Monday, November 26, 2012

The Great Quarterback Controversy

For me, the best litmus test as to whether a sports story has permeated the collective consciousness of the general public is when my wife Alice knows about it.  Being the quintessential non-sports fan, if she is aware of the story, and the principals involved, then it's a BIG story.  Needless to say, she's aware of this one.  She knows who Alex Smith is, and she knows who Colin Kaepernick is, and I haven't said a word to her about The Great Quarterback Controversy.

Jim Harbaugh doesn't like the media's, and even the general public's preoccupation with this story, but he has to be pleased with one part of it.  The 49ers are the only legitimate Super Bowl contender with two solid quarterbacks.  If you don't believe me, check out who the backup quarterbacks are in Chicago, Green Bay, New York (Giants), New England, Baltimore and Denver.  It's a cast of relative unknowns with little NFL experience.  So, Harbaugh is very fortunate that if one of his two quarterbacks gets injured, the team will hardly lose a beat with the other behind center.  None of the other contenders can come close to making such a claim.

My esteemed colleague Stan Bunger blogged on this very subject earlier today, as I knew he would, after we debated the subject in a very spirited fashion during our 25-minute drive into San Francisco this morning.  It would have made a fabulous podcast.  Too bad we weren't recording.  Basically, Stan thinks it's unconscionable that Alex Smith might be losing his starting job while still recovering from the concussion he suffered two weeks ago yesterday against the Rams.  Stan subscribes to the old-school belief that no starter in any sport should lose his job while physically unable to play.  I'm not knocking that axiom because it's old-school.  Quite the contrary.  I like a lot of things considered old-school:  Respect for one's elders, respect for one's fellow man (and woman), baseball without the DH, basketball when three steps to the basket was considered traveling, and football with individuals who actually played both offense and defense.

But this particular axiom--that one should never lose a starting job in sports when one is injured--is absurd.  John Madden even told us on KCBS this morning that it's pure nonsense.  More specifically, John said it flies in the face of what every coach in the NFL knows to be true, that it's his job to put his very best players on the field who will give his team its very best chance at winning.  Nothing else matters, nor should it.  Stan even used me as an example, in trying to further his argument.  He asked how I'd feel if I were on the DL, so-to-speak, and someone else filled in while I was on the mend, only to have KCBS become enamored with my replacement to the point of hiring him/her full time to replace me. I said if the station decided the other guy was better, then the station would have the right to make the change.

If Alex Smith is healthy, and if Jim Harbaugh thinks he gives the 49ers their best chance at beating the Rams in St. Louis Sunday, then Smith will start.  But I am willing to bet money that this won't happen.  I am willing to bet money that Colin Kaepernick will start, because I am virtually certain that Harbaugh sees, in part at least, what I and so many others see (a list that includes former quarterbacks and highly-respected TV football analysts Steve Young, Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski), that Kaepernick is a star-in-the-making right now; that Kaepernick has a fabulous arm and can throw deep and throw deep with accuracy (which Smith can't), and that Kaepernick is extremely mobile and can supplement his great arm with the ability to run, to run away from pursuit and to run for yardage (which Smith can't, with any consistency).  Hell, that's what John Madden thinks!

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying Alex Smith is not a good quarterback.  The numbers don't lie.  He's ranked fifth in the NFL in quarterback rating, and is tops in completion percentage, at 70%.  He led the 49ers to a 13-3 season a year ago, and if not for a couple of fumbled kicks, the Niners probably would have been in the Super Bowl.  And one impressive stat that even Stan didn't mention--Smith has completed 25-of-27 passes over his last two starts.  Not only that, but Alex Smith is one tough dude, one smart guy, and is a great teammate.  So what's not to love?

He doesn't throw deep, he doesn't run, and he has difficulty avoiding the rush.  Kaepernick does all of those things, and does them damn well.  He's completed 10 passes of 20+ yards in his two starts.  Smith has completed 22 passes of 20+ yards in nine starts.  Kaepernick has run for more than 200 yards this season, mostly as a backup, averaging seven yards a carry.  In his two NFL starts, he's been sacked only once.  In Smith's nine starts, he's been sacked 24 times.  And Kaepernick is also tough, smart and a great teammate.

But I don't want to get bogged down in statistics any more than I already am.  Simply put, Kaepernick has a higher ceiling than Smith, and this is something that has become clear in the 49ers locker room and on the field.  The players know.  The receivers clearly know.  So does the offensive line.  Listen to what they said after the last two games, and listen to how they said it.  If Harbaugh is thinking of using him at all in the playoffs, then the more experience he gets between now and then, the better.  I think Harbaugh is genuinely thrilled about the added dimension that Kaepernick brings to his offense, and believes that Kaepernick might be what the offense needs to bolster the team's chances of not just getting to the Super Bowl, but winning it.

Stan and I both know that Madden doesn't follow college football nearly as closely as he does the NFL, but John was a big fan of Kaepernick's when he starred at the University of Nevada, and was openly surprised that Kaepernick was not more highly regarded as a top NFL prospect.  Harbaugh felt much the same, which is why he engineered a draft-day trade last year to acquire Kaepernick, sending three draft picks to the Denver Broncos in exchange for the 36th pick.  Kaepernick is Harbaugh's guy, and Trent Baalke's, too.  Smith isn't.  Smith was here long before those two came on board.  That means something.  So does the fact that if the 49ers want to keep Smith next year, they'll have to pay him $8.5 million.  Maybe they're beginning to believe that Kaepernick will be their starting quarterback next season.

But the biggest factor of all is this:  Which quarterback gives the 49ers the best chance to win right now?  The guy with the experience, or the guy with the stronger arm and the ability to run?  The decision should have nothing to do with whether one of them is injured.  Sports is full of cases where a starter lost his job while rehabbing an injury.  Lou Gehrig and Wally Pipp is merely the most famous example, but there are countless others.  And with good reason.  Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith figures to be the latest.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Giants' World Series Epilogue

I grew up within a stone's throw of Stanford University, which explains my lifetime allegiance to Stanford sports.  I also went to my first major league baseball game at the age of five, at Seals Stadium, at 16th&Bryant Streets, where the San Francisco Giants played their first two seasons, before moving to Candlestick Park in 1960.

In 1962, my parents were fortunate enough to score two tickets to each of the Giants' home games in the World Series against the mighty New York Yankees.  They were fortunate, because most years, as I recall, my parents were not so fortunate.  They'd send in their check each year the Giants were in contention (which was most years), hope that they'd survive the lottery, but more often than not be out of luck.  Not this time, however.

The Giants hosted games one and two, and eventually, six and seven.  My mother and I went to game one, which the Giants lost 6-2.  My father and my older brother went to game two, which the Giants won 2-0.  My parents went to game six, which the Giants won 5-2 to even the series at three games apiece.  And in one of the greatest gestures of love I can recall from my childhood, my parents let my brother and me (ages 12 and nine) go to game seven, which the Yankees won 1-0, but not before the Giants put the tying and winning runs in scoring position in the bottom of the ninth.  I was crushed.  Heartbroken.  My dad told me, don't worry, the Giants will win a World Series in the near future, they've got Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Marichal, etc.

Of course, the Giants played 52 years in San Francisco without winning a World Series until two years ago.  And now they've won their second World Series title in three years, something only three other National League teams have done in the last 90 years.  Despite being last in the majors in home runs.  Despite losing the first two games of the best-of-five LDS against Cincinnati, at home (!), before rallying to win three straight in the Reds' ballpark.  And despite losing three of the first four games of the best-of-seven LCS against St. Louis, before rallying to win game five in the Cards' ballpark, after which they won games six and seven at home, and then swept four from the Tigers to win the World Series.

Their ERA in the World Series was 1.46.  They finished the post-season with seven straight wins, outscoring the Cards and Tigers in the process 36-7, with an ERA of 0.98.  They played near-perfect defense.

Just the sweep of Detroit was unusual enough.  Only four other National League teams have done that, most recently the Reds in 1990, and including the New York Giants in 1954--the last Giants team to win the Series before the Giants of 2010.

I'm not sure what is most remarkable about what the Giants just did.  But one thing at, or near the top of the list would have to be the first of the six straight elimination games which they won.  They mustered just one hit through nine innings, with 16 strikeouts, yet won the game in the 10th on an error by the normally sure-handed Scott Rolen.

Post-season heroes?  Too many to mention here.  But just to start the list, you'd get few arguments if you put Marco Scutaro and Sergio Romo at the top.  The Giants traded a minor league infielder to Colorado for Scutaro in late July.  All he did was hit .362 for the Giants, in 243 at bats, with just 14 strikeouts and only 17 swings and misses.  He was the hardest player to strike out in the majors this year, and he swing-and-miss frequency was the lowest in the majors.  And then he hit .328 in the post-season, saving the best for last--a two-out, two-strike RBI-single to center in the 10th to win game four of the World Series.

It took awhile, but Romo eventually inherited the closer's job vacated by the season-ending elbow surgery for Brian Wilson.  And Romo delivered the goods.  He had 14 saves, a 1.79 ERA, allowed only 37 hits and 10 walks in 55 1/3 innings, with 63 strikeouts.  Romo also saved the best for last, recording his fourth save of the post-season (with an ERA of 0.84) by striking out the side in the bottom of the 10th of game four, including Triple Crown winner Miguel Carbera on a called third strike, on a fastball, after throwing 14 straight sliders to start the frame.  Sergio Romo is very generously listed at 5-10 and 183, but that cat has guts of a burglar.

And Texas manager Ron Washington is thinking to himself, my Rangers may have lost the World Series in five games to the Giants two years ago, but they've got the only win against the Giants in two of the last three World Series, covering nine games.  The Giants have been that hot.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tim McCarver

It's no secret that Fox baseball analyst (and former all-star catcher) Tim McCarver is not hugely popular among fans of the San Francisco Giants.  Either that, or it's simply that my esteemed colleague Stan Bunger has complained so much about McCarver, for so many years, that I've concluded he speaks for the majority of his fellow Giants' season ticket holders.

I, on the other hand, have no particular axe to grind with Mr. McCarver.  He's not my favorite TV baseball analyst, by any means, but I don't wince in the slightest when I see that McCarver is in the broadcast booth for a network game I'm about to watch.

Having said that, McCarver made so many interesting observations--some actually true--particularly during the first few innings of game 2 of the National League Championship Series, that I decided to chronicle those observations, and perhaps come to some conclusion afterward.

Top of the first:  After Matt Holliday's controversial slide over second base (he actually started the slide beyond the bag), in a successful effort to take out the Giants' Marco Scutaro and prevent the double play, McCarver immediately said that Holliday's slide was an inappropriate slide, if not technically illegal.  McCarver said that breaking up the double-play is as old as baseball itself, but that one is supposed to begin one's slide before reaching the bag, not after.  Sounds obvious, I'm sure, but almost instantly after the bang-bang play, seeing Scutaro on the ground in obvious pain, it was reassuring to hear from McCarver that what I had just seen was not the way the game is supposed to be played.

Bottom of the first:  As Angel Pagan was rounding the bases, after belting a leadoff homer, he was congratulated by third base coach Tim Flannery, after which he saluted his teammates in the Giants' dugout.  McCarver incorrectly observed that Pagan had just saluted the Cardinals' dugout, perhaps in response to the Holliday slide.  Oooops!  McCarver's play-by-play partner Joe Buck eventually corrected him, but not before leaving him out to dry for a minute or so.

Chris Carpenter gave up only the one run in the first, but labored to the point of throwing 26 pitches, during which McCarver noted that he was off three-to-four miles on his fastball.  Good piece of information, and a sign that this might not be Carpenter's night.

As the Giants were continuing to bat in the last of the first, putting runners at first and second, with two out, McCarver noticed Ryan Vogelsong pacing in the Giants' dugout, and said that Vogelsong was doing so because he was excited about the rally, and hoping that the Giants would keep the inning going as long as possible.  In fact, as anyone who is familiar with Vogelsong knows, the Giants' right-hander was thinking about only one thing, and that was how he was going to pitch to the Cardinals in the second inning.  Vogelsong has often said that he would prefer to take the mound as quickly as possible after each half inning in the dugout, that he has no control over how many runs the Giants score, and that the one and only thing he can control is shutting down the opposing team.  So that is the only thing he is focused on while he's still in the game.

Top of the third:  Before the inning began, three or four umpires were conversing in the outfield, including the crew chief Gary Darling.  McCarver immediately speculated that they might be discussing what their response should be in case the Giants retaliate against Holliday for the slide.  Good call.  I was wondering what they were discussing, and McCarver brought up a good possibility.

Top of the fourth:  As the discussion of the Holliday slide continued, McCarver suggested that the only way to firmly discourage such a slide would be to immediately eject the player from the game.  A more common reaction by umpires in such a situation would be declare the hitter out, completing the double play, which they did not do after the Holliday slide, much to my surprise.  But McCarver was saying that in addition to that, throwing the offending player out of the game would be much more effective in the long run.

Bottom of the eighth:  After Gregor Blanco was nearly doubled up trying to get back to first base when Brandon Crawford lined out to center, the Cardinal infielders were yelling at umpire Bill Miller that first baseman Allen Craig had tagged Blanco out on the shoulder.  It was obvious that is what they were saying because of their gestures.  And yet, McCarver said the Cardinals were arguing that Blanco should have been called out for running out of the imaginary base line.

Overall, McCarver made a few mistakes, but that's inevitable for anyone who spends three hours in a broadcast booth, announcing a baseball game.  I know, from experience.  Should he make fewer, given his many years of experience?  Perhaps.  But McCarver made enough cogent observations so that I was able to further appreciate and understand some of the nuances of this particular game that I might not have been able to otherwise.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I hope the San Francisco Giants are proud of their collective efforts to stuff the ballot box.  Pablo Sandoval has been named the National League's starting third-baseman for the upcoming all-star game, over the Mets' David Wright.  This, despite the fact that Wright has nine homers, 50 RBIs and a .355 average, compared with Sandoval's  6-25-.307.  Not even close.  Yes, I know it's nothing more than a ballot-stuffing popularity contest.  But it shouldn't be.  The fans who love baseball will watch the all-star game, whether they cast any votes or not.  I should know.  I was one of those fans as a kid, when the fans had no such vote.  Guys like David Wright should be rewarded with their first-half achievements by being in the game's starting lineup.

At least Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford (with all due respect) failed to beat out Joey Votto and Rafael Furcal, respectively, at first and at short.  I guess the Giants should have done more.  Belt and Crawford only finished second, in contrast to Freddy Sanchez, who finished fourth in the voting at second, even though he hasn't played in a single major league game all season.  Isn't that a clue, in itself, that something is wrong here?

When I was a kid, players, coaches and managers picked the starters.  Nobody was a bigger fan of the game than I was, and I was fine with their selections, mainly because the selection process was fair and square, and it was hard to argue with the selections.

Prior to that, though, the fans actually did the voting, long before the internet.  In fact, fans were given the vote as far back as 1947, but lost it after seven members of the Cincinnati Reds were voted to the starting lineup, leaving Stan Musial as the only non-Reds starter.  The culprit, it turned out, was not the team itself, but rather the Cincinnati Enquirer, which printed pre-marked ballots and distributed them in their Sunday newspapers.  The result was that over half the ballots cast in the National League came from Cincinnati.  Major League Baseball immediately stripped the fans of the vote, beginning in 1958, and gave it to the players, coaches and managers.  But in 1970, in a brilliant pandering...err, marketing ploy by MLB, the vote was returned to the fans.  And this is the result:  Instead of the players, coaches and managers picking the starters, the biggest contributors are those with enough free time on their hands to be able to submit hundreds and hundreds of ballots for their hometown heroes.  In other words, people with no lives.  I'm not being cruel here--those are the exact words of a caller to the Giants' flagship radio station, who admitted he voted over 800 times for Brandon Belt, because (and I'm paraphrasing here), "I live alone, have no life, and love the Giants."  Wonderful!  It's great when our beloved institutions appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Personally, I wish Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford had made it as starters, just to further illustrate the folly of this.  Maybe then, MLB (and the Giants) would be embarrassed enough to think twice about what it has created.  Then again, probably not.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

So Close

It hit me after the second Kyle Williams turnover that Ted Ginn Junior might have been the MVP of the NFC Championship game loss to the New York Giants. After all, if Ginn hadn't been unavailable because of a knee injury, Williams would not have been returning punts, and who knows what the outcome would have been?

It's highly unfortunate for Williams that he has to live with the knowledge that he, more than anyone else or anything else, cost the 49ers the game. But the fact remains that Ginn is a better player, and the Niners would have been better off if he had been able to play, even without the turnovers. Ginn was third in the NFL this season in kick returns, averaging 27.6 per. And he was fourth in punt returns, averaging 12.3 He also was fourth on the Niners in receptions, with 33, averaging 11.6 a catch.

Interestingly, Ginn was the MVP of the 49ers first game of the season, when he returned a kick 102 yards for a TD late in the 4th quarter against Seattle, and then returned a punt 55 yards for another TD 59 seconds later, clinching a 33-17 win.

If not Ginn, it was the 49er defense. Ranked number one in the NFL against the run, allowing an average of just 77 yards per game, the defense was such a threat against the run that in the playoffs, the Saints' Drew Brees and the Giants' Eli Manning combined for an astonishing 121 passes. That's unheard of. Completely.

The Niners' D was on the field for 58% of the game against the Giants, who ran 93 plays, compared with the NFL average per team of 69. The Niners sacked Manning six times, and hit him seven times, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Giants had eight possessions in the second half and overtime, and punted six times. The other two possessions followed the Kyle Williams' turnovers, deep in 49ers territory, resulting in the Giants only 10 points after halftime.

The Niners hadn't had a special teams turnover until the NFC title game. They led the NFL in turnover differential during the season at +28, and in fewest turnovers allowed, with 10.

They came oh-so-close to forcing three Giants' turnovers, but two seemingly inevitable interceptions didn't come to pass when the Niner defensive backs ran into each other, late in the game. And an Ahmad Bradshaw fumble, at the Giants 21, with barely two minutes left in regulation, recovered by the 49ers, was negated by a quick whistle.

The Niner offense, meantime, couldn't measure up to its defense. The Niners were 1-for-13 on third-down conversions, and the only one they converted was a meaningless 29-yard pass on the final play of the fourth quarter. Their final three possessions of the fourth quarter and overtime (other than that meaningless first down) were three-and-out.

And given that Alex Smith completed only one pass to a wide receiver, for three yards (compared with 16 completions to NY receivers), I couldn't help but wonder more than once, couldn't Braylan Edwards have helped, if the Niners hadn't released him, before their regular season finale at St. Louis? Even then, I wondered, why release him then? What if they needed him in the playoffs? Turned out they did, after the injury to Ted Ginn Junior.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fiesta Bowl Epilogue

Watching the Fiesta Bowl was akin to enjoying a fabulous piece of Kobe beef, only to suddenly regurgitate at the end of the meal because of some unexpected cause of indigestion.

Fourth-ranked Stanford never trailed through four quarters against third-ranked Oklahoma State, and yet failed to win the game, eventually losing 41-38 in overtime.

The Cardinal led led 14-0, but the Cowboys tied it at 14. Stanford led 21-14, 28-21, 31-24 and 38-31, but OSU came back to tie it three more times. And then Stanford had the ball for one final drive, 80 yards from the endzone, with two-and-a-half minutes remaining. What a perfect, storybook scenario for quarterback Andrew Luck. Certainly, most Cardinal fans, including head coach David Shaw, envisioned Luck leading Stanford down the field, climaxing one of his best collegiate games ever with one final drive, giving Stanford the Fiesta Bowl win. What could have been better than that?

Sure enough, Luck completed five straight passes, for 50 yards, sandwiched around one running play, resulting in a first down at the OSU 25, with 52 seconds remaining. What could possibly go wrong? Luck was 15-f0r-15 in Stanford's five touchdown drives. He threw only four incompletions all night, and none since the second quarter. He hadn't thrown an interception in the red zone all season. But it was at this point that Coach Shaw took the ball out of Luck's hands, and instead give it to his freshman kicker Jordan Williamson. Two running plays got eight yards, and then Shaw let the clock run down to the final three seconds before calling a timeout.

If you were watching on TV, you may have noticed Williamson sitting on the sideline before the timeout, head down, eyes closed, probably trying to calm his nerves. Then he took the field for a 35-yard field goal attempt, but before he got the chance to kick it, the Cowboys called time out. Williamson again closed his eyes. He breathed deeply again. And then came the indigestion. Williamson badly hooked the kick. And then he missed a 43-yard attempt in overtime, after missing a 41-yarder in the first quarter, before booting a kickoff out of bounds early in the fourth quarter. Keep in mind that Williamson suffered a torn groin muscle in late October, missed three games, returned for the Cal and Notre Dame games, kicking a 35-yarder, but missing his other two kicks, from 33 and 49 yards.

He was hardly on a roll heading into the Fiesta Bowl. By contrast, Andrew Luck was money. He nearly won the Heisman Trophy. He will probably be the first pick in the NFL Draft in April. He is the guy that Shaw has often called the greatest college quarterback he's ever seen. And yet, with the game on the line--the biggest bowl game Stanford had played since the back-to-back Rose Bowls in 1971 and '72--Shaw felt Stanford had its best chance of winning the game with a hardly invincible freshman kicker, from 35 yards out, with Andrew Luck watching from the sideline. I just don't understand it.

Please don't get me wrong. I think David Shaw is a great coach. I love the job he did in his first season with Stanford. I think he was the perfect choice to succeed Jim Harbaugh. I like him personally very much. He has been great with KCBS, giving us one-on-one interviews every Tuesday during the season, and giving us very thoughtful answers in the process. It's just that with this one particular decision, I think he made a grave mistake, and I'm far from alone in that thought. Furthermore, I think if he left the ball in Luck's hands, and if Luck failed to get the win, it would have been far easier for everyone associated with Stanford to live with. Go with your best, and let the chips fall where they may. Again, this wasn't a chip shot field goal attempt. And this wasn't a collegiate-version of David Akers doing the kicking. At least not yet.

After the game, Shaw insisted his strategy was sound. He said Stanford's strength was its running game, as evidenced by the team's 243 yards rushing. He's right, although let's not forget that Luck finished a remarkable 27-of-31 for 347 yards, and did not throw a single interception in the red zone all season. But if you want to stick with the running game, at least go for the first down on 3rd-and-two, instead of letting the clock run down to the final three seconds. You've averaged nearly five yards a carry all evening. Get a first down, then use at least a couple of more plays to get closer. Do that, and that poor freshman kicker might be looking at a 20 or 25-yarder than a 35-yarder. That would have done wonders for his confidence.

By contrast, after Williamson's third and final miss, to begin the overtime, when OSU had a second-and-10 at the Stanford 25, head coach Mike Gundy went for the jugular. His quarterback Brandon Weeden hit Colton Chelf over the middle for 24 yards, and that decided the game.

Again, I have nothing but respect and admiration for David Shaw, both for the human being he is, and for the head coach he has become. I just think he should have left the ball in Andrew Luck's hands, with a win in sight, at the end of regulation. I've seen too many last-second field goal attempts go awry, particularly that middle-distance kick. But I haven't seen many college quarterbacks like Andrew Luck.