Sunday, September 18, 2011

No Faith!

First, this reality: I'm not a Monday Morning Quarterback. I subscribe to the John Madden philosophy that you can't second-guess a coach's, manager's or player's decision on the playing field, after the fact. But if you question it, as it's happening, then you deserve to be heard. So hear me out on this one.

The 49ers were leading Dallas this afternoon 21-14, when David Akers kicked a 55-yard field goal with 11 minutes remaining in the game. The Niners had a 10-point lead. However, the Cowboys' Keith Brooking was flagged for "leverage," which would have given the Niners a first down at the Dallas 22, if Jim Harbaugh were willing to forsake the field goal, in exchange for the first down. In my mind, it was a no-brainer: Accept the penalty, go for the touchdown (and a 14-point lead), while also eating up the clock. If you can't get the TD, then kick the field goal (again), and you'll have the 10-point lead you would have had earlier anyway, but with less time remaining for Dallas to score twice. Yes, it was something of a risk. What if Alex Smith threw an interception, or fumbled the ball away on a sack? I suppose that's why Harbaugh took the 55-yard field goal and a 10-point lead.

But what message did that send to his offense? It told the offense that the head coach had little faith in its ability to get the job done with the game on the line.

To reiterate: WIth a first down at the Dallas 22, one of the following would eventually happen:

1. The 49ers would score a touchdown, while eating up time on the clock.
2. The 49ers would settle for a field goal, while eating up time on the clock.
3. The 49ers would fail to score.

If you, as a head coach, have any faith in your offense, you will assume that you'll come away with either a TD or a field goal, in which case you'll be better off than you would have been by declining the penalty, and taking the original 55-yard field goal, because you'll be ahead by 14 instead of 10, or you'll be ahead by 10, either way with less time remaining on the clock.

Vernon Davis said that he was surprised Harbaugh took the field goal, and declined the penalty. He wasn't the only one. On the Fox telecast, former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick started explaining why Harbaugh was going to take the penalty, rather than the automatic three points. But he had to stop, because Harbaugh took the points instead. And I suspect many other 49er players were surprised as well. And disappointed.

In fact, though, Harbaugh would demonstrate another case (albeit less controversial) of a lack of faith in his offense early in the overtime, not to mention very questionable judgement. The Niners won the coin toss and picked up a quick first down at their own 32. Frank Gore then ran up the middle for seven yards, giving them a second-and-three. Now, what would you do with a second-and-three at your own 39 in overtime? I would run the ball on second down, and possibly on third, if necessary, to gain the three yards. Get the first down, and you're about 20 yards away from a potential game-winning field goal attempt.

But Harbaugh called for a pass, and Smith was sacked. Now it's third-and-11. Smith then hit Ted Ginn Jr for 10, creating a fourth-and-one, at their own 41. What did Harbaugh then do? He brought on his punting team. Now, don't get me wrong. I think, in some cases, when your defense is dominating, when you're winning the battle on the line of scrimmage, you're completely right in punting the ball from your own 41, on fourth-and-one. But the Niners defense was sagging, having already given up 400 yards of Dallas offense. Put another way, if you're a 49ers fan, and you were watching the game at that point, did you really think the Niners D could stop Tony Romo, once you punted the ball away? I didn't think so.

As it turned out, the 10-yard pass to Ginn was reversed, because replays showed he didn't have possession. So it became fourth-and-11, and a moot point. And, of course, Romo threw a 77-yard pass over the middle to set up the game-winning 19-yard field goal on the very next play. Game over.

After an extremely conservative offensive showing in the 49ers' season-opening win over Seattle, I totally expected Harbaugh to open things up against Dallas. But he really didn't. Gore averaged just 2.4 yards per carry, and is under three yards per, for the season. Smith passed for 179 yards, but when one includes the six times he was sacked, the Niners' totaled just 132 yards of passing. Overall, they barely topped 200 yards of offense for the game, as they also did against Seattle. By contrast, Dallas totaled 472 yards. Again, did you really think the Niners defense was going to stop Romo, once the Cowboys got the ball back in overtime? Of course not.

When we all thought it was fourth-and-one, I wanted Harbaugh to go for it. If it failed, and the Niners lost, I would not have second-guessed him in the slightest.

For this fan, his conservative approach is very disappointing. I'd rather see him take risks, even if it means losing. Today, I think his failure to take the necessary risk, early in the fourth quarter, helped cost his team the game.

Is this the same daring, creative and imaginative Jim Harbaugh, who coached Stanford to a 12-1 record, and a number-four national ranking last season? Yes, of course it is. I think Harbaugh just doesn't have enough faith in this 49er offense to use any goodies in his bag of tricks. How unfortunate.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Another Umpire Blunder; Another Call for Instant Replay

If you saw the finish of the Pirates-Braves game last night in Atlanta, you know exactly why there is no rational argument for putting off the expanded use of instant replay in baseball any longer. And yet, if you are a close follower of the National Pastime, you know that this will likely never happen as long as Bud Selig remains the game's commissioner. Fortunately, he promises that he will retire after the 2012 season. That gives all of us who want to see the use of replay expanded some hope.

For those who did not see the end of the game, the Braves won 4-3 in 19 innings--at about 2am Eastern time, after six hours and 49 minutes of baseball--when Pirates catcher Mike McKenry tagged out Atlanta's Julio Lugo at home plate, on a one-out grounder to third-baseman Pedro Alvarez. Actually, McKenry tagged out Lugo in front of home plate. About three feet in front of home plate. He blocked the plate, and got Lugo with a sweep tag, allowing himself time to get out of harm's way, even though Lugo was not approaching home plate with any particular head of steam. In fact, Lugo knew he was about to be tagged out and seemed to pull up at the last instant.

Furthermore, the Braves' hitter was reliever Scott Proctor, who fell flat on his face as he was leaving the batter's box, so McKenry immediately turned toward first base, after the tag, to complete the unusual double play. Except that home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe. McKenry, needless to say, was beyond stunned. He kept screaming--pleading--at Meals, "I tagged him! I tagged him!" To no avail, of course. The call had already been made. The Braves won. The Pirates lost. And every Pirates fan, and every Pirates player, and everyone watching the game who did not have a vested interest in seeing the Braves win felt cheated, particularly those who spent nearly seven hours watching the entire 19 innings.

Is Meals a bad umpire because he blew the call? No, of course not. Is he a good umpire who made a bad call? Yes, he is. In fact, he admitted after the game, after having watched the replay in the umpire's dressing room that he apparently made the wrong call. This reminds me of Jim Joyce, who similarly realized he blew the unforgettable call in Detroit that cost then-Tigers' pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game. Jim Joyce said shortly thereafter that he wished expanded replay had been in existence that afternoon so that he could have corrected his mistake. I guarantee that Jerry Meals feels the same.

Instead, Meals' family has been harrassed and threatened, just as Joyce's family, by a group of goons who aren't fit to see the light of day. But the greater point here is that while Commissioner Selig claims that there is no significant support within baseball to expand the use of replay, he is conveniently forgetting that the umpires themselves, perhaps to a man, all want to see replay expanded. They want to see it to ensure that the right calls are made. And they want to see it so that they don't have to live with the kind of nightmare that Jim Joyce has had to live with ever since he cost Gallaraga an historic perfecto.

In fact, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations Joe Torre acknowledged today that Meals made the wrong call, said "no one feels worse than him," and and said he hopes that instant replay can be expanded in the not-too-distant future so that similar blown calls by umpires--in these two particular cases, calls that ended games--can potentially be reversed.

Ex-Raiders coach and former NFL TV analyst John Madden has told us many times on KCBS Radio that he supports the expansion of instant replay. He says "once the cat is out of the bag, you can't put it back in." In other words, thousands--perhaps millions when all is said and done--will have seen the Meals blown call on TV, and online. In such an occasion, it's only fair to the Pirates and to Jerry Meals, and to the integrity of baseball, to get the call right.

Come to think of it, Joe Torre would make an excellent successor to Bud Selig.

Steve Bitker is the Morning Sports Anchor at KCBS All-News Radio in San Francisco (740AM; 106.9FM), the Backup Radio Play-by-Play Announcer for the Oakland Athletics, and author of the book, "The Original San Francisco Giants; the Giants of '58."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Al Davis: Way Over the Hill

Seems like just the other day that Al Davis was presiding over a standing-room-only news conference to announce the hiring of Tom Cable as his new head coach, although Big Al spent the heavy majority of that news conference blasting the man he had just fired, Lane Kiffin, whom Davis called a liar.

And now we have Davis president over another standing-room-only news conference to announce the hiring of Hue Jackson as his new head coach, although he spent the heavy majority of it (an hour-and-a-half) blasting the man he just fired, Tom Cable, whom Davis called a liar.

Oh, there were differences in the two news conferences. Davis fired Kiffin with one year left on his contract, saying he had no intention of paying him the balance (over $2 million) because (he claimed) Kiffin violated terms of the deal. On the other hand, Davis fired Cable, while fining him $120,000 over the final six weeks of the season, allegedly because of two lawsuits hanging over the organization--one from a former assistant coach who claims Cable broke his jaw, the other from one of Cable's ex-girlfriends, who claims he assaulted her.

Kiffin filed a grievance with the NFL to recover lost wages. He lost his case (one of the few times Davis has had reason to celebrate over the past decade). Cable has also filed a grievance with the NFL to recover lost wages. The guess here is that Davis will lose this one. It's for much less money, Davis knew about the accusations long before this past season even began, and he made the decision to keep Cable as his head coach until the season was over.

The point here is this: I know that Al Davis is in the Hall of Fame (inducted in 1992), but the truth is that the Raiders were great in the late 60s, and into the early 80s. But even in those days, they lost six straight AFL/AFC championship games. And they haven't done jack since, except for one great run after the turn of the century, which ended with a thud, when Jon Gruden's Bucs took them to the woodshed and beat the crap out of them.

In fact, I just checked out the Raiders' won-lost history over the years. Get this: The Raiders were 81 games over .500 in the 1960s and 70s. And they were two games under. 500 in the 80s, 90s and 00s. Put another way: If you total the Raiders wins and losses, and divide by 51 (their total years of existence), their average won-lost record is 8-7. Not exactly brilliant.

Incredible, huh? I am constantly amazed at the reverence shown by Raiders fans, in particular, toward Al Davis, like he's some kind of 50-year NFL legend. Yes, I know what he did for the old AFL. Yes, I know the Raiders were great during the period I cited above, despite the six straight title game losses. To be sure, when Davis was voted into the Hall of Fame, I did not object. But that was nearly 30 years ago.

Al Davis has become a charicature of himself, a living Howard Hughes if you will. His news conferences are packed for one reason only: People are fascinated with how bizarre he has become.

Here's hoping that Hue Jackson succeeds, in a similar fashion as Jon Gruden. Have a great season or two, and then get the hell out.