Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Culliver Affair

Please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm having a hard time getting all worked up about what Chris Culliver said.

I know it's supposed to be an outrage, but is it really news that someone in the insular world of pro sports  would say he's uncomfortable with the notion of a gay teammate? After all, in the entire history of the Big Four pro sports in North America (football, baseball, basketball, hockey), there has never been one single player whose homosexuality has been public knowledge during his playing career. Not one.

In a society where even the most conservative estimates say there are at least 10 million gay Americans, something doesn't add up. Either pro athletes are exclusively heterosexual to a statistically improbable degree--or somebody's been hiding something, and for a very long time.

When the 49ers' defensive back got into his riff with former Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lange at Super Bowl Media Day, he did so with that as his professional background. And speaking of background, it might be worth taking a few moments to look at Chris Culliver's.

He is a 24-year-old African-American man who was born in Philadelphia to a teenaged mother. That mother was wounded (and Culliver's stepfather and a cousin killed) in a barroom fight when Culliver was 8. Culliver eventually graduated from high school in North Carolina and played football at the University of South Carolina.

I mention all of this because it paints a picture. It is always dangerous to generalize, but statistically, Culliver's background makes it more likely than not that his views on homosexuality will differ significantly from those of, say, a white college-educated Bay Area resident.  I'm not just assuming this: there is a wide body of research on attitudes toward homosexuality.  As recently as two years ago, the respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported 64% of black Americans believed homosexuality was immoral. By comparison, the same survey found 48% of white Americans held the same belief.

There are clearly signs of recent movement on the issue, but deeply-held attitudes and beliefs do not change overnight. Be completely honest with yourself, if you're a straight person:  were you always perfectly OK with the notion of homosexuality? Or did your attitudes evolve as you got to know gay people in your family, circle of friends, or workplace?

Speaking of "evolving" I find it interesting that Culliver used the word "gay" in his comments. 11 years ago, when another 49er, Garrison Hearst, was asked the very same question ("what would you think about having a gay teammate?" is a remarkably common thread when you look into the history of athletes being pilloried for their views on homosexuality), he dropped the homophobic "f-word". Twice. In 2001, former Giants pitcher Julian Tavarez did the same when referring to the Giants fan who booed him.

Am I approving of what Chris Culliver said? Certainly not. In fact, I think he's been misled; the odds are pretty decent that, through the course of high school, college and pro football, he has already played with and dressed next to a gay man.

To those who mock his hastily-issued statement of regret as hollow and manufactured, give it a rest. See it as an opportunity to educate one more person, to raise consciousness one more notch. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice."  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Jim Harbaugh, Comedy Star

Ever since he burst on the Bay Area's collective radar as Stanford's head coach, Jim Harbaugh has been a bit of a puzzle to many people.

Competitive? Well, yeah. Innovative, energetic, bright? Check, check, and check.

But what people have been trying to figure out about Harbaugh is this: is he a funny guy or, you know, just a bit funny? Even when he gets laughs, we're often unsure of whether he really meant to be funny.

We've all sort of wanted to know about him what Harbaugh famously asked then-USC coach Pete Carroll during a postgame dustup in 2009: "What's your deal?"

Well, I think we're now seeing the answer, and it's being revealed in the unlikely crucible of Super Bowl week. Don't tell anyone, but Jim Harbaugh is a laugh riot.

Harbaugh's first three days in New Orleans haven't produced a Bill Walsh-as-hotel-doorman moment, but he's been relaxed with the media. And by "relaxed", I don't mean he's been a reincarnation of Bum Phillips, whose homespun humor is still funny years after the fact ("Earl Campbell may not be in a class of his own, but it don't take long to call the roll" was a classic).

But still, watching Harbaugh's bit about his son (he started riffing on little Jack's head size after a question about football safety) showed there really is a funny guy in there. When he wrapped it up with this, he had the reporters eating out of his hand: "As soon as he grows into that head, he's going to be something. It's early, but expectations are high for young Jack."

Well, expectations are high for Jack's dad, too. And now that Harbaugh has let the comedy cat out of the bag, there's no going back.  I don't think we're going to see a laugh riot with Coach Harbaugh, but the Bay Area is fine with all sorts of offbeat characters. We just want to know that you're a character

Oh, and taking your team to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years tends to improve your reviews, too.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Caught Between Two Geniuses

I'll say it right up front: I have a great job. I'm the grown-up version of the kid who was curious about everything, read every scrap of paper he could get his hands on, and never stopped asking questions.

So anchoring the news at KCBS is pretty cool. The John Madden thing?  Well, that puts it over the top.

For more than a dozen years, I've been lucky enough to be the guy who greets the legendary coach and broadcaster and moderates a 7-or-8-minute chat. It's usually about sports, often about football, and always unpredictable. We don't script anything. Heck, we don't even choose a topic in advance.

Every now and again, we'll book a guest to join the conversation.  As you can imagine, it's not hard to convince sports figures to spend a little time with John Madden.

This morning, we had what broadcast producers call "a good get":  Jim Harbaugh. My colleague Steve Bitker made the request; despite the mad pressure on his time, the Super Bowl-bound Harbaugh said "yes".

You can hear the whole segment here. What you can't hear or see is what it felt like to sit in the middle of this. Madden has been saying for two years now that he's a huge fan of the job Harbaugh has done with the 49ers, arriving after the 2011 lockout to push the Niners to the brink of the Super Bowl--and then going one step beyond this year.

So Madden told Harbaugh how much he respected Harbaugh's coaching. To which Harbaugh replied, "Bullcrap!" We're all pretty sure that's the first time we ever heard that word on KCBS. Just to be clear, Harbaugh repeated it.

His point: Madden was "The Man" in this conversation.  And as if to prove it, Harbaugh asked Madden, whose Raiders won the Super Bowl  36 years ago, for advice. So Madden offered, "The team that complains the most usually loses. The other thing that I know is, you haven't done anything yet."

That's when Harbaugh said, "Hang on. I'm writing this down." And judging by the silence on his end of the line, he was writing it all down.

Unaccustomed as I am to shutting up, this seemed like a good time to do so. Here was a true legend handing a few pearls of wisdom to the hottest coach in the business--and Harbaugh was listening. It was like having a front-row seat to a moment in sports history. Of course, I couldn't leave well enough alone and asked a question, probably a lame one, and Harbaugh put me right  in my place, saying "Hey, we have Coach Madden here!" In other words: back off, Radio-Boy.

We did get inside his busy mind a bit: Harbaugh shared his thoughts on what he likes to see in a good team meeting (everyone engaged) and on his recent posting of high school photos and scouting reports on players' lockers (a fun way to remind them of how their football careers began).

But what we'll always remember is the self-assured coach of a Super Bowl team asking for advice from an elder, and writing it down.

No bullcrap there.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Littlest Niner

You could easily walk past Chad Hall on the street and never guess at his occupation: NFL player. As the photo he Tweeted while flying to the NFC Championship game shows, Hall looks more like a snowboarder or the young guy working at your local sporting goods store.

He's only 5'7", the shortest guy on the 49ers roster. He weighs 187 pounds, so he's pretty solid but gives up plenty of poundage to most everyone else on the field. There's a tendency to assume a guy that size must be really fast, but not so much; Hall's 4.6 40-yard-dash time is nothing special.

So he's not big and he's not fast, but what Chad Hall is is shifty--and tenacious as hell.  The Atlanta native was a standout high school quarterback who was ignored by big-time college recruiters. He arrived at the Air Force Academy in 2004 and spent that fall quarterbacking the JV team (how quaint is that...a JV team!) before starting his varsity career in '05. He ran for 344 yards that year, 784 in '06, and then went wild in 2007.

In his senior season at Air Force, Chad Hall ran for 1449 yards and piled up another 784 receiving yards, becoming the only college player in the country to lead his team in both rushing and receiving. He also returned punts and kickoffs for the Falcons. The undersized Air Force squad went 9-4, capping its season with a 42-36 loss to Cal in the Armed Forces Bowl. That Cal team was loaded: future NFL players included DeSean Jackson, Jahvid Best, Justin Forsett, LaVelle Hawkins, Alex Mack, Thomas DeCoud, Syd'Quan Thompson and Tyson Alualu. They all went away impressed by the stubby Air Force running back.

Of course, those Cal players were pretty sure they'd have a shot at NFL riches. Chad Hall? He was an Air Force 2nd lieutenant headed for duty at a base in Utah.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Hall managed to get a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles. It led to a contract and--while he dressed in the same locker room as DeSean Jackson--he led a very different life. Hall existed on the margins of the NFL, a too-small, too-slow former quarterback and running back trying to make it as a wide receiver. There were a few catches, a couple of touchdowns, and a lot of time on the practice squad.

The 2012 season? Hall was cut by the Eagles at the end of training camp. The 49ers signed him to their practice squad after a rash of wide receiver injuries. He got into the NFC Championship game in his hometown, even had a pass thrown his way (it was deflected). It looks like he'll be active for the Super Bowl.

You just know that Chad Hall is a Jim Harbaugh kind of guy--gritty, tough. His versatility gives offensive coordinator Greg Roman a few new toys--how about an option pass?

However it turns out, the Chad Hall story is a terrific sidebar to the 49ers' Super Bowl run. There's only one glitch: he arrived with the Twitter handle @chadhall16 (he wore #16 with the Eagles).

Uh, in the Bay Area, that number is taken.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Lonely Life of the Placekicker

In a world of behemoths, the placekicker is usually the average-sized guy (we'll excuse the Raiders' Sebastian Janikowski at this point in the discussion). But the reality of pro football is that the little guy has a huge role. That's why there's so much concern surrounding the 49ers' David Akers.

The highlight shows are full of clips showing NFL wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks finding the end zone.  When they score, they dance and preen and spike the ball.

But here's the reality:  week in and week out, the placekicker is the engine of an NFL offense.  The league's top 20 scorers this past season were kickers. 30 of the top 31 (please excuse Houston running back Arian Foster for crashing the party at #21). And in a weird confluence, Akers and Super Bowl opposite number Justin Tucker finished in a virtual tie. Akers made two more extra points; Tucker made one more field goal.

So both of these guys are top-10 scorers. But nobody's wringing their hands each time Tucker lines up a kick. It's Akers and his late-season slump that are making headlines.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh tried to settle this down by announcing the day after the NFC Championship game that Akers is his guy for the Super Bowl. But while Akers nailed a 36-yarder in the Green Bay playoff game, this is a "what have you done for me lately" business and the 38-yarder that whacked the left upright in Atlanta is the one everyone remembers.

What's up with Akers? Who knows? We know he underwent double-hernia surgery less than a year ago and required followup treatment two months ago. We know his leg strength isn't the problem; the Falcons never got a chance to return an Akers kickoff because he drove them so deep. We know he's generally been missing left--pushing the ball--so we wonder if he's physically having trouble pulling through the ball.

Or is it "all in his head"?  Bay Area News Group reporter Cam Inman tracked down the guys who kicked for the Niners in their five Super Bowl wins. All of them back Akers. And Ray Wersching put it in words: "It's all mental".

Wersching and his fellow kickers would know. They're the little guys who play a high-stakes game. They know the pressure of being the fellow in the clean shirt whose few seconds of work each weekend have so much to do with the outcome.

Pro golfers like to say you "drive for show and putt for dough". It's kind of like that in the NFL. The 49ers have to hope for one of two things: either see Akers snap out of it, or put the ball so close to the metaphorical hole that it won't matter.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The New Guys

Colin Kaepernick's story doesn't need any more hype. His ascension from backup curiosity to Super Bowl starting quarterback will surely generate untold amounts of media attention over the next fortnight. I hereby lay odds that somebody will ask Kaepernick at Super Bowl Media Day to pull off his shirt and provide a tattoo tour.

Then there's the other newbie in the 49ers backfield. He's mostly been flying under the radar, but if I had to pick one guy most likely to surprise at the Super Bowl, it would be LaMichael James.

They say patience is a virtue.  That must make James a pretty virtuous guy.

The 49ers running back had to learn how to wait, in more ways than one. James was a bona fide star coming out of the University of Oregon's high-powered offense. He ran for more than 5,000 yards in three seasons at Oregon and finished 3rd in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore.

The 49ers took him in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft--and that's when the fleet-footed James started to see things slow down.

Nobody expected him to supplant the durable and effective Frank Gore as the Niners' featured back. But James was so deep on the depth chart, he wasn't even on it.  For the first 13 weeks of the NFL season, James never touched the ball--because he wasn't even on the weekly roster.

By the time the 49ers activated James in Week 14, all of the backs drafted ahead of him had seen plenty of game action; one of them, Doug Martin, had already gained 1,000 yards rushing.

What happened? It turned out James had a few things to learn about the craft of carrying the football in the NFL.  For one thing, NFL backs need to do something James was never asked to do at Oregon: block. Watch Gore and you'll see a guy who commits himself fully to the least-glamorous aspect of his job.

So James had to add "blocking" to his skill set.  But to hear Gore tell it, the speedy kid also had to learn to slow down. We tend to focus on how fast a guy is, but for an NFL runner, the art is in knowing when to light the afterburners. A headlong dash into a hole that hasn't opened yet gets you nowhere.  Again, watch Gore to see how it's done.

So LaMichael James had to work on his patience. Now, he's ready. He scored his first NFL touchdown in the NFC Championship Game. He's averaging almost 7 yards a carry in the postseason games and he's become the team's kickoff return specialist (that 62-yard return against the Patriots in mid-December hinted at his explosiveness).

But for me, the proof that the waiting is over came on a three-play sequence in the playoff game against Green Bay. James caught a pass, picked up a nice gain on a read-option running play...and laid a block. He also displayed a clever capability to play-act when he doesn't get the ball on the read-option. Linemen and linebackers can be frozen by a good fake, and James does it well.

In short, the waiting is over. Patience is being rewarded. It seems as though every Super Bowl produces a surprise hero, but if it's LaMichael James, I won't be surprised.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The New Look

Remember the old days--oh, about two months ago, when there was a raging debate in the Bay Area about who should be playing quarterback for the 49ers?

Taking nothing away from Alex Smith, who will be taking the snaps for some other NFL team next year, but that debate is so over. There's no looking back now, no lingering uncertainty. Colin Kaepernick is The Man.

Man-Child is more like it. The guy is barely 25 years old. Heck, if he didn't have this gig, he could still get health coverage on his parents' plan. And once in a while, he seems to reveal that youth.

The first evidence in the Packers playoff game came early. On the Niners' first possession, after the team had racked up 42 yards on its first 4 plays, Kaepernick appeared to get greedy. He tried to wire a pass to Vernon Davis in the left flat, and Green Bay's Sam Shields read it like a "Dick and Jane" book. Packers 7, Niners 0.

Later in the first half, Kaepernick punctuated a scramble to the Green Bay 9 yard line by spiking the ball and barking at the Packers' defense. Flags flew, and the stunt erased the 15 yards San Francisco had gained on the play. It's important to remember a couple of things here: the game was tied at the time, and the Niners have been a bit nervous about their kicking game. Moving the ball backward is not the percentage move.

Ah, youth. The pick-six interception looked to be the work of a young guy in full thinking, a la Nuke LaLoosh, "he hasn't seen my fastball yet." Kaepernick owns a million-dollar arm, but he'll have to learn his limits. The taunting penalty: just plain dumb. Getting into a chirping match in an NFL playoff game is not something you want to make a habit of.

Some will be put off by Kaepernick's touchdown pose: the Tat-Smack. Heck, some are put off by the tattoos in the first place. They'd better get used to it because this guy isn't going away.  His mastery of the read-option, the golden arm, the blazing speed and the cockiness combine for a potent package.

In fact, I would wager that there is no one in the NFL getting more attention in film rooms right now than Colin Kaepernick. His skill set and yes, his youthful exuberance/naivete make him a unique threat. And what's scariest of all: he's not getting any younger.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Spring Sticker Shock

I am not one of those cranky oldtimers who always thinks things were better in the good old days.

Really, I'm not. But I'm having a hard time swallowing what's happened to the once-quaint institution known as Cactus League baseball. It used to be a place where you'd go stretch out in the sunshine, grab a beverage (maybe from The Lemonade Man), and watch a bunch of guys wearing number 83 try to make The Big Club.

I've watched as spring baseball became big business in Arizona and Florida (though it's clear that the Grand Canyon State has taken the high ground in this). New ballparks and training facilities have sprouted and the fans have followed. Cactus League attendance set a new record at 1.7 million last spring (up more than 7%) and the boom shows no sign of slowing.

That's not what bugs me. Sure, I liked it better in the old days when you could stretch out a bit. But there are still lazy backwaters where you can beat the crowds (if you like peace and quiet, go watch the Brewers at the Maryvale Ballpark).

No, what's griping me is the price of a ticket.  Yeah, I know, nothing's getting cheaper. But does it really seem right that the Giants would charge $54 for a grandstand seat? I'm not kidding. That's what they're charging for a March 23rd date against the A's at Scottsdale Stadium. That same day, you can pay 32 bucks to plop your butt on the grassy hill behind the outfield fence.

The two-trophies-in-three-years Giants will undoubtedly sell every seat they offer this spring.  And to be fair, they're not charging those sorts of outrageous prices for every game; you can go see the Indians on a Tuesday afternoon and pay 7 bucks to sit on the grass or $24 for a box seat. That's "variable pricing" at work; the Giants have been among baseball's leading proponents of the idea that all tickets are not created equal.

Still, when a ticket for an exhibition game costs as much as (or more than) a ticket to a real game, something's out of whack. Sure, Scottsdale Stadium has the advantage of being a stroll away from a great concentration of bars and restaurants, but we're talking about a spring training game here. That's a lot of pressure on whoever's wearing number 83.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kicking Desperately

The 49ers approach Saturday's NFC playoff game against the Packers with a real problem: they don't know who'll be their placekicker.

Well, maybe they do, but it's not something they're all that sure about. Else, they wouldn't have trooped a bunch of folks up to Candlestick Park on Monday to see rent-a-kicker Billy Cundiff take his first-ever swings at the Niners' home stadium.

How desperate it is it to bring in a guy who's never kicked at the 'Stick and whose missed playoff 32-yarder last year let New England beat Baltimore, ending the Ravens' season and sending the Patriots to the Super Bowl? You make the call. Oh, before you answer: Cundiff is available because he was let go three months ago after missing 5 of 12 field goal attempts for the Redskins.

This has come to pass because incumbent kicker David Akers has gone from Mr. Automatic to WTF?!?  Akers nailed an NFL-record-sharing 63-yarder earlier in the season, but fell on hard times later. Akers' misses of makeable field goals in both St. Louis games cost the 49ers a chance to go 13-3 and match Atlanta for best record in the NFC (although I'm pretty sure, after going deep into the NFL playoff tiebreaker rules, the Falcons would still have the top seed).

It may be a while before we know whether Akers hit a career-threatening patch of the "yips" or is suffering deep aftereffects of the double-hernia surgery he went through during the offseason. Akers and the 49ers kept quiet about that until recently; finally acknowledging that he sought followup treatment in November.

Maybe none of this will matter. Since the turn of the century, there have been 52 Divisional Round playoff games, and 10 of those (19.2%) have been settled by a field goal or less. In other words, in most of these games, one field goal made or missed wouldn't have changed the outcome.

So the odds say a kicker won't be the difference-maker on Saturday. But does that really make you comfortable?

Monday, January 7, 2013

It's Not Just Shanahan

Like many football fans, I was looking forward to the last of the four first-weekend NFL playoff games. That matchup between the fast-improving Seattle Seahawks and the Robert Griffin III-led Washington Redskins looked pretty juicy.

And then it turned into a slow-motion horror flick. One of the most exciting and captivating players to arrive in the NFL in years could barely move. RG3 played most of the game as a one-legged shadow of himself. It finally came to an agonizing end when his right knee collapsed for the second time in the game. This time, he didn't get up.

By then, Seattle was poised to win a game that began with two quick Redskins touchdowns and had the feeling of a rout in the making...until Griffin went down.

After that first-quarter injury, RG3 was painful to watch. He was limping badly and couldn't throw with any accuracy. In short, he was an injured athlete. 

But wait: Griffin says he was not injured.  "Hurt", maybe, but not injured. Ordinary people may wonder, "what's the difference?". Welcome to the weird world of the NFL. You're supposed to play hurt, or as the admirably mature and eloquent Griffin put it after the game, "be a man". Injured is what you are when you can't play, and it had damned well be pretty serious.  

You didn't have to be on the sidelines at FedEx Field to see that Griffin was less than himself after the first-quarter injury (he went down on the right sideline, untouched, when his knee collapsed while he threw a pass). Of course, it turns out that even if you were on the Redskins sideline, you'd get it wrong: when Griffin originally hurt his knee a month ago, coach Mike Shanahan thought noted orthopedist James Andrews had cleared Griffin to return to the game. Turns out he hadn't.

I blame Shanahan for sending Griffin back out there against the Seahawks. He's the head coach, it's his job to make that call, and I was stunned to see a veteran coach allow an obviously-impaired athlete continue to play. At some point, a boxing manager throws in the towel to protect his athlete. Shanahan should have done the same.

But let's not lay all the blame at his feet. The NFL's (indeed, football's) warrior culture is at the root of this. What if "be a man" was re-defined as, "be smart and do the best thing for your team and your future"? What if "tough" was expanded to include "wise"? Griffin is surely an intelligent and engaging young man, but he's a part of the problem too: he was the one telling Shanahan he was ready to play.

It's not going to happen overnight. It will require some soul-searching on the parts of many, from players to coaches to doctors to owners. It will require a re-calibration of the balance between short-term desires and long-term player health and safety, and it will force us all to reconsider our own role in this, since we are the consumers of this spectacle known as pro football.