Saturday, January 31, 2009

With Martz out and Raye in, 49ers' offense in peril of taking another tumble in 2009

For the sake of all 49ers fan, I hope I’m wrong, but I have a feeling you and your team are going to miss offensive coordinator Mike Martz before too long.

After firing Martz then conducting an exhaustive search, coach Mike Singletary hired Jimmy Raye as the 49ers’ new offensive coordinator. Who knows? Maybe hiring Raye will turn out to be pure genius. Maybe he’ll bring stability to an offense that, counting Raye, has had a different offensive coordinator for seven straight years.

My gut’s telling me this hire was a mistake and that the 49ers’ offense is going to take a step backward in 2009.

I mean, this was the anti-WOW! hire. In eight of Raye’s 12 seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator, his teams had losing records. Raye’s offenses failed to average over 20 points per game in seven of those seasons.

Under Martz, the 49ers averaged 21.2 points per game. Say what you want to about Martz, but he’s an offensive magician. He took the NFL’s worst offense and turned it into something respectable last season. Well, at least after Singletary stepped in and benched quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan in favor of Shaun Hill.

Singletary and Martz obviously clashed when it came to offensive philosophy. I suppose Mad Mike and smash-mouth Samurai Mike was a combustible marriage. I suppose it couldn’t last, even though the results they produced together were good, with Singletary forcing Martz to reign in his uber-aggressive, self-destructive tendencies.

Raye and Singletary apparently are simpatico when it comes to their shared belief in having a tough, physical offense that can run through brick walls.

Personally, I wish the 49ers had never abandoned the West Coast offense. That was the team’s signature, its identity, its source of offensive stability since the day Eddie DeBartolo hired Bill Walsh as his coach in 1979. You can argue whether it’s the best offensive system, but at least the 49ers knew who they were and the type of players and coaches they needed to fit their scheme.

When the 49ers fired coach Steve Mariucci after a 10-6 playoff season in 2002 and hired Dennis Erickson, they lost their offensive identity. They’ve been floundering ever since, switching schemes and coordinators as often as hockey teams change lines.

Raye’s approach is more akin to the Ernie Zampese/Norv Turner offensive philosophy than anything Walshian.

I’m certainly not expecting to see offensive magic from the 49ers next season. But at a minimum, they should establish an offensive identity and stick with it for at least a few years. The team simply can’t keep changing coordinators and schemes if it hopes to ever return to the playoffs.

At 62, Raye is probably too old to be a prime head-coaching candidate. So the 49ers probably won’t lose him the way they lost Mike McCarthy to the Packers and Turner to the Chargers after one season in San Francisco. Raye agreed to a three-year deal with the 49ers and said he hopes to fulfill that contract and land another with the team. The 49ers have also hired a new quarterbacks coach, 41-year-old Mike Johnson. So maybe Johnson can learn under Raye and be ready to step in for a seamless transition when Raye retires.

Of course that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case is that the 49ers’ offense backtracks, Raye gets whacked, and the 49ers start over again.

We’ll find out soon enough.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Steelers will ride No. 1 ranked defense to Super Bowl victory over Cardinals

I was watching a cable news channel this morning when a story came on about a Kodiak bear from the Pittsburgh Zoo predicting the winner of Super Bowl XLIII. There were two boxes, one with a Pittsburgh Steelers logo, and the other with an Arizona Cardinals logo.

Shockingly, a bear from the Pittsburgh Zoo picked the Steelers’ box. Imagine that. Of course that box wasn’t soaked in salmon oil or covered with honey. That would be dishonest. What are you, cynical?

I have to say, I agree with the bear. The Steelers will win the Super Bowl. I'll even give you a final score: Steelers 27, Cardinals 17.

Most of my reasons for picking Pittsburgh revolve around defense. I hate to drop the cliché card so early in the discussion, but there’s a simple reason they say defense wins championships. It’s usually true.

The Steelers nearly won the NFL’s triple crown on defense this season. They ranked No. 1 in total defense (based on yards allowed), No. 1 in pass defense and No. 2 in run defense. But here’s the most important defensive statistic: Pittsburgh held its opponents to an average of 13.9 points per game, the fewest in the NFL.

And Arizona? The Cardinals allowed 26.6 points per game, 28th in the league. They ranked 19th in total defense, 22nd in pass defense and 16th in rush defense.

Granted, Arizona has the edge on offense, averaging 26.7 points per game (No. 3) to Pittsburgh’s 21.7 (No. 20). And the Cardinals finished fourth in total offense and second in passing, while the Steelers ranked 22nd and 17th, respectively, in those categories. Pittsburgh’s only offensive edge came in rushing, where it ranked 23rd to Arizona’s 32nd.

When it comes to the Super Bowl, I’ll always take a team centered on a physical, dominant defense over one centered on a very good but far from great offense.

The Cardinals have been impressive in their playoff wins over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, averaging 31.7 points per game. Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner has been magnificent, throwing for 770 yards and completing 66.3 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and only two interceptions. His postseason passer rating is 112.1.

Warner, though, rarely was forced out of his comfort zone in those three wins against teams that employ 4-3 defenses. More often than not, he was able to drop back, set his feet and throw on rhythm, usually to a wide-open Larry Fitzgerald.

Those days are over. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will make life very uncomfortable for Warner and Fitzgerald with his pressure-packed, confusing 3-4 scheme.

Pittsburgh outside linebackers James Harrison, the NFL’s Defensive MVP, and LaMarr Woodley, combined for 28 sacks this season. Inside linebacker James Farrior added four sacks. Even if the Steelers don’t rack up a huge number of sacks against Warner, they’ll hit him and force him to throw on the run. When Warner is forced to move, he goes from being an MVP candidate to a very average quarterback.

There’s no way the Steelers let Fitzgerald run as freely as he’s been able to run so far in the playoffs. I have a feeling strong safety Troy Polamalu will be there to greet Fitzgerald a few times when he runs those shallow crossing routes. LeBeau will find a way to contain Fitzgerald and force Warner to throw more often to his less dangerous targets. Yes, Anquan Boldin is good, but he’s been battling assorted injuries and has been whining about his contract. At this point, he’s no Fitzgerald.

The Steelers aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will find a way to make just enough big plays for the Steelers to win. At 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, he’s tough to bring down. At some point during the Super Bowl, he’ll use his size and strength to escape a sack and complete a game-changing strike, likely to Hines Ward.

The Steelers will have one other big edge other than defense at the Super Bowl. Raymond James Stadium will seem like a home away from home for Pittsburgh.

Remember what it was like at Ford Field in Detroit for Super Bowl XL when the Steelers beat Seattle 21-10? Steelers fans far outnumbered Seahawks fans in the stadium that day. It will be the same thing this year in Tampa. The Steelers have a long and storied history that includes five Super Bowl victories. Steelers fans travel well and are willing to pay big bucks to see their team play.

The Cardinals are relatively recent transplants in Arizona. They’ve never won a Super Bowl. Let’s just say the Arizona Cardinals are not exactly America’s Team.

Let your Terrible Towels fly.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Round 3 of Sharks vs. Flames has a playoff feel to it

Playoff hockey in January?

That’s the way it looked to me from high above the rink at the Shark Tank, and that’s the way it felt for those on the ice Thursday night in Round 3 between the Sharks and Calgary Flames.

For the first time all season, the Sharks lost a home game in regulation, falling 3-2 to a Calgary team they beat in the first round of the playoffs last season. They’re now 20-1-2 at home, but the Sharks certainly didn’t go down quietly.

“I think it was a great hockey game,” said Sharks center Joe Thornton, who scored one goal and came within an eyelash of scoring another. “It was a playoff type atmosphere.”

As for the Sharks suffering their first home loss in regulation, Thornton just shrugged it off, saying, “It was bound to happen.” His thoughts were clearly centered more on the emotional game he had just played against a tough and sometimes bitter rival than on the end of the streak.

“Who knows? We’ll probably meet each other in the playoffs,” Thornton said.

That thought certainly doesn’t worry him.

“I thought we were more physical than them. I thought we were quicker than them,” Thornton said. “I think we stack up pretty good against them.”

Thornton’s probably right. Then again, the Sharks have lost two straight to the Flames, including a 5-2 thrashing at Calgary on Jan. 6, a payback for a 6-1 Sharks victory in San Jose on Nov. 13.

The final three-goal margin in Calgary doesn’t come close to telling you the true story of that butt kicking. Calgary led 4-0 early in the second period. Sharks coach Todd McLellan pulled goalie Evgeni Nabokov and replaced him with Brian Boucher. At that point, he might as well have put Bobby Boucher into the game.

This will tell you exactly what McLellan thought about the way his team played that night. Instead of giving his players a practice-free day, as planned, he scheduled a workout for early the next morning in Calgary before the Sharks traveled to Edmonton.

“The effort (tonight) when you compare it to what we had in Calgary was much better,” McLellan said.”

Thornton’s effort, in particular, stood out.

“Joe was competitive,” McLellan said. “I liked the fire he had in him. I thought it rubbed off on some of his linemates.”

Thornton is a pass-first center, but on Thursday night against Calgary he took matters into his own hands more often than usual.

Thornton put the Sharks ahead 2-1 at 6:57 of the second period, ripping a shot past Miikka Kiprusoff. He took the puck along the right boards, glided to his left and snapped a shot that beat the former Shark goalie on his glove side, just inside the post. It was the type of effortless, powerful offense that makes you wonder why Thornton doesn’t shoot more often.

Calgary wasted little time before answering. Just eight seconds into a power play, Daymond Langkow redirected a shot from Michael Cammalleri past Evegeni Nabokov with 10:25 still left in the second.

Thornton nearly put the Sharks back ahead on a power play with under nine minutes left to play. He rocketed a shot that hit the left post then ricocheted off the right post and out of the crease. The Sharks came away empty on that power play, as well as their four others.

“That’s the breaks,” Thornton said. “Another inch one way and it goes in. Another inch the other way and it misses the net.”

Minutes later, another break went Calgary’s way. Dion Phaneuf’s shot from the right circle deflected off Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s stick and past Nabokov at 16:03 of the third.

“I just don’t like losing to Calgary,” said Sharks forward Ryane Clowe, who scored the game’s first goal. “I guess we can’t complain too much about the effort. We played physical. We played hard.

“It was a good test for us. That was probably one of the most physical games we’ve had this year. … It’s exciting. You push and they push back. You push again.”

Just like in the playoffs.

For most of the game, the Sharks were pushing back without one of their best players, defenseman Rob Blake. Late in the first period, a Calgary shot bounced off his stick and hit him in the face. He left the Shark Tank and went to the hospital for treatment. No word yet on the extent of his injury.

The Sharks don’t have much time to stress about their loss to Calgary. Detroit, the defending Stanley Cup champion, comes to town Saturday. The Red Wings beat the Sharks 6-0 in Detroit last month and lost to the Sharks 4-2 in San Jose in October.

Thursday night’s game, McLellan said, was good preparation for what’s to come Saturday night.

“This had playoff intensity. You could feel it on the bench. You could feel it in the building,” he said.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Remembering the start of Rickey Henderson's Hall of Fame career

When I heard the news earlier today that Rickey Henderson had been elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame, I had a flashback to the first time I saw him play for the A’s.

It was 1979, and the A’s were in the midst of a 54-108 season. I was at the Coliseum with a handful of fans, enjoying the plentiful elbowroom when Henderson, then just 20 years old, came to bat. I’m not saying I knew then that he was destined to become a first ballot Hall of Famer and the best leadoff hitter in baseball history, but there was something about him that caught my eye.

First, there was that body. He was built like an NFL running back, compact, muscular and powerful. Then there was that batting stance, his right leg coiled, and his upper body angled sharply, putting his head all but over the inside corner of the plate.

When Henderson made contact, the ball exploded off his bat. And when he left the box, he shot down the line as if he were a world-class sprinter coming out of the blocks.

In 89 games that season, Henderson stole 33 bases, scored 49 runs, drew 34 walks drove in 26 runs and hit .274 with one home run and 13 doubles. He was just warming up.

Henderson stole 100 bases and scored 111 runs in 1980, his first full season in the majors. He walked 117 times, drove in 53 runs and hit .303 with nine homers and 22 doubles.

When his career finally ended after the 2003 season, with Henderson still campaigning for another shot, he had stolen more bases (1,406) and scored more runs (2,295) than anyone else in baseball history. He had also walked 2,190 times, second on the all-time list, collected 3,055 hits and slugged 297 home runs, a ridiculous number for a lead-off hitter.

No other leadoff hitter before or after Rickey had his combination of extraordinary speed, power, base-stealing instincts, batting eye and hitting stroke. No wonder he earned 94.8 percent of the vote in a Hall of Fame that clearly has the toughest standards in sports.

Looking back, I guess it didn’t take too long for all of us to see this day coming.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mills vs. Foster duel highlights St. Mary's victory over Santa Clara

St. Mary’s sophomore guard Patty Mills and Santa Clara freshman guard Kevin Foster have to keep meeting like this.

They put on a spectacular back-and-forth, high-wire show Friday night at a sold-out McKeon Pavilion in their first career confrontation.

Mills scored 31 points. So did Foster. Foster hit what looked to be a dagger 3 with just 12 seconds left, putting Santa Clara ahead 62-60. But Mills answered with one final trey, giving the Gaels a 63-62 victory against their archrival in both teams’ West Coast Conference opener.

“Patty hit a huge shot at the end,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “Their guy Foster had an outstanding game. We needed to do a better job on a guy like that. We knew he was a good player.”

Maybe so. But Foster, a freshman from Katy, Texas, didn’t come into the game with quite the resume that Mills owns. Mills starred for the Australian Olympic team last summer after earning first-team All-WCC honors as a freshman.

“I wasn’t really thinking about that,” Foster said. “I was thinking about my own game and trying to win the game.”

Apparently so. Because with 12 seconds left, Foster took a pass in the right corner and launched a 3-point rainbow with a Gael in his face. Nothing but net. That gave Foster 31 points for the night and the Broncos a 62-60 lead.

St. Mary’s caught a break when a pass from Mills to Diamond Simpson in traffic wound up going out of bounds under the bucket off a Bronco with 4.7 seconds left. Bennett called a time out and, naturally, set up a play for Mills.

Using screens from Omar Samhan and Simpson, Mills broke loose beyond the arc on the right wing, took a pass from Mickey McConnell and buried a fall-away 3 with 2.6 seconds left, putting the Gaels ahead 63-62.

Fans at McKeon went nuts, of course. The Gaels’ unofficial theme song, “Down Under,” by the Australian rock band “Men at Work” blasted away, as fans sang along. And when Santa Clara’s James Rahon missed a desperation shot from half-court at the buzzer, those fans started chanting, “Pat-tee! Pat-tee! Pat-tee!”

Mills had missed a pair of free throws with 47.5 seconds left. And he was just 3 of 12 from beyond the arc before shooting his final 3. As the shot left his hand, Mills thought of his ailing aunt, Sharyn, home in Australia.

“When I let it go, I knew it was good,” Mills said. “That was for her.”

Foster wasn’t on the court for Santa Clara’s final shot, and he was in and out of the lineup late in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for the Broncos and fortunately for the Gaels, Foster’s left calf cramped up.

“Thank goodness,” said a relieved Bennett. “He might have had 40.”

Bennett might have been right. Foster was on fire for most of the night. He made 11 of 19 shots from the field, 5 of 9 from beyond the arc and 4 of 5 from the line.

“These guys know they go as hard as they can until they can’t go any more,” Santa Clara coach Kerry Keating said. “He tried.”

Foster used his quickness to get free for open shots, and the Broncos also took advantage of a St. Mary’s defense that was determined to stop 6-foot-11 center John Bryant.

“I was hot,” Foster said. “I made a couple shots. Coach Keating always said they’re going to come back to me if I made a couple shots.”

Mills had the scouting report on Foster. He knew he was good. But not 31-points good.

“We did a great job against Bryant,” Mills said. “I think we had a lot of focus on him. But then, out comes Foster. It’s hard to adjust, but to be a great team, you have to adjust. He got rolling. He’s very hard to guard.”

Grab your calendar and put an “X” on Feb. 7. That’s when the Mills and Foster meet again, this time at the Leavey Center in Santa Clara.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Ravens' Reed shows the 49ers what they're missing

Does Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed have a fan club? If he does, sign me up. This is a player I’d definitely pay to see, and there aren’t many NFL free safeties in this era that I could say that about.

Reed put on another dazzling show Sunday in the Ravens’ 27-9 playoff victory over Miami. He intercepted two passes and, naturally, returned one of those 64 yards for a touchdown.

When Reed gets his hands on the ball, he has an uncanny knack for winding up in the end zone. He’s simply too quick, fast and clever for those offensive players who are forced to switch gears and try to tackle him.

Reed has now scored 12 touchdowns on either interception or fumble returns during his career. Earlier this year, he returned an interception 107 yards for a touchdown against Philadelphia. In 2004, he returned an interception 106 yards for a score against Cleveland.

If you’re a 49ers fan, Reed’s ridiculously good performance points to one of your team’s biggest needs approaching free agency and the draft. Starting 49ers free safety Mark Roman hasn’t intercepted a pass since 2006, his first season with the 49ers. He had one that year and has five in his nine NFL seasons. He has never returned an interception or fumble for a touchdown.

Of course there’s only one Ed Reed. This guy is a touchdown-scoring freak who has 43 career regular-season interceptions in just seven seasons. But even a poor man’s Ed Reed would be a huge upgrade for the 49ers.

They need more game-changing plays out of their free safety. Roman apparently doesn’t have the knowledge, instincts, hands or burst to make those big plays.

Reed always seems to be at the right place at the right time. On his first interception Sunday, he was basically playing center field when he tracked down an errant pass from Chad Pennington. He angled toward the left sideline, set up his blockers, then cut back across the grain and followed a convoy into the end zone.

Later in the game, Reed was lined up deep, but as Pennington dropped back, Reed read the play and, seemingly, Pennington’s mind. He knifed in front of a Pennington pass at about 100 mph for his second interception.

As that play unfolded, Reed was initially so far away from Pennington’s target that he probably thought Reed couldn’t possibly be a factor in the play. Reed, though, covers ground faster than most cornerbacks.

Reed will line up against the Tennessee Titans and quarterback Kerry Collins on Saturday in a divisional playoff game in Nashville. No one should be surprised if No. 20 winds up in the end zone again.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Utah makes a statement for West Coast football

Friday was a beautiful day for fans of West Coast football, myself included. I have no special connection to Utah. I went to Oregon. I don’t even know what a Ute is. But I love the fact that the Utes beat Alabama 31-17 in the Sugar Bowl.

Maybe for at least a day or so we can stop hearing about the greatness of the Southeastern Conference, about how much bigger and faster and better their athletes and teams are, especially compared to those “soft” West Coast teams not named USC.

Alabama spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the country. But before it knew what hit it Friday night, Alabama was down 21-0 to the undefeated Utes. Utah quarterback Brian Johnson threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns against Alabama.

How could these superhumans from the SEC lose to a team from Utah, especially in what was basically a home game for them in New Orleans at the Superdome?

Maybe Alabama coach Nick Saban had a bad hair day. Maybe the mighty Crimson Tide overlooked the Utes. Granted, Alabama was without suspended All-America left tackle Andre Smith. But isn’t an elite team from the great SEC supposed to be three or four deep at every position? And besides, Smith doesn’t play both ways, so he wouldn’t have helped Alabama’s defense.

From what I saw, Alabama couldn’t handle the Utes’ passing game or its pass rush. Utah blitzed and stunted and basically made life hell for Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson. Oh, those tricky Utes. But Utah also bottled up Alabama’s power running attack, holding Glen Coffee to 36 yards on 13 carries and Mark Ingram to 26 yards on eight carries.

I know the SEC is a great football conference. But it’s not the only conference. They play a little football west of the Rocky Mountains, too. The Pac-10, which admittedly had a down year, went 5-0 in its bowl games. USC beat Penn State, Oregon beat Oklahoma State, Oregon State beat Pittsburgh, Cal beat Miami and Arizona beat BYU.

Then Utah, of the we-get-no-respect Mountain West Conference, made an even bigger statement for West Coast football as it served a slice of humble pie to Alabama and the SEC.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Montgomery has Bears playing with passion and precision in win over Arizona

Take Lute Olson away from Arizona. Bring Mike Montgomery to Cal. What do you get?

You got your answer Friday night at Haas Pavilion.

Montgomery’s Bears opened the Pac-10 season with a 69-55 victory over a once mighty Arizona team that missed Olson last year when he took a “temporary” leave and miss him even more this year now that he has retired.

Yeah, you may get sick of hearing Dick Vitale talk and talk then talk some more about the importance of coaching in college basketball. But Vitale and his fellow talking heads have a point. A great college coach can transform a team and an entire program.

This is basically the same Cal team that struggled last season in Ben Braun’s final season. Well, the same team minus its best player, Ryan Anderson, currently earning a living in the NBA, and center DeVon Hardin.

Montgomery has the Bears playing with passion, intensity and intelligence.

“Coach Montgomery has brought a discipline to them that has really turned them into a good team,” Arizona interim coach Russ Pennell said.

The Bears had lost four straight and 18 of 20 games to Arizona before Friday night. During his final nine seasons at Stanford, Montgomery was 9-9 against Arizona. Now he’s won 10 of his past 19 games against the Wildcats.

“I think this validates we can play in this league,” Montgomery said.

It’s not as if the Bears haven’t had talent in the past. But players such as point guard Jerome Randle and shooting guard Patrick Christopher have flourished under Montgomery. They’ve bought what he’s selling about the importance of defense. And on the offensive end, they’ve found the proper balance of aggression and control.

Randle entered the game averaging a team-best 19.5 points per game and scored 14 against Arizona. But with Warriors executive vice president Chris Mullin watching from a courtside seat, it was Christopher who put on the most dazzling show.

Christopher scored a game-high 23 points, three shy of his career-high, mixing laser-like jump shots and acrobatic dunks. When he wasn’t scoring, Christopher was selling out on the other end, playing tough defense against both swingman Chase Budinger and point guard Nick Wise.

Budinger came into the game averaging 17.7 points and finished with just 9 on 4 of 16 shooting. Arizona was once one of the deepest teams in the country before Olson’s departure caused the talent pipeline to run dry. Now, if Budinger, Wise or center Jordan Hill has an off night, the Wildcats are in trouble.

“That intensity sparked our offensive game,” Christopher said of the Bears’ defense.

It took a while for the Bears to get going on offense, but in the second half they sliced apart Arizona’s 1-1-3 zone as if it consisted of five mannequins.

More often than not, one of the Bears’ forwards (usually Harper Kamp) took a pass near the free throw line, turned and hit a wide-open teammate (usually Christopher) cutting hard to the basket for an easy score. Kamp led the Bears with five assists.

“That was coach’s idea to put me up there,” Kamp said. “Whichever forward caught it up there, the idea was to turn and find the open man. My teammates made it easy for me. They’re great finishers.”

Montgomery, now a true believer in man-to-man defense, said he used to use the 1-1-3 zone and had a good idea how to attack it.

“We knew the middle was open,” Montgomery said. “From that point you do get cutters.”

“They definitely had a good game plan,” Pennell said.

The Bears improved to 12-2 under Montgomery. And with the Pac-10 decidedly weaker than it’s been for a few years, the Bears have a great chance to finish in the upper tier in the conference and notch 20-plus wins for the season. That’s the recipe for an NCAA Tournament berth.

If Braun were still Cal’s coach, I have a feeling we’d be hearing a lot from him about the losses of Anderson and Hardin and the Bears’ lack of size. I doubt if we’d be talking about a passionate, disciplined Cal team that’s a legitimate contender for an NCAA Tournament berth.

After the game, Kamp was asked about Montgomery’s impact.

“He just gives us confidence,” Kamp said. “We go in the huddle and come out with confidence every time.”