Sunday, November 30, 2008

Raiders' fake field goal blows up in Cable's face

So now I guess it’s official. Well, at least as official as it can be before Raiders owner Al Davis goes to the overhead projector at his next press conference and outlines the reasons why interim coach Tom Cable won’t be coaching his team next season.

Cable looked like a short-timer from the moment Davis chose him to replace the fired Lane Kiffin. But after what took place Sunday in the second quarter of the Raiders’ 20-13 loss to Kansas City, there’s probably a better chance of Kiffin coming back than of Cable surviving.

I mean, what coach in his right mind thinks Sebastian Janikowski can gain 10 yards on a fake field goal? We’re not talking Usain Bolt here. We’re talking Seabass, all 250 pounds of him.

Let’s set the scene for Cable’s big roll of the dice. The Raiders had stalled at the Chiefs’ 25. They faced fourth-and-10 and lined up for a 42-yard field goal, a chip shot for the powerful Janikowski. But after Jon Condo snapped the ball to holder Shane Lechler, all sanity left the Coliseum.

Janikowski faked the kick and kept running to his left. Lechler didn’t just try to pitch the ball to his kicker. That would have been too easy. He actually hiked it though his legs. Only the snap was low and short and wound up on the turf. Then Chiefs cornerback Maurice Leggett picked it up and raced 67 yards for a touchdown.

Instead of taking a 6-3 lead, the Raiders fell behind 10-3. That’s your basic 10-point swing in a seven-point loss.

Cable didn’t fool the Chiefs, but he stunned his own team.

“I didn’t even see it,” Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. “I just saw the guy running down the other way. We do that in practice all the time, but I never knew it was a real thing we were going to attempt.

“When they told me that’s what happened, and it wasn’t a blocked field goal, I was a little surprised, but Cable owned up to that. He said that one’s on him.”

What would you pay to have videotape of Davis’ reaction as that play unfolded? We’ll start the bidding at priceless.

After the game, Cable had some explaining to do in his news conference.

“It’s something we had worked on all year,” Cable said. “(The Chiefs) were lined up exactly the way we wanted them to. We just didn’t execute. That was my decision. Obviously it was not a good one.”

Cable said that Lechler wasn’t just ad-libbing when he tried to snap the ball through his legs to Janikowski. That was part of the play. Seriously.

“We never had a problem handling it for almost two years now,” Cable said. “It’s been something we’ve worked on for really two years, and they’ve done it well. Something they’ve come up with. We just didn’t execute it.”

Unfortunately, Janikowski and Lechler didn’t stick around long enough after the game to discuss their special play.

In reality, Janikowski would have had to run about 17 yards for a first down because Lechler took the snap seven yards deep. But even if Lechler hadn’t botched the exchange, Leggett would have nailed him quickly. He wasn’t fooled.

Cable went into the game ready to take chances. He dialed up a hook-and-lateral early in the game that worked perfectly with running back Darren McFadden gaining 20 yards.

When the Raiders stalled at the Chiefs’ 25, Cable didn’t hesitate to gamble again.

“I felt like the momentum was ours, and we were really into the game on both sides of the ball,” Cable said. “So just looking for a lift there, just looking for another lift.”

Is it me, or does that statement make no sense? Just checking.

“That was a coaching decision,” Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell said. “That was out of my hands. Looking back at it, I wish we had taken the points.”

You think?

Despite having that ridiculous fake field goal blow up in his face, Cable wasn’t done gambling. Late in the half, the Raiders faced fourth-and-3 from the Chiefs’ 22. This time, the Raiders didn’t even line up for a field goal. They went for it, and Russell airmailed a pass over wide receiver Ronald Curry’s head in the end zone.

There went another three points in a game against a team the Raiders had already defeated on the road, a game they should have won.

“I felt like we had the right play called,” Cable said. “Just a little bit of an overthrow. Had it been a little bit shorter, it would have been a great play for a touchdown.”

And if Janikowski ran a 4.4 40, he’d be an NFL running back.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Time for Warriors to think big and give Randolph and Wright larger roles

I would never go to Charles Barkley for gambling advice. But sometimes, the Chuckster makes a lot of sense when he sticks to basketball. I caught one of those times Tuesday when Barkley was talking to Tom Tolbert on KNBR.

When the conversation turned away from his gambling escapades to the Warriors, Barkley said he had no idea what this team was trying to do, whether it had a long-term plan to become a legitimate title contender. Barkley said it looked as if the Warriors were just continuing their addiction to small ball and could expect the same predictable, disappointing results. He said the best the Warriors could hope for would be to sneak into the playoffs and win one series if they got the perfect Mavericks-like matchup before getting crushed by one of the West’s bigger, stronger teams.

In this case, I’ve got to agree with Barkley. I don’t mind having a smaller, faster Warriors team, but not this small, not one that has 6-foot-6 Corey Maggette starting at power forward, taking minutes away from 6-foot-10 rookie Anthony Randolph and 6-foot-10 second-year player Brandan Wright.

So here’s my suggestion for Warriors coach Don Nelson, one way to build a bigger, better more viable team for the future: Give the power forward position to Randolph and Wright. Let them job share. Call them Branthony Randight. Make the position off limits to Maggette and all of your other “midgets,” as Sir Charles so politically incorrectly put it.

The Warriors gave up Jason Richardson for Wright in a draft-day deal last year. They spent a first-round pick on Randolph this year. They’re both tall, active, athletic players with huge wingspans. They can run, block shots and rebound.

Give them a chance to develop his year, even if they make a few mistakes of inexperience that cost you. By next year, they might even be ready to start alongside each other, with Randolph moving to small forward.

That would give the Warriors a front line of 6-11 center Andris Biedrins and two 6-10 forwards. What a radical idea. Of course the Warriors would have to figure out what to do with a roster that’s overstocked with guards, small forwards and swingmen.

I’m sure Barkley has a few ideas.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

49ers' defensive brain trust had a brain lock against Cowboys' Owens

It’s been over a day since Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens abused 49ers cornerback Nate Clements, catching 7 passes for 213 yards and a 75-yard touchdown in Dallas’ 35-22 victory.

Clements has been taking plenty of heat for his coverage meltdown, and understandably so. But I think it’s time to turn the blowtorch in another direction, toward the 49ers’ defensive brain trust.

What was defensive coordinator Greg Manusky thinking? It was ludicrous to have Clements spend most of the day covering the former 49ers star man-to-man. And it was suicidal for the 49ers to give Owens such a huge cushion so often, to let him run freely off the line of scrimmage and quickly get his 220 pounds moving at max speed.

Defenses have been double-covering Owens all year. They’ve been bumping him at the line of scrimmage, disrupting his release, then doubling him over the top.

Until Sunday, Owens hadn’t had more than 89 receiving yards in a single game. In the previous five weeks, he had averaged 35 receiving yards.

Manusky had a ready-made blueprint for containing Owens, but for some reason he ignored it.

I admire Clements’ fearlessness. I admire the way he hits and tackles. He’s a solid cover corner. But he’s no Deion Sanders. Despite what his mega-salary hints, Clements is not a shutdown corner. And the 49ers shouldn’t have put him in such a vulnerable position against Owens.

At his Monday news conference, 49ers interim coach Mike Singletary said Owens didn't warrant consistent double-coverage. Are you kidding me? I guess Singletary still isn't fully aware of Owens' history of destroying his former teams, the 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles.

Containing Owens should have been the 49ers' No. 1 priority on defense. It clearly wasn't, and Owens made them pay.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tricky Bears run past Stanford in Big Game

Amid the mass of humanity that flooded the Memorial Stadium field Saturday after Cal’s 37-16 victory in the 111th Big Game, Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t get to Bears coach Jeff Tedford for the traditional post-game handshake.

So Harbaugh paid Tedford a visit in Cal’s interview room.

After shaking Tedford’s hand and congratulating him on the win, Harbaugh flashed a quick, you-got-me smile.

“Trickery,” Harbaugh said to Tedford. “Trickery out there. It worked.”

Worked to perfection, in fact, against a Stanford defense that kept getting fooled.

Cal’s deception plus superior speed turned out to be a lethal combination. Add a big dose of Stanford self-destruction to the mix, and what appeared to be a battle between two evenly matched teams turned into a Cal rout of the Cardinal, which on its final chance to become bowl eligible.

Tedford reached deep into his bag of trick plays during a 20-0 third-quarter blitz that transformed a tight game into a blowout.

Cal's third-quarter trickery began after Stanford gave Cal a gift.

Trailing just 10-3, Stanford got the ball to open the second half. But on first down, quarterback Tavita Pritchard scrambled to his right and threw back to his left, trying to hit fullback Owen Marecic. Pritchard’s pass sailed high, and Cal linebacker Eddie Young intercepted the pass then returned 17 yards to Stanford’s 28.

Moments later, Cal faced third-and-goal from the 1. Quarterback Kevin Riley rolled o his right while running Jahvid Best angled toward the front right pylon. But with the entire Stanford defense flowing his way, Riley stopped, turned to his left and hit tight end Cameron Morrah, wide open on the other side of the end zone, for a touchdown. No Cardinal was within 10 yards of Morrah.

“When we watched film, we noticed that they over-pursued a lot,” Best said of Stanford’s defense. “We thought if we got them going one way and hit them back the other way, we’d have some room to run.”

Or to pass. Or to do whatever the Bears wanted to do.

Morrah’s score put the Bears ahead 17-3 with 11:58 left in the third quarter. After the Bears’ forced a three-and-out from Stanford, Cal’s offense went to work again.

Best, a former California high school 100-meter champion. gashed Stanford’s defense for 36 of his 201rushing yards to the Cardinal 14.

“We felt like if we could get our athletes and speed in the open field, we had a chance to make some big plays,” Tedford said.

At that point, Cal went Boise State on the Cardinal. The Bears pulled out the old hook-and-lateral (or hook-and-ladder if you prefer) play. Riley fired a short pass to wide receiver Verran Tucker a few yards inside the left sideline. As Cardinal defenders converged on Tucker, he pitched the ball to Best, who raced untouched along the sideline, outrunning linebacker Pat Maynor to the end zone.

The Bears hadn’t even practiced that play until Thursday, two days before the game.

“I don’t think we were anticipating as many trick plays as they did,” Maynor said. “We thought they were just going to run the zone (blocking) at us, the stretch and the tosses. Hook-and-ladder in the red zone, I don’t think anybody can expect that one. They ran a lot of good reverses. They have good athletes, and they were tough to stop.”

Best’s touchdown put the Bears ahead 24-3. And they weren’t done fooling and outrunning the Cardinal.

After Rulon Davis and Zack Follett sacked Pritchard on third-and-9, forcing a punt, Cal took over on Stanford’s 48 with 8:24 left in the third quarter. On first down, Best took a handoff from Riley and headed around left end, but he flipped the ball to wide receiver Jeremy Ross, running 100 mph the other way.

Ross cut back against the over-pursuing Cardinal defense and sprinted 41 yards, with Riley and offensive tackle Donovan Edwards leading the way. That run set up Best’s 4-yard touchdown run, increasing Cal’s lead to 30-3.

“When you mix it up a little bit, do plays that could wind up on SportsCenter, it makes it tremendously fun,” Ross said.

“It got to a point in the third quarter where we just came unraveled,” Harbaugh said. “We couldn’t protect anymore, and that was against a four-man rush. It was nothing exotic. There were too many things that we shouldn’t have been doing.

“Cal got on a roll with their trick plays that were all working, one right after the other. They definitely got some momentum going, and that ended up being the ball game.”

Cal’s devastation of Stanford continued early in the fourth quarter. Best burned the Cardinal on a 45-yard draw play for a touchdown, making it 37-3.

For much of the day, Best did his best work on the outside, using his exceptional speed to outrun Stanford’s defenders.

“I feel like when I’m on the perimeter, I can do whatever I want,” Best said.

After the first half, it was hard to imagine what was to come. Cal led by seven points and was fortunate in many ways to even be ahead.

Let’s count the way.

1. Stanford had a first down at the Bears’ 16 after Pritchard hit backup tight end Colby Fleener on a 32 yard pass along the left sideline in the first quarter. The Cardinal stalled at the 8. Then Aaron Zagory pushed a 25-yard field goal attempt wide right. After marching all the way from its 1, Stanford came away empty.

2. Early in the second quarter, Stanford marched to the Bears’ 11, where it had a first down. On the next play, Cal defensive end Tyson Alualu ripped the ball out of running back Toby Gerhart’s hands, and defensive end Cameron Jordan recovered at the 10.

3. Late in the first half, Stanford went on another long drive, mixing power running with short- and medium-range passes, usually to wide-open receivers. Stanford had first-and-goal at the 9 and moved 8 yards closer on Pritchard’s pass to running back Anthony Kimble. At that point, Stanford stopped being creative and tried to pound into the end zone, but Gerhart was stopped cold on back-to-back running plays. The Cardinal settled for a field goal.

“That game could have gone either way right there,” Tedford said. “They really put together three nice drives. I thought the defense did a really good of stiffening.”

Granted, Cal blew a few good scoring chances of its own in the first half. On the Bears’ first drive, Best slipped Bo McNally’s tackle in the backfield, reversed field and gained 60 yards to the Stanford 26. But Cal came away with just a field goal.

Then early in the second quarter, Cal used a pair of Stanford penalties – facemask and unsportsmanlike conduct – to move all the way to Stanford’s 24. But on first down, Riley failed to spot tight end Tad Smith, wide open deep over the middle. Instead, he underthrew Morrah along the right sideline, and McNally cut in front to intercept in the end zone.

Late in the half, Riley redeemed himself, lofting 59-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to running back Shane Vereen. Give Cal’s coaches an assist on this play. They got Vereen isolated man-to-man against McNally, a strong safety.

This was a definite speed mismatch, with Vereen, a high school sprinter, having the clear advantage. He ran past McNally, caught Riley’s pass in stride at Stanford’s 20 and raced into the end zone.

A little deception. A lot of speed. Touchdown, Cal.

A year ago, Best was injured and on Cal’s sideline when Stanford beat the Bears 20-13 in Harbaugh’s first year as the Cardinal’s coach. He watched as Stanford’s players ran to Cal’s sideline and took possession of The Axe.

“It hurt,” Best said. “There was nothing we could do about it. I was so mad. I said, ‘That’s never going to happen again.’ ”

So far, so good.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Bears senior linebacker Anthony Felder said of the victory. “Having lost it last year, it’s like a dagger through your heart. As a senior, you want your legacy to be you left with The Axe.”

This year, Stanford is feeling the pain of both losing The Axe and missing out on a bowl game. Again.

“It was obviously a tough loss,” Stanford senior center Alex Fletcher said. “We went down the first half and just couldn’t put the ball in. We can’t give it to them like that. We turned the ball over and got penalties. It’s tough. You can’t do that against a good team.”

Especially a good team that’s as fast and deceptive as the Bears.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sharp-shooting Bears still a work in progress on defense

I took my first look at new Cal coach Mike Montgomery’s team Thursday night when the Bears played a non-conference game at Haas Pavilion against the University of Texas-Pan American. Not familiar with the UTPA Broncs? It’s a hoops “power” from Edinburg, about as far south as you can go in Texas before reaching Mexico.

Cal built a 39-25 halftime lead and won 85-58. Yeah, not much of a game, but it gave me a chance to make a few snap judgments about Montgomery’s Bears:

Snap judgment No. 1? These guys can shoot. The Bears shot 67.9 percent from the field, nearly breaking the school mark of 68.5. That type of shooting will keep the Bears in a lot of games this year, despite their lack of size.

Jamal Boykin made 8 of 9 shots, Jerome Randle 4 of 5, Theo Robertson 4 of 6 and Patrick Christopher 5 of 8. Sure, they made those shots against an overmatched team, but they made those shots.

“I don’t know if they could shoot the ball better if there was no defense out there,” UTPA coach Tom Schuberth said. “I think Cal can be a special team. … I think they’re great shooters and unselfish. They have a lot of weapons.”

For the season, Cal is shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 59.0 percent from 3-point range.

“We do shoot the ball,” Montgomery said. “You don’t guard our guys, they’re going to shoot it in. … You’re not surprised because you watch them every day in practice. There’s going to be a point in time where we’re going to have to rely on our execution to get those shots.”

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The Bears’ flashed some glimpses of the hard-nosed, man-to-man defense Montgomery is teaching them to play. Considering the Bears’ defensive meltdown last year, this is exactly what they needed, some firm advice from a coach known for defense.

The Bears forced 21 turnovers, 12 in the first half. But they also let the Broncos shoot 55 percent in the first half. In other words, this is a work in progress.

Are the Bears buying into what Montgomery is preaching about the importance of defense?

“Trying,” Montgomery said. “Slowly but surely. There’s an old saying, though, ‘If he doesn’t buy it as a pup, he ain’t going to buy it as a dog.’ So it’s not going to be something like you say, ‘Defense is important.’ ‘Ohhhh. Geeze. I didn’t know that.’ It’s a process. It takes a while. And ideally if a guy’s really bad you’re going to have to set him down, just get somebody else in there who will defend. But to do that you’ve got to find somebody that can defend.”

What’s Montgomery teaching?

“Just real defense,” Christopher said. “Hard-nose. Keeping your man in front of you. Team defense.”

“Taking it personal if your man scores on you is a huge key,” Boykin said. “So is a sense of pride on the defensive end. We protect our basket. If a man scores on you, you should take that personally.”

Montgomery was happy to hear what Boykin had said. But he knows actions are more important than words.

“Good defense takes time,” Montgomery said. “It takes time. It takes years. Even though they’re juniors, if they haven’t had that mentality, it’s going to take a while to get that. It doesn’t take away anything from offense. They’re two different ends of the floor.

“You cross the defensive end and you become a sumo wrestler. You become a street fighter. You go to the offensive end, then you become a virtuoso on the piano. It’s just finesse vs. effort, and you’ve got to have that mentality.”

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Freshman guard Jorge Gutierrez, Montgomery’s first recruit, is going to add a dose of hard-nosed toughness to this offensive-minded team. A freshman from Mexico, who attended high school in Nevada, Gutierrez came off the bench and instantly ratcheted up the intensity.

“I think Jorge’s giving us something that’s pretty good for us,” Montgomery said. “He’s just a tough kid, going on the floor. It’s infectious.”

Gutierrez isn’t flashy, but he’s smart and, as Montgomery said, tough.

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Forward Theo Robertson has always had a nice shooting stroke. But if Thursday night’s game offers a clue, his shot is even smoother now after his long layoff. He looks like a guy who spent, oh, say, a few thousand hours working on his shot last season when he was sidelined, recovering from hip surgery.

In the first half alone, Robertson scored eight points on 3 of 4 shooting and made 2 of 3 from beyond the arc. He drained a 20-foot jumper off the dribble to give Cal a 7-6 lead. Later in the half, he drained a 3 from the left wing. Then he buried another trey from just beyond top of the key. He finished with 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting.

Robertson entered the game shooting .464 from the field and .636 from 3-point range. Robertson’s outside shot is going to come in particularly handy when opponents try to zone the Bears.

Robertson is already considered the Bears’ best defensive player. If he keeps filling up the hoop, he’s headed for a monster season, which would be well deserved after what he’s been through.

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Max Zhang, a 7-3 red-shirt freshman from China, saw a few minutes of action. From what I saw, he’s still incredibly raw and a long ways away from helping the Bears, but he’s also surprisingly agile getting up and down the court for someone so tall.

Zhang blocked two shots and scored four points. But he didn’t grab a single rebound, and he fouled out in eight minutes.

At only 225 pounds, Zhang is a stick. But who knows? If he gains a few pounds and gets stronger, he could help some day, especially on defense as a shot blocker. He’s already a crowd favorite, but fans had better hope for more blowouts if they want to see him play this year.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

111th Big Game looks like a toss-up

If you believe the early betting line, Cal should beat Stanford by nine points Saturday in the 111th Big Game at Memorial Stadium.

I have some serious doubts about that hefty point spread. To me, this looks more like a flip-a-coin game.

I realize that Cal coach Jeff Tedford is 5-1 against Stanford overall and 3-0 at Memorial Stadium. I understand that the Bears haven’t lost at home to Stanford since 2000 when they fell 36-30 in overtime and that they’re 5-0 at home this season.

But consider these facts from the flip side. Tedford’s five wins against Stanford came against teams coached by Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Tedford is 0-1 against current Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh, suffering a 20-13 loss last year at Stanford Stadium.

When Teevens and Harris were in charge, Stanford was basically an automatic win for Cal. The once-proud Cardinal football program was in shambles. Under Tedford, the Bears beat Stanford five straight times by a combined score of 152-49. Each time, they physically dominated the Cardinal.

Teevens was simply overmatched. The perpetually cranky Harris blamed most of his problems on Stanford’s high admission standards. Neither one was a good match for Stanford.

Enter Harbaugh last season. Taking over a 1-11 team, Harbaugh finished 4-8 with huge wins over USC – on the road, no less – and Cal. This year Stanford is 5-6 overall and 4-4 in the Pac-10, one win shy of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2001. Stanford suffered heart-breaking losses to Oregon and UCLA, both on the road, in the final seconds. They lost to Notre Dame by just seven points on the road.

Stanford is no longer a Pac-10 weakling or a pushover. On offense in particular, Stanford is pushing back. Harbaugh has turned Stanford into a physical, power-running team with a one-two punch of Toby Gerhart and Anthony Kimble.

Gerhart has rushed for 1,033 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s 51 yards shy of tying Tommy Vardell’s single-season rushing record set in 1991. Gerhart rushed for 101 yards last week against USC, which boasts one of the nation’s best defenses. It was his seventh 100-yard rushing game of the season, tying Vardell’s single-season mark. Kimble has rushed for 688 yards this season and has 1,911 for his career.

I have the sense that Harbaugh, unlike Teevens and Harris, truly gets this rivalry and understands how to push the right psychological buttons during Big Game week. Maybe it’s because his father, Jack, is a former Stanford assistant, and he went to high school in Palo Alto. Maybe it’s because he played quarterback at Michigan and took part in one of the nation’s greatest college football rivalries against Ohio State. Maybe it’s because he’s an emotional, slightly twisted coach who’s well suited for this type of emotional rivalry game.

Harbaugh should have no problem tapping into his player’s sense of desperation. Their bowl game hopes are riding on this game. Win and they’re in. Lose and they’re out. Cal, on the other hand, is already bowl eligible. Although the Bears are still trying to land the most prestigious bowl possible, Stanford gets the motivational edge in this case.

I don’t know if Stanford can pull off the upset Saturday. Its defense has produced 33 sacks, tied for first in the Pac-10, and could cause problems for Cal’s injury-plagued, makeshift offensive line. But the Cardinal ‘D’ has a bad habit of getting worn down then collapsing in the fourth quarter. And it’s been vulnerable against the pass, which means quarterback Kevin Riley and Cal’s sputtering passing attack should have a chance to get back on track, as long as Riley gets time to throw.

Cal has the better defense, the home-field edge and a home-run threat in Jahvid Best. If this were 2006, 2005, 20004, 2003 or 2002, Bears fans could rest easy and plan their victory parties.

But it’s 2008, which means both Cal and Stanford fans should be very nervous ,and we can all expect, a close, exciting Big Game.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

49er QB Hill makes another statement with a "perfect" first half

Imagine that. A slice of perfection Sunday in a very imperfect 49ers season, thanks to No. 3 quarterback turned backup turned starter Shaun Hill.

In the first half of the 49ers’ 35-16 win over the Rams at Candlestick Park, Hill posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3. He became the first quarterback in 49ers history to accomplish that feat in the first half.

Hill completed 12 of 14 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown, diving into the end zone from a yard out.

Not that long ago, Hill resided in the equivalent of Siberia for quarterbacks. He was sent to that deep freeze by offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who made the same mistake that so many other coaches have made. He underestimated Hill.

And after watching Hill slice and dice the Rams’ defense Sunday, it makes you wonder what might have been for the 49ers this season if he had been the starter from Day 1 instead of J.T. O’Sullivan.

Hill was 2-0 as an emergency starter last season and parlayed that strong play into a new multi-million dollar contract. He entered training camp in what appeared to be a tight, head-to-head battle with Alex Smith for the starting job.

But Martz wasn’t with the 49ers last year when Hill led the team to two of its five wins. He didn’t watch first-hand the way Hill skillfully read defenses, found open receivers and hit them in the hands. He didn’t see first-hand how cool, calm and surprisingly elusive in the pocket Hill was under the incredible pressure of a real NFL game.

Training camp had barely begun when Martz eliminated Hill from the quarterbacks competition and elevated O’Sullivan to the position of Smith’s chief competitor. Before long, it was clear that O’Sullivan was Martz’s choice to start.

I can understand Martz’s thinking. O’Sullivan played for Martz with the Detroit Lions as a backup. He knew his system. He had a quick release and a fearless approach to throwing the deep timing routes that are staples in Martz’s offense.

And Hill? Well, the company line was that he just didn’t pick up Martz’s offense quickly enough to compete for the job. I think I’m going to have to call bull you-know-what on that one.

Sure, Martz’s system is complex. But it’ not brain surgery. It’s football. And Hill isn’t some football dimwit. He’s in his seventh NFL season. He came off the bench last year and ran the 49ers offense better than it had been run all season. He had a passer rating of 101.3. He threw five touchdown passes with just one interception.

My theory is that Martz took one look in practice at Hill – OK, maybe a handful of looks – and decided he didn’t pass the eyeball test. Hill doesn’t have a cannon for an arm. He won’t win many foot races. Hill’s first thought is to take the safe throw rather than the swashbuckling deep shot.

Hill is a beige presence in practice. He rarely stands out. But put Hill in a game that counts, when defensive linemen are creating chaos and he has to make quick, sound decisions, and Hill shines.

It’s not a coincidence that it was interim coach Mike Singletary and not Martz who benched O’Sullivan and gave the starting job to Hill. Singletary saw Hill play last season.

After the victory, Singletary was asked if he knew in training camp that Hill could do what he did Sunday against the Rams.

“I knew that last year, way before training camp,” Singletary said. “Last year when I saw him play, I really thought he did a good job. He managed the game, he made some throws. Guys were excited. In training camp I just thought it was a matter of learning the offense and having some confidence going forward.

“Weeks 1, 2, 3, 5, I think he would tell you, ‘You know what? I’m trying to learn the offense. If I go in there, I can run three plays, and that won’t last very long.’ I just think it’s a process. Everything’s a process. I think he’s continuing to gain more confidence, and the offense is continuing to gain more confidence in him, not that they didn’t have it to begin with, but even more so. And I think they appreciate his leadership.”

Hill could only run three plays when the season started? I’m surprised Singletary was able say that and keep a straight face. Hill said that he has “a much better grasp of the offense now” than he did at the start of camp after having watched O’Sullivan start the first eight games. But when asked if he knew the offense well enough to start in Week 1, Hill certainly didn’t shoot down the idea.

“Ah, I don’t know,” Hill said. Yeah, I think he does.

I think Hill – especially if he had been given the starter’s reps during training camp and exhibition games – could have stepped in from Day 1 and played well. He could have managed the game, protected the football, made smart decisions and even made some tough, accurate throws on time, as he did Sunday.

In the first half, Hill fired a strike to wide receiver Bryant Johnson on a quick slant, hitting him in stride. He turned that short pass into a 42-yard gain, setting up the 49ers’ second touchdown. Later in the half, Hill rolled to his right, sidestepped defensive end Leonard Little and lofted a 31-yard pass deep down the middle to running back DeShaun Foster, who had a step on a Rams defender. That pass set up another touchdown.

Those lasers were part of Hill’s perfect first-half passer rating.

“I didn’t realize that I had a perfect passer rating in the first half,” Hill said. “The funny thing about that rating is it might say that somebody is perfect, but I promise you there were some mistakes in there.”

Maybe so. But there were many more good decisions and accurate passes and, yes, even some deep passes. Hill did more than just manage the game. He made some big plays.

“I think as we go forward Mike Martz is learning some things that Shaun can do,” Singletary said. “The more he sees, the better it gets. So what I would say is, yes, Shaun Hill can mange the game, but he’s also a good quarterback that can make some throws. I’m excited about seeing that.”

Better late than never.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Another day, another mind-blowing drama for the Raiders

What do you get when you mix terrible decisions, horrible karma and over-the-top dysfunction into a giant cocktail and chug it down?

The Oakland Raiders, of course.

The Raiders have outdone themselves this year. I mean, you can’t make this stuff up. Every time you think it can’t get worse or crazier, it does.

Here are seven mind-blowing Silver and Black dramas from a list that probably stretches into triple digits:

EXIT, STAGE LEFT: After just eight games, Raiders boss Al Davis cut cornerback DeAngelo Hall, his No. 1 off-season acquisition, last week. No problem. All it cost the Raiders was $8 million and a pair of draft choices for eight games. Did anyone scout this guy before closing that deal with the Atlanta Falcons? As it turns out, he’s not so good in man-to-man coverage, which the Raiders prefer. He’s more of a zone guy and a free-lancer. Who knew? Apparently not the Raiders.

ROB RYAN UNCUT: Who can forget defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s expletive-filled command performance for the media shortly after a Week 1 embarrassment against Denver. It came shortly after former coach Lane Kiffin tossed Ryan and Davis under the bus for the defense’s meltdown. Undoubtedly following Davis’ orders, Ryan met the press and fired back at Kiffin. Buddy Ryan must be proud of his son’s mastery of colorful language.

KIFFIN GOES DOWN FIGHTING: Kiffin was canned after just four games, but he knew he was doomed since the end of last season when he wanted to fire Ryan but was overruled by Davis. Kiffin didn’t go quietly into unemployment. He spent much of the offseason, training camp and early season publicly zinging Davis for his personnel decisions. Most Raiders coaches kowtow to Davis. Kiffin stood up to him and revealed some of the organizational dysfunction that has hurt the franchise. If nothing else, it was fascinating theater of the absurd.

AL DAVIS MEETS THE PRESS: Davis didn’t just fire Kiffin. He tried to publicly humiliate him in one of the strangest press conferences in the history of sports. Have you ever heard of an NFL owner cueing the overhead projector then reading, line by line, a letter he had sent to his former coach? Davis aired more dirty laundry than the team collects after playing a game in the mud. Of course his intent was to make a case for firing Kiffin with cause and stiffing him out of the remainder of his salary.

THE CABLE GUY TAKES OVER: After firing Kiffin, Davis promoted offensive line coach Tom Cable to interim coach, bypassing Ryan, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and running backs coach Tom Rathman, among others. What, Tim the Tool Man wasn’t available. OK, cheap shot. Cable might turn out to be a great head coach. His 1-4 record to date says maybe not.

NOT SO BIG CATCH: Davis thought he struck free-agent gold when he signed former Broncos wide receiver Javon Walker to six-year, $55 million deal, despite Walker’s history of injuries. Not long after the ink dried on that contract, Walker was mugged in Las Vegas (more bad karma?) then decided to retire and return his $11 million signing bonus. Davis talked him out it. Talk about one bad decision deserving another. Walker caught just 15 passes before suffering a season-ending ankle injury last week against Carolina.

CABLE'S POWER GRAB: In the wake of an embarrassing 24-0 loss to Atlanta in which the Raiders had just three first downs, Cable stripped Knapp of his play-calling job and took on that duty. Makes sense. Cable called a few plays as a college coach. Knapp called plays for three NFL teams, the 49ers, Falcons and Raiders. Cable said he made the call to demote Knapp. Yeah, right. There’s no way Cable makes a decision this big without getting Al’s OK. That would have been Kiffian. I’d be willing to bet that Al told Cable to sack Knapp after that humiliating loss. So let’s see. Cable is now the interim head coach, offensive line coach and chief play-caller. What next? Specials teams coach? In Cable’s play-calling debut, the Raiders had 17 first downs but scored just six points against Carolina.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Holliday trade no reason for A's fans to celebrate

I’ve been trying to get excited about the trade A’s general manager Billy Beane’s swung with Colorado for outfielder Matt Holliday. It should be easy, right? Holliday is a legitimate star, something the A’s sorely lacked. He’s a big-time hitter who has slugged 128 home runs and driven in 483 in just five seasons. He’s young and talented.

Sorry, can’t do it.

This is just another instance of Billy being Billy, trading players as if they were baseball cards but having no end game in sight.

Holliday knows he should rent and not buy in the Bay Area. He’ll most likely be traded around the July deadline when desperate playoff contenders will bid his price through the roof. Or, he’ll walk away after one season, and the A’s will collect high draft picks as compensation.

Just don’t expect Holliday to be an Athletic long-term. He’ll make $13.5 million in 2009. He’ll be a free agent after this season. His agent is Scott Boras, Mr. Hardball himself. Get the picture? Holliday will demand and command more money than the small-budget A’s would ever consider spending.

I sympathize with A’s fans. They’re facing the same sorry situation they’re almost always facing. They’ll be watching a talented player knowing he’ll soon be gone. That’s great. Only the most na├»ve A’s fans would make an emotional investment in Holliday, no matter how many home runs he hits.

I’ll enjoy the Holliday show while it lasts in Oakland. I just won’t get too excited.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Raiders' offense unwatchable in loss to Carolina

Quick, get Safeway on the line. The Raider Nation is in serious need of brown paper bags. No need to poke eyeholes in these babies, the way Saints fans did when their team was known as the Aint’s. Just put them over your head and protect your eyes from the Raiders' unwatchable offense.

Only a handful of masochistic Raiders loyalists and countless seagulls showed up Sunday at the Coliseum to watch Oakland lose 17-6 to Carolina. In this case, a television blackout was beautiful.

Even on a day in which the Raiders’ defense intercepted four passes and Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme had a 7 of 27 passing nightmare, the Raiders scored just two second-half field goals.

That’s six more points than they scored in a 24-0 loss the previous week to Atlanta. And unlike that game, they didn’t post a first-down bagel in the first half. With backup quarterback Andrew Walter starting in place of sore-kneed JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders actually had eight first downs in the first half and 17 for the game. Consider that your Silver and Black lining.

So what went wrong on offense? To hear interim coach Tom Cable’s explanation, penalties killed the Raiders. They led to too many third-and-longs, he maintained.

So it’s official. Cable has taken up residence in fantasyland. The Raiders offense committed only five penalties, just one in the second half, on the last drive. Here’s what actually helped kill some of the Raiders drives:

A Julius Peppers sack on third-and-six at Carolina’s 44. A Richard Marshall interception on first-and-10 at the Carolina 16. A Peppers sack on first-and-10 at the Raiders 33. A fumbled exchange between Walter and running back Justin Fargas on first-and-10 from the Raiders 15. A shotgun snap that sailed over Walter’s head on first-and-10 at Carolina’s 43. A Chris Gamble interception on third-and-4 from the Carolina 45. A Peppers sack on third-and-7 at the Raiders 44.

Then there were a handful of your garden variety three-and-outs and a few drives that simply stalled. In reality, there were just two drives that were truly short-circuited with big penalties.

There’s more proof that Cable has lost touch with reality. Consider his answer when asked if he believes he can hold this team together.

“I do,” Cable said. “Obviously the proof is the effort we just put (forth) on the field, with all the changes and everything that were made, the things we went through this week.

“Shoot, if we play like that in the second half, we’ll win more games than we’ll lose, and I really believe that.”

Good one, coach. Miami, Denver, Kansas City, San Diego, New England, Houston and Tampa Bay should get a good laugh when they hear that one.

You have to give the Raiders’ defense credit. After last week’s humiliating game against Atlanta, the Raiders’ ‘D’ played with passion and, for the most part, skill. The Raiders held Carolina to 14 points in the first half. The first score came after Johnnie Lee Higgins fumbled the opening kick at the Raiders’ 16. The second came on DeAngelo Williams’ 69-yard run.

“I’m proud of the effort, but we still have to win games,” Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. “It was kind of like 2006 when we’d have a bunch of turnovers and still come away with the loss. The offense played a lot better than we did back then.”

That only tells you how bad the Raiders’ offense was in 2006 under coordinator Tom Walsh.

“They played hard,” running back Justin Fargas said of the defense. “They played lights out. As an offense, we’re disappointed we weren’t able to pay back the favor and put some points on the board.”

Cornerback Chris Johnson played well in his first start, replacing the jettisoned DeAngelo Hall. Safety Rashad Baker had two interceptions (but also missed a tackle on Williams’ long TD run), while Asomugha and Sam Williams had one apiece.

Yet for all those turnovers, the Raiders couldn’t get in the end zone.

“We’ve got to find the hunger, that when we get down close to the red zone we can smell the end zone and take shots at it,” said Fargas, who rushed for 89 yards on 22 carries.

Walter, seeing his first action of the season, completed 14 of 32 passes for 143 yards with two interceptions. He had a passer rating of 31.1.

What went wrong?

“Penalties. Penalties, for one,” Walter said, promoting the Cable-inspired fantasy. “We can’t catch a break, whether it’s a receiver catching feet with a defensive back for an interception and then penalties. I mean, we haven’t been able to catch a break.”

Yeah, I guess it’s a bad break when Peppers goes wild, racking up three sacks, making seven tackles and forcing two fumbles.

Delhomme apparently lost his groove during the bye week. He was off-target from the outset, over- and under-throwing receivers all over the field. The Raiders’ defense, of course, had something to do with Delhomme’s bad day.

The Raiders intercepted passes deep in Carolina territory on back-to-back drives to open the second half. First Baker, then Williams came up with picks.

The Raiders went three-and-out both times, gaining five yards each time before settling for field goals. Damn those penalties.

The Panthers kept begging to be beat, but the Raiders kept refusing. Early in the fourth quarter, the Raiders drove into Carolina territory. They had a promising drive going until Walter tried to hit wide receiver Javon Walker on a third-and-4 slant and Gamble cut in front to intercept.

How about that coaching change? Before Lane Kiffin was fired, the Raiders averaged 19.5 points per game. Since Cable took over, they’ve averaged 7.0.

That’s reality, not fantasy.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Warriors rookie makes good impression in loss to Memphis

Quick hits from Oracle Arena after watching the Warriors lose 109-104 to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night:

Rookie forward Anthony Randolph finally got a chance to play some meaningful minutes, thanks to injuries that sidelined veterans Corey Maggette and Al Harrington. You know what? The kid that coach Don Nelson has said was nowhere near ready to play in the big, bad NBA actually looked pretty good.

Randolph scored eight points on 4 of 8 shooting in just over 17 minutes. He grabbed seven rebounds and blocked a shot.

Even Nelson was impressed.

“I liked it,” Nelson said of Randolph’s performance. “He’s way ahead of Brandan Wright, where he was a year ago. I thought he looked pretty good tonight.

“He’s going to be a terrific player some day. He’s probably a little too young now. He had some nice moments. He definitely has a presence to his game.”

Randolph’s jumper looked silky smooth. He used his tremendous wingspan to block or affect a few Memphis shots. Randolph even handled the ball well on the fastbreak. Not bad for a 6-10 rookie.

“It was a little nerve-wracking at first,” Randolph said. “I was nervous, but once the game started going, I settled (down) and just started to play my game. I was nervous. My heart was beating fast.

“I was probably having a little panic attack when I shot that first shot. But when I missed, it was like, ‘OK, nothing worse can happen, so just come out there and play your game.’ After I missed that first shot I was good.”

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Without point guard Baron Davis, the Warriors are still struggling in the final minutes of close games. Stephen Jackson made a concerted effort Friday night to be the Warriors’ go-to guy in crunch time. He did OK. But he’s not B.D. He doesn’t have Davis’ quickness or speed. He certainly doesn’t have his ball-handling skills and doesn’t demand the same type of defensive attention that leads to wide open shots for his teammates.

This part of the Warriors’ game is still a work in progress.

“The young guys played well, we played hard enough,” Jackson said. “But down the stretch I am the leader of this team so I have to make better plays. I have to be smarter.”

Jackson scored 27 points but had just four assists.

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Harrington missed the game with a bad back, and his time with the Warriors appears to be winding down in the wake of his public request for a trade.

Nelson said that entering the season he made a commitment to Harrington to give him major minutes every game. That deal, Nelson said before the game, ended earlier this week.

“For the good of the franchise, I think we have to anticipate that he won’t be here and do what we have to do to not be all of a sudden totally surprised about a different lineup,” Nelson said. “If we can do that gradually now, and we’ll bring Al off of the bench and he’ll have to pick up minutes where he can. It’s not that he’s not going to play. He will play, but we’ve got to look to the future here, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Nelson was asked if it would be better to trade Harrington sooner rather than later.

“It doesn’t matter,” Nelson said. “It’s just so we get a good player. If that’s soon, that’s fine. If it doesn’t happen. … Hopefully it will happen. I hope it will. He hopes it will. A guy shouldn’t be where he doesn’t want to be. It’s hard for him to give his best and his all. It’s a good things for both parties at this point.”
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Point guard Marcus Williams finally slimmed down enough to get on the floor. He played like someone who hadn’t seen the court since the exhibition season. He went scoreless in nearly 10 minutes of playing time, missing all three of his shots.

Nelson said he told Williams he wouldn’t get to suit up until he got his body fat to 10 percent or his weight to 210 pounds. Williams made his weight and saw some game action against Memphis.

“We watched him in training camp, and he just couldn’t do what we thought he could do,” Nelson said. “So he got beat out by two guys. It was just something we thought we’d bring to his attention, that he needed to get his weight down.

“Whether he’s with me or somebody else, it’s hard for him to get into the paint area where he’s effective when he’s heavy. So he was not going to play until he got to 10 percent body fat or 210 (pounds), and he got serious. He lost it quickly. … . I was very encouraged by yesterday’s practice, and I’ve been encouraged by watching him come in early in the morning and do his double workouts and sometimes three, and he got his weight down. I’m happy about that.”
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Andris Biedrins recorded his 13th straight double-double, dating to last season, the longest current streak in the NBA and the longest by a Warrior since Nate Thurmond had 13 straight in 1973. Biedrins scored 23 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and – drum roll – made 9 of 10 freethrows.

“He had some decent numbers,” Nelson said. “I don’t think he was as good tonight as he’s been.”

Tough crowd. Nelson was unhappy with the way the Warriors got outrebounded 55-41 as a team by the Grizzlies even though Memphis center Marc Gasol played only 17:15 before fouling out and backup center Darko Milicic played just 12:27 before being ejected in the first half for saying a few choice words to the officials.

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Rookie power forward Richard Hendrix is ticketed the NBA Development League, Nelson said.

“I don’t think that he’s ready yet,” Nelson said. “And I’m going to put him in the ‘D’ League, probably for most of the year. I think that would be good for him and then we’ll take a look at him. I don’t see that he’s going to be NBA ready for quite a while.”

Warriors take a trip to dysfunction junction

I didn’t really think it was possible, but the Warriors are making a move in the battle to become the Bay Area’s most dysfunctional professional sports franchise.

No, they’ll never overtake the Raiders as long as Al Davis is in charge of the NFL’s wackiest franchise. I mean, until Warriors owner Chris Cohan fires a coach and goes overhead projector on us, he can’t compete with wild and crazy Al.

The Warriors still have a ways to go to catch the 49ers and that brand of Yorkian dysfunction. But the Warriors are definitely gaining ground.

Hours before Friday night’s game against Memphis at Oracle Arena – soon to be renamed the Nut House? – the Warriors announced news that had leaked out a day earlier. They canned assistant general manager Pete D’Alessandro and promoted assistant coach Larry Riley to replace him.

This was the latest move by Warriors uber-president Robert Rowell to both punish and disrespect executive vice president Chris Mullin. D’Alessandro was Mullin’s right-hand man, someone he trusted and relied on. Now he’s gone, reportedly for insubordination, which translates to supporting Mullin.

Why don’t Rowell and team owner Chris Cohan just fire Mullin and be done with it? Mullin, one of the most respected players and executives in team history, doesn’t deserve this type of treatment.

Yeah, Mullin has made mistakes, handed too much money to some players who didn’t deserve it. But it was Mullin who traded for Baron Davis. It was Mullin who convinced Nelson to return to the Warriors. It was Mullin who landed Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington from Indiana for Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy, two players most Warriors fans were worth next to nothing.

Just two seasons ago, the Warriors made the playoffs and stunned the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Talk about ancient history.

The team that made the playoffs has been destroyed. Last year the Warriors traded guard Jason Richardson to Charlotte in a draft-day deal for the rights to Brandan Wright in what now seems more like a move to save money than to actually get better.

If the Warriors had kept Richardson, they’d have made the playoffs last year, too. They’d have been a deeper team with more offensive firepower. Their tank wouldn’t have been bone dry in the final weeks of the season when they faded.

This year Rowell vetoed a tentative three-year contract extension that Mullin had reached with Davis. So Davis walked away, and the Warriors received nothing in return for their best player.

I can’t blame Rowell for Monta Ellis’ crashing his moped and seriously injury an ankle. But I can blame him for playing over-the-top hardball with Ellis to the point that Ellis, even if he does recover completely, might try to force the Warriors to trade him. To make matters worse, Rowell publicly ripped Mullin for being too soft on Ellis. Classy move.

Forward Al Harrington is as good as gone. He asked to be traded, and the Warriors apparently are trying to deal him. Harrington’s issues are with Nelson, not Rowell. But if he leaves, it will be just one more piece of the “We Believe” playoff team that’s been lost.

Add him to a list that includes Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes, who left after last season as free agents.

Ah, sweet dysfunction.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Cal facing long odds in its quest to beat USC in L.A.

Here’s a football fact that can’t have Cal fans feeling too good approaching Saturday’s showdown against USC in Los Angeles: The Bears under coach Jeff Tedford are oh-for-L.A.

Since coming to Berkeley in 2002, Tedford has turned Cal into a football powerhouse. The Bears are 56-28 and have been to five straight bowl games under Tedford. But they’ve lost three straight games to UCLA at the Rose Bowl and three straight games to USC at the Memorial Coliseum.

Cal’s teams are always packed with players who grew up in Southern California. So-called homecoming games are filled with potential problems. Players can get too hyped up or too tight, overwhelmed with emotion. During his weekly news conference Monday, Tedford was asked if those problems had anything to do with the Bears’ lack of success in L.A.

“No,” Tedford said. “We’ve played well down there. We’ve had close games. … I don’t know that our players have played tight. I don’t know that our players haven’t played well. You’re playing a really good football team,” he said of USC. “They’re close games. They can go either way.

“I don’t think at all that our players go down there with the thought of feeling intimidated or trying to do more than they can do. I think they’re excited to play and (play) with high intensity and they lay it all on the line. I don’t think there’s anything that really needs to be addressed there besides you don’t need to be superhuman. You don’t have to do something special. Just play to your potential and play hard.”

Tedford’s team losing three straight to UCLA on the road is baffling. Losing three straight to USC is much easier to understand. Since 2002, USC has lost exactly one home game. That was last year to Stanford, a 24-23 loss that stands as one of the most stunning upsets in Pac-10 history.

Cal, as Tedord said, has come close to beating the Trojans in L.A. In 2002, the Bears fell 30-28.

In 2004, the Bears trailed just 23-17 late in the fourth quarter and had the ball deep in USC territory. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had been almost perfect for most of the game, but he couldn’t get Cal into the end zone at the end in what was a crushing defeat for the Bears.

In 2006, Cal kept the game tight into the second half before USC pulled away for a 23-9 victory.

Tedford’s lone win over USC came in 2003 in Berkeley, a 34-31 triple-overtime thriller.

The oddsmakers have No. 21 Cal as a 17½-point underdog against the No. 7 Trojans. The Bears aren’t buying their long odds.

“It’s important to know that this is a good team, but they’re not unbeatable,” Cal center Alex Mack said. “I think it’s going to be more about what we do as a team and what kind of plays we make. If we get all over-concerned about how good they are or what they’re ranked or all this stuff, you’re going to come into the game feeling tight.

“It’s important to know that we just have to do what we have to do and do as well as we can. They’re still college players. There’s nothing extraordinary about them. It’s going to be about coming out and making plays.”

Mack is right about one thing. USC is not unbeatable. The Trojans lost 27-21 to Oregon State on the road in September. Last month the Trojans barely held on to beat Arizona 17-10. Of course that was another road game.

Maybe Tedford should show his team videotape of Stanford beating USC last year, just so the Bears know it’s possible for a road team to beat the Trojans at their home.

Motivation won’t be a problem. The Bears need to beat USC to keep their Rose Bowl hopes alive.

“I’m glad we set ourselves in position to make this game count,” Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. “Last year we kind of had our downfall and once we got to this game finally, it didn’t matter which way it went.

“It’s an exciting game going there to L.A. I can remember going down there in ’06 and walking out there under the lights, and it felt like a dream out there. It’s definitely a great place to play, and that’s what every athlete on this team, every competitor on this team dreams of is to play in a game like this, of this magnitude.”

A victory Saturday would be huge for the Bears this season and potentially in the future. USC sits in the middle of one of the nation’s hottest football recruiting areas, an area that supplies most of the players for the Pac-10. There’s no telling what a win over the Trojans in L.A. might mean long-term for the Bears.

Those potential reinforcements won’t arrive until future seasons. These Bears will be on their own against USC.

“They seem to always have No. 1, No. 2 recruiting classes in the country,” Tedford said of USC. “So they recruit very well. They’re very well coached. It’s difficult. But you can still. … I don’t think there’s any doubt if you’re successful recruiting and you can stay healthy that you can compete.”

Now the question is whether Cal can do more than just compete and actually beat USC in L.A.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Raiders' latest loss one for the ages

I know it won’t be easy, but I’m going to try to put the Raiders’ 24-0 loss Sunday to the Atlanta Falcons into its proper, humiliating perspective.

Let’s start with a few of the final numbers. The Raiders were outgained 453 to 77. They had three first downs to the Falcons’ 30. They lost the time of possession battle 45:15 to 14:45.

They gained the fewest yards by a Raiders team in any game in the Al Davis era, which began in 1963, and the fewest yards in the NFL since Dec. 12, 2004, when Cleveland gained 26 against Buffalo.

The Raiders set a franchise record for fewest first downs in a game.

Are you getting the picture of exactly how gruesome it was Sunday at the Coliseum?

“During the week we look like we’re a Super Bowl team, and we come out there and we’re damn near the laughingstock of the league, and it’s ridiculous,” Raiders safety Gibril Wilson said. “I’ve never been in a situation where it’s been like this, and I don’t know what it is. I really don’t know what it is.

“The coaches are getting us prepared. That’s not a problem. The people in this locker room have to look at themselves in the mirror and see exactly what they’re bringing to the table, and if they’re not bringing anything to the table, then get off the ship, period.”

You can understand Wilson’s culture shock. A year ago, he was on his way to winning the Super Bowl with the New York Giants. This is still all new to him.

Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is in Year 6 as a Raider. He has some history with the team.

Was this as bad as it gets?

“In the first half, probably as bad as it gets,” Asomugha said. “I think we played Jacksonville and Green Bay last year. Those were pretty bad. I’ve had some bad ones, but in the first half, that was bad”

NFL laughingstock bad.

The Raiders fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter and 24-0 by halftime. Atlanta gained 309 yards in the first half. The Raiders “gained” minus-2. The Falcons amassed 20 first downs in the first half. The Raiders totaled zero. Atlanta held the ball for 24:08, the Raiders 5:52.

Atlanta’s Michael Turner rushed for 82 yards and Jerious Norwood 50 in the first half. Falcons rookie quarterback Matt Ryan completed 13 of 16 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns.

Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, meanwhile, hit on 2 of 7 passes for nine yards and was sacked three times. Justin Fargas carried three times for 5 yards.

“Very disappointing,” said Raiders interim coach Tom Cable, whose record dropped to 1-3 and odds of keeping this job in 2009 continued getting longer.

You had to see this to believe how ugly it was. Unbelievable. This looked like professionals against amateurs, men against boys, NFL vs. high school.

The Falcons’ offense had the Raiders’ confused and flummoxed from the outset. Atlanta opened with a no-huddle attack and marched 88 yards for a score, Ryan hitting Michael Jenkins on a 44-yard touchdown pass. Yeah, Jenkins beat cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Was there any doubt?

The Falcons did whatever they wanted against the Raiders’ defense. They hit the Raiders with a mixture of Turner’s power running and Norwood’s slashing blows. Ryan threw deep, midrange and short passes, hitting six different targets.

Invariably, there was a Falcon wide open somewhere on every play, and Ryan found him.

“They had a rhythm, they got hot,” Raiders linebacker Kirk Morrison said. “Once you get hot, it’s hard to break that.”

Apparently, so.

The Raiders’ problems on defense began early when they couldn’t stop Turner or Norwood. When the Raiders thought run, Atlanta passed. When they thought pass, Atlanta ran.

“They pretty much did the type of stuff we saw, and they did some of the stuff that we had been seeing in other weeks that they had never done,” Asomugha said. “It’s a copycat league so you see someone else do it and it works, then they’ll start doing it. Those were the plays we got.”

In other words, the Raiders’ defense has been exposed and an expect more of the same.

You’ve got to give Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey plenty of credit for a great game plan. And Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan? Let’s just say that Lane Kiffin is probably having a good laugh.

It’s not as if Atlanta is an offensive juggernaut. The Falcons came into the game ranked 11th in total offense, third in rushing and 22nd in passing. Good, yes, but not nearly as good as the Raiders made them look, especially in the first half.

I don’t want to just pile on the Raiders’ defense. The Raiders’ offense was equally awful.

Atlanta entered the game ranked 25th in total defense, 22nd against the pass and 23rd against the run. Against the Raiders, the Falcons’ ‘D’ looked like the the 21st century’s Steel Curtain.

The Raiders couldn’t run. They couldn’t pass. They couldn’t do anything.

Fargas said he never saw this disaster coming.

“Not at all. We had a good week of practice. I thought the energy was good. I thought we were ready to play,” Fargas said. “It didn’t show.

“I don’t know how it happens, but it happened. We didn’t look good in any phase of our game. We have to do something to get it right.”

The contrast between the two young quarterbacks on the field, Russell and Ryan, was stunning. Ryan was cool and calm, making the proper reads and finding open receivers. He was also accurate. His 44-yard touchdown pass to Jenkins early in the first quarter was a laser. Jenkins had a step on Hall along the right sideline. He reached up at the 10, and the pass basically hit him in the hands.

Russell is in his second season, but he looked much more like a rookie than Ryan. Granted, he rarely had open receivers, but when he did, he usually missed them or threw uncatchable balls, as in 100 mph rockets from short range.

One of the lowest points for Russell came midway through the third period when he went to pass and had the ball slip out of his hands for a fumble. Later in the half, he forced a pass to a blanketed Javon Walker in the end zone. Erik Coleman came up with what had to be the easiest interception of his career.

The Raiders didn't get their first first down of the game with 9:26 left in the third quarter. The fans erupted in what clearly was a mocking Bronx cheer. For most of the day they simply booed the home team.

By the end of the game, there were almost more seagulls circling the Coliseum than fans in the stands. Vultures would have been more fitting.

Now the Raiders face that familiar danger of having their season implode with eight games still to play.

“It’s a slippery slope,” Fargas said, “and we can’t let it fall off. We just have to keep fighting, keep working and doing whatever it takes to get a win.”

What exactly is that? And how do the Raiders keep this bad loss from snowballing?

“I don’t know,” Asomugha said. “Is that a fair answer? I don’t know. I just hope it doesn’t.”

Confident Hagan's career at Cal soars to new heights

I wrote story about cornerback Darian Hagan that appeared in Cal's football program Saturday when the Bears beat Oregon. In case you missed the game or missed the story, here it is:

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To truly understand how high Cal cornerback Darian Hagan’s football career has soared this season, you have to recall the day it hit rock bottom.

It was Sept. 8, 2007. The Bears had built what appeared to be an insurmountable 34-14 lead over Colorado State, and Hagan, along with some other young Bears, came off the bench late in the fourth quarter at Fort Collins.

Before Hagan knew what hit him, Colorado State had burned him twice, once on a 66-yard touchdown pass.

“That was a terrible experience,” said Hagan, a red-shirt sophomore. “I was kind of thinking, ‘OK, the light’s finally coming on.’ I get my opportunity, and I got out there and blew it.”

Hagan was yanked from that game, which Cal hung on to win 34-28. He never played another down at cornerback in the Bears’ final 11 games that season.

After being humiliated at Colorado State and spending the rest of his red-shirt freshman season on the bench, the light that Hagan mentioned actually did come on.

Hagan said he finally realized that the “practice habits” that served him well enough as a highly recruited cornerback at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, didn’t cut it at Cal.

“Coming from high school, I was one of the stars on the team,” Hagan said. “I was forced to practice, but it was kind of like a you-can-do-whatever-you-want-to-do kind of thing. I came to college with that attitude, and it wasn’t getting me anywhere.

“It took a little while to wake up. At this point, it’s not really a game anymore. This is a business. I had to get that through my head. I finally got it through my head.”

When he did, Hagan made one of the smartest decisions of his Cal career. He called linebacker Worrell Williams, a respected and forceful team leader, and asked for help. Specifically, Hagan asked Williams to push him to work hard and make sure he never slipped back into his bad habits.

“I think that was a sign of maturity for him to reach out,” Williams said. “He’s evolved as a player. He’s gotten smart out there. His tackling has gotten a lot better. He’s a lot tougher. He’s always been a good (cover) corner out there, a great corner. He’s doing well.”

When it comes to keeping Hagan on track, Williams takes his job seriously. He calls him often to make sure he’s lifting weights and doing his work off the field. At practice, he lets Hagan know he’s watching him.

“Whenever he sees me slacking, he’ll say, ‘Step it up, step it up,’ ” Hagan said. “He always reminds me of that (telephone) call.”

Hagan used the Colorado State game as motivation during spring practice, summer workouts and training camp, when he won the starting job at right cornerback.

Another motivating force arrived in his life on Feb. 21st when his daughter, Kenyan, was born. She and her mother live in Los Angeles, but they were in Berkeley visiting Hagan for a few weeks earlier this season.

Being a father, Hagan said, has changed his life.

“So that’s been an extra push for me to come out and make things happen and try to live my dream here,” Hagan said.

“I keep a picture of her on my locker, a big picture of her. So every day I come in before I hit the field and see that. It kind of wakes me up and gets me ready for practice. Got to make it happen now.”

Hagan didn’t have to wait long to get redemption against Colorado State. The Bears and Rams met again on Sept. 27, this time at Memorial Stadium. Hagan had his first career interception and made four tackles, including one in the backfield.

“He’s made great strides,” Cal linebacker Anthony Felder said. “He’s increased his work ethic, his focus. Every week he gets better.”

And every week he has a target on his jersey, playing opposite third-year starting left cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, the Bears most decorated defensive back.

Hagan said he understands why most quarterbacks avoid Thompson and attack him. But you know what? He loves the extra attention. In Hagan’s mind, more passes thrown his way equal more chances to make big plays and prove his worth.

“That’s kind of a plus for me for him to be a lock-down corner on his side,” Hagan said. “It will give me a few more opportunities to show that I can be the same type of players as well. I accept the challenge.”

There aren’t many, if any, challenges on the football field that Hagan doesn’t welcome.

He plays the game with a swagger and confidence that occasionally crosses the line into cockiness. Hagan said he has a split personality – one when he’s off the field and one when he plays football.

“I think I’m a real humble, laid-back guy off the field, but when I’m on the field I just turn into a totally different person,” Hagan said.

“I like to talk a little bit. It kind of motivates me. I like to try to get the (opposing) players into it a little bit, because when they start talking it just boosts me up to make sure I shut them down on the next play.”

Most of Hagan’s teammates aren’t nearly as talkative or expressive on the field. But Felder, for one, said he gets a kick out of Hagan’s game-day persona and said it helps motivate the team. He called Hagan’s attitude the “prototype” for most people who play corner, one of football’s most demanding and high-stress positions, where even the slightest mistake can cost your team a touchdown.

“You’ve got to have guys out there that are a little bit different from some of the other players on the field, higher energy, maybe a little bit more confidence and swagger than at other positions because you’re out on that island,” Felder said.

“It’s a lot like a boxer. He’s one-on-one with a receiver. … He’s real tough out there. At the same time, he’s able to be a team player and come up and help us out and also play within the system.”

Hagan said he pays close attention to a number of current NFL cornerbacks, including Green Bay’s Al Harris and San Diego’s Antonio Cromartie because they’re “tall, physical corners, kind of on the slimmer side, like me.”

But it should come as no surprise that Hagan’s favorite cornerback is one who has retired, ex-NFL great Deion Sanders, who went by that unassuming nickname of Prime Time.

“I just look at it like this,” Hagan said. “Deion Sanders, he kind of set the
standard for the cornerback position. And the type of player he was, he was real cocky out there. He’s having a lot of fun.

“It’s kind of like having to live up to that. That’s how I look at it. Playing this position, you have to have major confidence.”

Hagan has the confidence part of the cornerback job down pat. As for having fun, he’s got a good handle on that, too. This a player who loves to celebrate big plays on the field.

“He just kind of struts his stuff a little,” Williams said. “More body language than anything.”

“He’s not really a trash talker,” Cal safety Marcus Ezeff said of Hagan. “He’s more of a dancer. He likes to do his little dance. It’s kind of entertaining to watch.”

When Hagan made a big hit on an Arizona Wildcat receiver earlier this season, he had the wind knocked out of him and had to leave the field for a play. But not before he took care of some business.

“Even with the wind knocked out of me, I had to strike a pose,” Hagan said, laughing.