Gruden well aware of the issues that keep him from smiling

ALAMEDA, Calif.—He still wears the visor. He rarely wears a smile. When Jon Gruden was asking the questions in his role as an ESPN football commentator he was described in one story as “jolly.”

  Which he had a reason to be, as the network’s highest paid employee, earning a reported $6.5 million for analyzing the game he loves and knows so well, becoming a celebrity.

  But now, back coaching, back with the Raiders, he’s compelled to provide answers that are difficult in certain situations. Such as when two days ago, during his weekly media session, he was queried about the domestic abuse allegations against tackle Trent Brown. Answers are painful.

    “We’re aware of it,” was Gruden’s response to a question about the lawsuit suit filed against Brown, “and we’re looking into it. I’m not going to say anything else other than we’re aware of it.”

   The rest of us are aware Jon Gruden willingly accepted this job, if coaching of any sport at any level can be called a job. An occupation, maybe, a way of life, but not exactly an “is it time to go home yet?”  sort of job.

    People who coach surely want to be paid well—Gruden’s getting $10 million a year from the Raiders—but something other than money drives them

   They want to succeed. They want to help others succeed.  They are supremely confident, believing they have the skill and will power to facilitate change, for those they coach.

  Chris Washburn was a problem as a basketball player at North Carolina State, but he was 6-foot-10, a dream within a nightmare. Washburn was taken No. 3 overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the Warriors, and lived down to expectations, so angering George Karl, the coach who selected Washburn despite the player’s reputation, Karl tore doors off Washburn’s security cabinet in the locker room.

  Asked why, despite all the advice, he drafted Washburn, Karl said, “He has such ability. I thought I could make him better, get him to reach his potential. Thought I could coach him.” 

   There’s always a challenge, always something to prove perhaps as much to oneself as to others.

 Gruden was in his 30s, ebullient, wise-cracking, when in 1998 he was hired by the Raiders to become an NFL head coach for the first time. His football smarts were apparent. His father was a coach. So was Jon’s puckish sense of humor. Asked by a writer for an interview he wondered—probably chuckling silently—“Why would anyone care what I say?”

What Raiders owner Al Davis cared was Gruden not only didn’t get any championships, he was glib, photogenic, becoming the face of the franchise, an unpardonable—albeit unintentional--sin.

 Al was known for firing employees. Gruden however, wasn’t dismissed, he was traded, to Tampa Bay in February 2002 after going 10-6 with the Raiders and losing the infamous “Tuck Rule” playoff game the end of the 2001 season.

  The following year Gruden coached the Bucs to a Super Bowl win (over the Raiders) and in time at ESPN, with Monday Night Football and the Gruden quarterback camp, became a media hero.

  Enough?  Not really. He heard the echoes, saw the visions. “I never wanted to leave the Raiders,” Gruden told us when after an absence of some 16 years he reappeared.

  Then he said, “I haven’t changed much at all since 1998.”  On the contrary. He has changed, maybe because the people in the game have changed. Gruden began with the Khalil Mack holdout a season past. This season it was Antonio Brown, fortunately released in time, and now Trent Brown and Richie Incognito.

  It’s always someone in pro football and always something. But the Raiders keep going and their head coach implied at least this was what he wanted the chance to complete what he started way back when the world was young and there was a time to smile.


Nats don’t need the devil to get their title this time

Surely Mr. Applegate is ecstatic. You know Mr. Applegate, the mystical guy who had a hand in helping Washington get to the World Series. Some people thought he was the devil, but hey who cares, especially the way things are going back there.

   It was Applegate who popped up strategically in the 1950s musical “Damn Yankees,” when in the plot the aging, frustrated insurance man, Joe Boyd, said he’d do anything if Washington at last could beat the Yanks. Which was all Applegate needed to hear.

 Yes, it was the Washington Senators, who became the Texas Rangers, not the Nationals, who used to be the Montreal Expos. Still, it’s the location that’s pertinent, rather than the nickname on the jerseys.

  The Senators were awful. Referring both to the nation’s first president, and the team, people used to say, “Washington: First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” 

  The Nats, nee Expos, are in the National League, but impermanence is the way of all sports. See Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders for verification.

  Joe Boyd, the fictional Senators fan, grumbles out loud if Washington only had a power hitter it could beat “those damn Yankees.”  Mr. Applegate gleefully arrives and in a literal puff of smoke (stage trick) Joe Boyd is transformed into young Joe Hardy, who slugs home runs and makes the Senators a winner. 

  For the Nats the role of Joe Hardy as been capably filled by Howie Kendrick, who was the MVP as the Nats swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, winning the final game, 7-4, Tuesday night.

   Joe Hardy didn’t have to endure various levels of post-season play to get to the World Series, but you won’t hear anyone on the Nats complaining. Wild card, divisional, league, they’ been unstoppable, for the most part because their pitchers have been unhittable.

  The devil, Mr. Applegate, doesn’t have a thing to do with these Nats, although you contend the way team was created by general manager Mike Rizzo, the devil was in details. Who needs Mr. Applegate when you have a general manager like Mike Rizzo?

   These have been an interesting few years in the Major leagues, a time for the halting of curses and life-long disappointment. The Red Sox started it in a sense by ending their so-called “Curse of the Bambino.”  Then the Giants, without a championship in half a century, gained three in five years. Next it was the Cubs for the first time in more than 100 years.

  Now a team from Washington for the first time since 1933.  It would just be perfect , wouldn’t it if they faced those damn Yankees in the Series, but after three games of the ALCS, New York trails the Astros, two games to one and against Cole and Scherzer even the devil seems overmatched. 

  So right now it looks like Washington against Houston, but who knows? The Nats weren’t going to get past the Dodgers. The TV people were talking LA-New York, an historic rivalry and the country’s two largest markets.

  The Nats stunned the Dodgers, indeed all baseball, wining the deciding division series championship on a grand slam in the 10th by that man, Kendrick.  And they haven’t lost a game since.

  Washington had a record of 19-31 in May. The Nats manager, Dave Martinez, had to undergo a heart procedure in September.  Through it all they triumphed.

   ““Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places,” said Martinez, “and this is a beautiful place.”

   That sounds like a line from a Broadway musical.


Niners could be turning the page--back to 1981

 They keep winning. The excitement keeps growing. Isn’t that the way it should be?

   Isn’t that the way it was the magical year of 1981 when the 49ers turned the corner, went from the team that never could to the team that that always did, the team of the decade.

  Now it may be time to turn the page, back not forward, back to the days of Super Joe and Dwight Hicks and the Hot Licks, back to memories which make one think of possibilities.

   So the Niners are 5-0. No one expects them to get to the Super Bowl, much less win it. The same way in ’81 no one expected this franchise which in the 35 years since its founding hadn’t won a championship of any sort.

  Those’81 Niners had a third-year coach who was an offensive—well, the word “genius” was used quite a bit, over time, at least. Those ’81 Niners had a defense which, thanks to Dan Bunz and Hacksaw Reynolds, made a couple of huge goal-line stands. Those ’81 Niners kept winning while the doubters kept waiting for them to lose.

  Shanahan isn’t Bill Walsh (either is anybody else) but that’s irrelevant.  He’s doing what Walsh did, taking a team that was a loser (well, since 2016) and making it a winner—with the assistance of that defense,  that young quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo, 24 of 33 for 243 yards) and a running back somewhat unrecognized ( Tevin Coleman, 18 carries, 45 yards and a touchdown).

  Yet, the way the Niners won this game against a good Rams team (It did get to the Super Bowl in February) is exactly the way the Niners won the game the week before against a bad Browns team. By stopping the other guys.

   The observation has been made here and everywhere: You win on defense. As the late John McKay, who went from Rose Bowls with USC to virtual self-immolation with the expansion Tampa Bay Bucs, who lost their first 26 NFL games, correctly pointed out, “You win on defense. If the other team doesn’t score you’ll never get worse than a 0-0 tie.”

  The Rams scored Sunday on their opening drive to lead the 49ers, 7-0, with much of the first quarter unplayed. And then they never scored again. Even when they had the ball inside the Niners’ one.

  The Rams were 0-for-9 on third down. The Rams were 0-for-4 on fourth down. Jared Goff, the Rams quarterback, the kid from Cal and Marin Catholic High, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, didn’t even throw for 80 yards.

  Yes, the Rams were without their top running back, Todd Gurley and a few other injured players. But good teams overcome the problems, which is why they are good teams. Maybe the Rams don’t belong in that ranking. Without question, the 49ers do.

  The season has weeks to go. There are two games against Seattle, and those could be ones that derail the Niners. However, that shouldn’t derail the fans.

   “Faithful then, faithful now,” is the phrase painted on Levi’s Stadium, words meant to link past, the glorious ‘80s and 1995 (Steve Young’s Super Bowl season) with the present.  Kind of humorous. A few years ago, maybe around 2010, the Harbaugh years, those in charge tried to dissuade the media from using that slogan.

  But it’s back. So are the Niners. Those who stayed faithful or have become faithful should find that faith and dedication rewarded. The Coliseum Sunday was full of red-shirted Niners fans, as was Anaheim Stadium in the 1980s when it was home to the Rams, and the Niners were the best in pro football.

  They haven’t reached that level at the moment—the Patriots keep rolling—but the Niners are heading in the right direction.


Niners at 4-0 is surprising. Or is it?

SANTA CLARA,  Calif.—The number is down to two now. Five weeks into the 2019 NFL season and of the 32 teams only two are unbeaten. One of those is the New England Patriots, which isn’t surprising.

  The other is the San Francisco 49ers?  Which is surprising. Or is it?

  The Niners were supposed to be improved. but who knew? Who knew they could be 4-0, which is their record after dominating the Cleveland Browns, 31-3, Monday night at Levi’s.

   Yes, undefeated in four games, which has not been accomplished by any Niners team since1990, since the days of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig. And Steve Young, because he along with Joe and Steve  became an unfortunate part of what until the last couple quarters of play could have been an historic season.

That 1990 team was going to be the first in league history to win three straight Super Bowls, but in that championship game at Candlestick Park, Montana got hurt and Young came from the bench and Craig missed a handoff and the New York Giants recovered.

   Kicking five field goals the Giants would stun the Niners, 15-13.

    Twenty-nine years ago, the glory days, and perhaps after a seemingly endless wait, after a change of stadiums, of course, the Niners may have returned to the game’s upper echelons. Not to where the Patriots reside, but to a place of respectability.

  The Niners will know more, much more, after  playing the Rams on Sunday in Los Angeles. It they beat the Rams, who were and possibly still are the NFC favorites—after all they did reach the Super Bowl last February—then, well, OK, don’t even offer the suggestion to Niners coach Mike Shanahan, but anything’s possible.

  “I mean it’s still early,” said Shanahan when asked about the record. “It means we played four games, one less than most people. It you tell me that at the end of the year when the season is over you’ll see me celebrating pretty hard. We’ve got to get to work on the Rams. It’s going to be a short week,”

Kyle is in the third season as Niners head coach, and it was Bill Walsh’s third season, 1981, when San Francisco not only became a winner but also became the NFL’s best for a long while, the team of the ‘80s.

Sure that thinking is premature, but the way the Niners battered what was supposed to be a contending Browns team, (it’s now 2-3), outgaining them, 446 yards to 180, intecepting two passes, recovering two Cleveland fumbles, was very impressive. Even exhilarating.

  The 49ers were coming off their bye week. Sometimes teams after the inactivity are sluggish.

   “It was a long two weeks,” said Shanahan. “We felt like we had some good momentum (before the bye). Spending two Sundays watching other teams play. That was the first time I’ve had to do that.. Two weeks in a row without playing.”

The Niners started fast—their first play from scrimmage, Matt Breida, untouched—excellent blocking as well as excellent running—sped 83 yards for a touchdown.

  ‘A big hole,” said Breida. “I saw a big hole. The play worked the way it was supposed to work.”

  As almost everything worked, offensively and defensively. As almost everything has worked this season.

  “It gives you a big boost,” said Breida of the quick score. “The team feels that, and everyone feels the energy, When we did that, and the defense then comes out and (Cleveland) goes three and out, it’s just an amazing feeling.”

  The feeling for Baker Mayfield, the Browns quarterback picked first in the 2018 draft, was the opposite.

  “You make mistakes,” said Mayfield, “a team like that is going to capitalize on them”

  And going to troll the imperfections. When he was at Oklahoma, Mayfield, in a game at Ohio State grabbed a Buckeyes flag and faked planting it into the turf. Monday night after a sack of Mayfield, Niners rookie, Nick Bosa, a Buckeye, the Niners No.1 pick in the 2019 draft, mocked Mayfield.

   “Hopefully,” said Shanahan, “it was a Niners flag and he didn’t offend anyone.”

   Other than Mayfield that is,


For Warriors it could have been called Wild Goose Chase Center

SAN FRANCISCO—Maybe they should call it Wild Goose Chase Center. The Warriors were looking for their locker rooms—no one left a trail of bread crumbs—and they were looking for their rhythm.

  Maybe they also were looking for Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, but unlike the rhythm they aren’t coming back.

  A new season—well, the prelude to a new season—and as everyone knows a new home, $2 billion Chase Center, on the edge of the Bay and a bit south of Oracle Park, where Saturday evening, the Dubs opened their exhibition season, getting  whumped by the Los Angeles Lakers, 123-101.

  The idea in exhibitions, we’re told, is not so much to win but to play everyone, especially the new kids—and the Warriors have a great many of them—to learn what they can or can’t do.

  But to start, Steve Kerr, about begin his sixth year as head coach, and quite probably his first without reaching the NBA finals, had to figure out where to go at the Chase after 47 years at the other Oracle (nee Oakland Coliseum Arena) across the Bay.

   “It’s a great building,” said Kerr, and certainly when you spend as much as was spent, it should be. “The place was packed,” (It was a sellout 18,064, which for those counting numbers is about 1,000 fewer than could pack Oracle Arena.)

“It seemed like everybody, including players, coaches and officials was looking around,” said Kerr. “Our first night here, and it just felt strange. We were used to Oracle

  “Before the game I didn’t know where to find my assistant coaches.”

  They were located. Unlike his offense.   

  Steph Curry was Steph Curry. That pro-am round with Phil Mickelson at the Safeway Open at Silverado in Napa, did nothing to hurt Steph’s overall accuracy, although he was just 1 of 5 on 3-pointers.  Curry, on court a shade under 18 minutes, ended up scoring a game-high 18.

“It’s still weird,” Curry said of playing at Chase. His historic first shot at Chase was perfectly planned, although not perfectly executed.  It was a 31-foot jumper that went maybe 31 feet, 6 inches

   “(The shot) was choreographed Friday,” said Curry, “to christen Chase Center the right way. Obviously it was an air ball, but I thought it was fitting to take a wild shot to get the building right.”

Jordan Poole, the Warriors first pick in this summer’s NBA draft, from Michigan (28th overall) made 4 of his 9 3-point attempts and scored 17.

  Early on, however, nobody shot well for the Dubs, who were down 18 points, 27-9, eight minutes into the game.

    So, yes, it’s a glorified workout, a test to see how your team plays and matches up. But with LeBron James (14 points) and Anthony Davis (13) controlling the inside, there was a sense the Warriors are in trouble—and will be until Klay Thompson comes back in February.

  Klay was on the bench, in uniform, and when shown on the big screen received a deserved ovation but because of the knee injury incurred in the finals last June still is unable to compete or even run.

  D’Angelo Russell, who came in the trade for Durant from Brooklyn, started where Klay would have been, at the other guard spot, and had  just 4 points.

 “For the most part,” said Curry of Russell joining him in the backcourt, “it’s getting him used to when we don’t call plays. It’s our second nature. Our reads, spacing and overall expectations. I told him there’s nothing he needs to change about the way he plays.”

 If there is anything Poole or Eric Paschal, the 6-foot-7 forward from Fordham, selected in the second round of the 2019 draft, need to change it wasn’t apparent.

  “I thought they both played well,” said Kerr of Poole and Paschal.”They both showed their skill and ability. Jordan, obviously, we drafted him for his ability to put the ball in the basket. You can see his confidence,”

  Poole was asked to reflect on his first—albeit unofficial—NBA game of what very well could be a long career. “It’s insane,” he said of the movement. ‘Especially coming from the Big Ten, where everybody just kind of sits at the elbow. There’s a lot of length and a lot of speed and quickness.”

 Let us communicate with Draymond Green about the building (Chase) and the Warriors rebuilding

  “Nothing,” said Green when asked who or what stood out. “Nice arena. But it’s still a basketball court though.”

    No argument here.