. In the second, he was 5 of 7 for 124 yards and a touchdown with a rating of 153.3. Consistent, he’s not. At least not yet.

“I just feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement,” O’Sullivan said.

O’Sullivan played the entire first half, throwing for 154 yards. And here’s an important stat: He wasn’t sacked. Twice he escaped pressure, avoided a sack and scrambled for a few yards. He’s not Steve Young, but he’s not a statue, either.

“I’m not afraid to get out (and run),” O’Sullivan said. “It’s more of an attitude of whatever it takes to keep moving the chains. I’m not looking to run by any means. If it’s there and that’s all I have, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Smith took over for O’Sullivan at the start of the second half and completed 5 of 12 passes for 62 yards. He gave way to Hill with 13:33 left to play. The playing time tells you all you need to know about this competition.

It’s over. And if you’re a 49er fan, you should trust that Martz made the right call.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Raiders' Russell continues to impress

I’ve covered hundreds of NFL games from press boxes throughout the nation. This time I’m coming to you from my living room with some thoughts about the Raiders’ 17-16 exhibition road loss Friday night against the Tennessee Titans. Blogging, what a concept. I could get used to this.
  • The more I watch Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the more I like him. This guy is more than just a physical monster with a huge arm, more than an offensive lineman disguised as a quarterback.
    Sure, he’s a huge man and can throw the football from Oakland to Berkeley from his knees. But he’s also smooth. And cool under pressure. And, believe it or not, quick. That’s right, the big man can move. After all those offseason rumors that Russell was gaining weight and contemplating a switch to Sumo wrestling, he reported to mini-camp then training camp looking, well, not svelte, but nothing like a blimp.
  • Against the Titans, Russell consistently sidestepped rushers and rolled away from pressure. What’s more, he made sound, solid decisions and delivered accurate, high-speed darts. Russell hardly looked like a quarterback who has started just one regular-season NFL game. Raiders boss Al Davis, sitting in a box high above the field, had to like what he saw from his multi-million dollar investment as he outplayed Titans quarterback Vince Young.
  • Russell was at his best on the Raiders’ lone touchdown drive in the first half. He started the drive with a 22-yard strike to tight end Zach Miller, deep down the left seam. Russell then rolled to his right, avoiding pressure, and hit Ronald Curry along the right sideline for 12 more. Then he found Miller again over the middle for 14 and fullback Oren O’Neal in the flat for 3. On third-and-7 from the Titans’ 10, Russell sidestepped pressure again and gunned a pass over the middle to Miller – who else? – who made a diving catch in the end zone.
  • The Raiders’ defense did a decent job against the run, but I’m not convinced they’ve truly fixed what was such a huge problem last year. I’ll need some more proof before I believe a defense that ranked 31st against the run last year is ready to face the LaDainian Tomlinsons and Larry Johnsons of the AFC West. Here’s what caught my attention: When Tennessee rookie speedster Chris Johnson entered the game in the second quarter, he gained 15 yards on each of his first two carries. On Johnson’s second carry, safety Hiram made a touchdown-saving tackle. Later in the second quarter, Johnson added a 13-yard gain, part of the Titans’ 140-yard rushing night. Fortunately for the Raiders, they won’t see many running backs as fast as Tennessee’s Johnson. He ran a 4.24 40 at this year’s NFL combine, the fastest of any player.
  • What else can you say about running back Darren McFadden? He’s only a rookie but we’re already running out of superlatives to describe him. He carried six times for 44 yards against the Titans. His 26-yard burst set up Aaron Elling’s 56-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
  • Raiders coach Lane Kiffin might have to tie offensive tackle Mario Henderson to the bench before he gets one of his quarterbacks killed. Henderson’s man buried backup quarterback Andrew Walter with a blindside hit just after he released a pass. Walter got up slowly with blood flowing out of his nose. The Raiders traded up in the draft last year to get Henderson out of Florida State in the third round. They might want a do-over.
  • Titans rookie wide receiver Lavelle Hawkins did himself and the Cal Bears proud. Hawkins caught a 51-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, beating Michael Waddell along the right sideline, then cutting back inside. Hawkins also did some work over the middle, his forte at Cal. And he opened some eyes on special teams, returning punts and kickoffs. On one 24-yard kickoff return he broke a couple tackles. But after a return in the fourth quarter, Hawkins hobbled off the field.
  • Titans rookie tight end Craig Stevens, another ex-Bear, got onto the receiving stats sheet with an 8-yard catch. Anyone who watched Stevens at Cal knows he’ll quickly become a devastating blocker at the NFL level. He has plenty of speed and strength to excel. The question, as it always is with Stevens, is whether he can consistently hold onto the football.
  • Continuing the ex-Bear theme, Raiders running back Adimchinobi Echemandu broke a 72-yard run in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Raiders, he was caught from behind, O’Neal soon lost a fumble, and the Titans drove for the game-winning field goal.

49ers' Gore ready to roll

If you're a football fan -- and yes, I love the sport almost as much as free beer -- you've got to love 49ers running back Frank Gore. He's a little man, by NFL standards, with a heart that's bigger than Michael Phelps' appetite for gold medals, five-egg omelettes, french toast and grits.

Gore is one of my favorite athletes in the Bay Area, where I've been writing about sports for nearly 30 years. It's fitting that he's the subject of my first post on my new blog centering on Bay Area sports, pro and college. I caught up with Gore after a recent training camp practice for an interview.

First, some background: Last season Gore broke his right hand on the second day of training camp. That was just the beginning of what turned out to be a season from hell. He lost his mother, Liz, to kidney disease just days before the 49ers' second game of the season. It was a devastating blow to Gore. He was extremely close to his mother, who had been on dialysis since Frank's junior year in high school. Gore also battled a nagging, painful ankle injury throughout much of the season.

Gore never quit. Never gave up. Never pointed fingers. Even though the 49ers fell out of playoff contention before the leaves turned color, Gore took each loss as the season played out as if it were a playoff defeat. Gore kept playing through the pain -- physical and psychological. He rushed for 1,102 yards and caught 53 passes for 436 yards for the NFL's worst offense. See why I admire him?

This year Gore is healthy -- he lost 10 pounds -- at peace with the loss of his mother and happy over the prospect of playing in new 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz's offense.

Here's some of what Gore had to say earlier this week as he prepared for Saturday night's home exhibition opener against the Green Bay Packers:

Q: How much fun are you having this year compared to last year at this time?
A: “It’s very fun. Last year was very tough on the field and also off the field. I’m a stronger man, especially by accepting and dealing with the passing of my mom. I’m in good spirits. I’m practicing. I’m learning the offense. The offensive side is very fun. They have me doing a whole lot of stuff. I’m just happy to be out there with my guys, my family. I’m just happy.”

Q: In this offense, with all the talk about Marshall Faulk – we all saw what he did - that must make you excited to say you might have a similar role.
A: “I’m going to try my best. Every opportunity the coaches give me I’m going to try my best and try to do the right thing. I can’t say I’ll be another Marshall Faulk, but I know I’m going to be a great back when I’m out there.”

Q: Are you starting to click with this offense?
A: “Yeah. It’s fun. I’m learning it. The better you learn it, the more fun you have. When coach Martz first came in he told me the more I understand what he’s trying to do, the more I’ll like it. I see it. I see it. It’s going to be fun this year.”

Q: How much time do you need in these exhibition games? Last year you got zero because of the injury. This year you’ve got a new offense.
A: “I feel the more I practice and the more I get my reps down, I’m good with it. I’d be happy to get in against another defense, another team. As long as I’m practicing and getting my reps, I feel good.”

Q: Do you want to get at least a quarter, get a little work?
A: “Right, right.”

Q: How was it last year without playing in the exhibition season?
A: “It was tough man, it was very tough.”

Q: The offense got off to a slow start and never got into the groove it had the year before. Did you feel that about you, too, missing training camp and then hurting your ankle?
A: “It was a tough year, man, a very tough year.”

Q: How did you deal with the season, your mom passing, and all the losing?
A: “I just kept working and left it in the hands of God. That’s all I did.”

Q: How do you feel now?
A: “I feel good. I feel great. I feel like I’m in great shape. I’m just ready to go out and play.”

Q: What kind of year do you expect? A: “I feel good, man. I feel real good. I feel that if everybody stays healthy and we just keep working, we can have a successful year.”