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9:17AM

SF Examiner: Niners attempting to return to greatness

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner


SAN FRANCISCO — They were the originals, the first major sports team in Northern California, created here, staying here, at times bumbling, at other times triumphant but at all times special.

The 49ers, who open another season Sunday, their 64th, are as much a regional treasure as a football team, as finally John York and son Jed figured out.

It never really mattered who owned them — the Morabitos, the DeBartolos, the Yorks. In effect, the 49ers belonged to the town, to the area, to the people.

The Giants came later. The Raiders came later. The Warriors came later. The A’s came later. The Sharks came much later. The Bay Area is chock-a-block with big-time pro franchises these days.

But from 1946 until the Giants arrived in 1958, there was just one franchise: the Niners.

Just one major pro team crossing the country in propeller planes.

Just one pro team playing the Cleveland Browns or Los Angeles Dons, and when the old All-America Football Conference merged into the NFL in 1950, the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants.

Major League Baseball was a weekly television show. We sent Bill Russell and K.C. Jones to the NBA, but we didn’t see them in person for another five years. The 49ers were our link to the rest of America.

The sports world is different than it was 50 years ago. Now it’s all about sales and commercialization, about getting out a message, about persuading people to show up at the stadium or to watch telecasts.

So the Niners, the marketing department in particular, have leased that billboard along the Bayshore Freeway, at the entrance road to Candlestick, with huge photo of Mike Singletary with the words “I want winners.” As if that’s a unique concept.

Frankie Albert wanted winners. Jack Christiansen wanted winners. Dick Nolan wanted winners. But not until Bill Walsh became coach was the wish fulfilled and did the frustration end.

You had to be here on that Sunday in January 1982 when the Niners, the losers, at last became winners. When the silence was over. When The City blew its top.

By then the Raiders had won two championships, the A’s three championships, the Warriors an NBA title. And yet there was nothing like the day the Niners escaped their penance.

The group that labeled itself “The Faithful,” the fans who never believed it could happen, were as much dumbfounded as ecstatic. Finally, out of the wilderness.

Singletary is a football man. He’s also a Chicago man. He’s a three yards and a cloud of Walter Payton man. That’s never been San Francisco football.

The Niners, from Frankie Albert back in ’46, have thrown the ball. They did have Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry, both of whom could run like mad. Yet the team’s fame, or infamy, was on the arms of Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie and eventually Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Get the ball to R.C. Owens, to Gene Washington, to Dwight Clark, to Jerry Rice.

Now the Niners, after six straight losing seasons, more than anything need to get wins, no matter who gets the ball.

History. It’s great, but a new generation of fans would trade it all for a place in the playoffs.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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http://www.sfexaminer.com/sports/Spander-Niners-attempting-to-return-to-greatness-57952527.html
Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company 
9:48AM

RealClearSports.com: Quarterbacks, the Great and the Unknown



By Art Spander
For RealClearSports.com


So the $40 million man goes to the bench, and the guy who nobody wanted becomes the starter. Once again, you have to wonder what goes on with pro football. Does anyone in charge have a clue? And how did 198 players get chosen before Tom Brady?

Quarterbacks have been big and expensive the last few days. Eli Manning signed an extension for $106 million. Then Philip Rivers, whose draft rights back in 2004 were traded for Manning, received an extension worth $98 million. Somebody must think these guys are important.
Because they are. It's an unarguable fact that every play starts with the quarterback touching the ball, other than that wildcat formation and punts or place kicks. In the NFL, you don't win without at the least a good one. But how do you get a good one?

The San Francisco 49ers had the first selection in the 2005 draft, took quarterback Alex Smith, gave him $40 million and now -- because of injuries and other difficulties -- he's second string behind Shaun Hill, who in his first five years in the league, four of those with Minnesota, played maybe five minutes.

Meanwhile, Brady, who's won three Super Bowls, who's considered to be no worse than the fourth best quarterback in the game and by many no worse than the very best, was taken in the sixth round.

That's better than Kurt Warner, who as we well know was a virtual outcast, had to work in a grocery store and, disproving all theories except the one that a strong arm is never to be underestimated, has played in three Super Bowls, including the most recent.

You've heard this. Drafting is not an exact science. That's a justification for making mistakes. Not that the people in charge don't have a decent understanding of what they need in a quarterback.

Manning, the No. 1 pick in 2004, won a Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger, the No. 11 pick in 2004, has won two Super Bowls. Rivers, fourth that same year, has had the San Diego Chargers in the playoffs. On ESPN the other day, Mike Golic was debating which of the three he would take. Interestingly, it was Rivers.

John Elway was the very first selection in the 1983 draft. He quarterbacked the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl five times and won two of those times. No one questioned the choice or later his performance.

Alex Smith, however, was a questionable No. 1. The 49ers had the first choice. The 49ers needed a quarterback. The presumption was they would take Aaron Rodgers, from Cal, just a few miles away from the Niners' headquarters. The second-guessing has gone on for four years.

Sometimes all a quarterback needs is a chance. Sometimes it's better when he never gets that chance. We're told the best job in the NFL is backup quarterback. You're anonymous, bullet-proof. Until you're forced to play.

Literally, Shaun Hill was forced to play. He had been in Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals, the same for which Warner spent a season, and in retrospect it was a season well spent, Kurt going to the St. Louis Rams and to unforeseen success.

Joining the Vikings in 2002, Hill -- as Warner, undrafted -- virtually never crossed the sideline. Oh, they let him in a couple of times to kneel down at the end of the game, a gesture that once you're beyond high school serves no purpose. What, someone wanted Shaun to earn his letter? Or to let his family know he still was around?

He came to the Niners in 2006, and with Smith in his second year taking every snap, Hill again was a non-entity, this time in a red jersey rather than a purple one. But in 2007, Smith separated his shoulder, Trent Dilfer, No. 2, also was hurt and finally in December, Shaun Hill was throwing and handing off. And winning.

Because Mike Martz, who interestingly enough was Warner's offensive coordinator with the Rams had the same role in 2008 with the Niners, Hill was deemed not capable of directing the Martz wild-air attack. But head coach Mike Nolan was canned, Mike Singletary took over and on came Hill, the methodical sort that Singletary prefers.

Now, as Manning and Rivers receive their raises, Shaun Hill becomes a starting quarterback for a season opener for the first time. And even he seems amazed.

"It's been quite a ride,'' Hill said. "I almost made it through a whole six seasons without taking a real snap in the league, and now here I am, with an opportunity to start for one of the most storied franchises in the league, a franchise that's had great quarterbacks through its history.''

Hill isn't Joe Montana or Steve Young. Hill isn't Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger. He's the man nobody wanted but now the man the San Francisco 49ers need.



As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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http://www1.realclearsports.com/articles/2009/08/26/quarterbacks_the_great_and_the_unknown_96462.html
© RealClearSports 2009

 
8:43AM

SF Examiner: Singletary’s choice of Hill far from shocking

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner


SAN FRANCISCO — Shaun Hill gets what every quarterback wants, the starting position. Alex Smith gets platitudes, words. Kind ones, but nevertheless words. He’s with the 49ers, but he’s not of them.

Football coaches know what to say. They make a smack in the face seem like a pat on the back.

Mike Singletary is going with Hill, hardly a surprise, since Singletary tossed him in last season when the coach no longer could tolerate J.T. O’Sullivan and the Mike Martz chaos, and since Smith is coming off a year without football.

It’s Singletary’s team, and he can do what he chooses.

Other than deny Smith is a backup.

“I don’t see backups,” Singletary insisted. “One of the things I don’t want on this team are backups. I want starters, and I want No. 2s. They’re only No. 2 because they’re not as good as the starter.”

Which, semantics to the contrary, makes them a backup.

Poor Alex. Rich Alex. He got that $40 million contract, which has since been restructured. He was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, going to restore the Niners to greatness, going to follow in the golden footprints of John Brodie, Joe Montana and Steve Young.

Except he came from Utah’s spread offense, and as we’ve learned from the failings of David Klinger and Andre Ware, that college system proves a restriction in the NFL.

Then Smith not only was injured but was berated for not playing hurt by his coach at the time, Mike Nolan, the man who took Smith No. 1.

Singletary gave Smith accolades “I’m very proud of what he’s had to overcome,” said the coach.

But Singletary still gave Hill the role Smith wants so desperately.

“It’s nothing you want to hear,” Smith said of being told Hill would be starting. “Nothing you get used to hearing.” 

Shaun Hill, a one-time free agent who conceded he didn’t take a snap his first six years in the NFL, is becoming the man in charge. Alex Smith, who was supposed to take the Niners to the playoffs, is becoming, OK, not the backup, the bench-warmer.

Singletary spoke of Hill’s presence, about intangibles. What he didn’t say was he believes Hill is better for the Chicago Bears-style offense the Niners will be utilizing, which will feature Frank Gore pounding out yardage and then Hill throwing a timely completion.

The coach wants a quarterback who doesn’t lose games even more than a quarterback who tries to win them.

The gap between Hill and Smith, Singletary explained, wasn’t large. The coach, however, likes Hill’s consistency, his leadership, his experience.

Smith hasn’t played a league game in two years. He had more to prove and still has more to prove.

“He has confidence,” Singletary reminded about Hill, “and probably was feeling in his mind he was the guy all along.”

They say the best job in sports is, sorry Mr. Singletary, backup quarterback. You’re never booed, never injured. Unless you’re elevated to No. 1.

“How many quarterbacks play all year?” Smith asked rhetorically. “I wish the best for Shaun, but my job is to be ready to go. I have to have perspective.”

Sounds good, even if it’s not as good as Shaun Hill’s job as starter.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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http://www.sfexaminer.com/sports/Spander-Singletarys-choice-of-Hill-far-from-shocking-54901302.html
Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company 
9:31AM

SF Examiner: Bay Area due for a turnaround

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

Football season doesn’t begin with the romantic nonsense that surrounds baseball, of spring and flowers and summer in the future. Instead it starts harshly, pragmatically, sometimes with broken bones, and in the Bay Area of late, with broken dreams.

Our impatience has reached a limit. We don’t need any more tales of the way it was, of Joe and Steve, of Marv Hubbard and the Mad Stork. We’ve been living in the past or living with potential. Neither has been fulfilling.

Time flies when you’re having fun. Also when you’re miserable — or your teams are miserable. In Northern California they certainly have been.

Six straight years now since the Niners or Raiders had a winning season. Six straight for either. Six straight for both.

It didn’t used to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. When does it stop being this way?

August is when NFL franchises sell hope in horribly large doses. Frank Gore, we’re advised, has fresh legs. JaMarcus Russell is telling the media the opposition will be wondering “‘What are they going to do on this down, pass it or run it?’ Either way, we’re going to kill ’em.”

Since 2002, when the Raiders went to the Super Bowl and the Niners to the playoffs, they’ve been killing themselves. They had too many coaches and too few victories. They’ve had promotional campaigns, which is the way of the world in the 21st century, but they haven’t had enough substance.

Alex Smith or Shaun Hill? Russell or Jeff Garcia? It doesn’t matter. It’s not who, it’s how. Is there a quarterback out there who can win games? A quarterback who can make a change?

Who cares if Alex’s hands are too small or JaMarcus’ girth is too large. They aren’t in a beauty contest. To reuse the cliché, there are no style points, just points for touchdowns.

The coaches, both in their first full seasons, Tom Cable of the Raiders, Mike Singletary of the 49ers, are careful with their words, tough with their demands. A bad coach can lose games. A good coach, however, can’t necessarily win games.

The attitude is right, the preparation is correct. Which means very little. Show me a team that concedes it wasn’t well-schooled or a team that admitted it was unprepared.

Winning is about making something — making putts, making baskets — in football, about making plays. When you’ve had six straight losing seasons, about the only thing you’ve made is a mess of things.

Since the end of ’08, when each team finished with victories in its final two games, there’s been a lot of hyperventilation about what 2009 is going to bring. This is the year the Niners find success. This is the year the Raiders find improvement.

A skeptic wonders. Six straight years of losing makes anyone cautious. In August, yes, things appear better than they’ve been in a long while, but how will they look in December?

When we get that answer, we’ll know whether this was the season that made a difference or just another in a world of sporting failure.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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http://www.sfexaminer.com/sports/Spander-Bay-Area-due-for-a-turnaround-52487192.html
Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company
9:43AM

SF Examiner: Odds of 49ers staying in S.F. are slim to none

SAN FRANCISCO — So what do you think of the Santa Clara 49ers? The training facility is in Santa Clara. The presumptive new stadium will be in Santa Clara.

Why then should they ever be called the San Francisco 49ers again?

We nearly had the Fremont A’s, who still think of themselves as the San Jose A’s. They remain determined to pull a fast one on Oakland, which put a lot of money into the Coliseum, but is a city without cachet.

For the moment, it’s an NFL team going south — literally.

San Francisco used to be the place where the action was. It had the bridges, the little cable cars and the Niners, the first major sports franchise in Northern California.

It also, besides the Giants, had the Warriors. Yes, they were the San Francisco Warriors before playing a few games in San Diego, being given the mythical title of Golden State and then relocating along the Nimitz.

At least the Warriors — Team Dysfunction (And hasn’t that surreptitious e-mail from HQ been a hoot and a half?) — are only a BART ride away from The City, where they once played. And where the Niners will have once played.

True, until Jed York puts his Gucci shoes on a gold-plated shovel in one of those photo-op poses and construction symbolically is underway, the stadium remains only a talking point, though a cost of $937 million is an expensive talking point.

A lot of promises have been made, but the good citizens of Santa Clara must give their approval, and, hey, even the bottom-end of Silicon Valley has an independent streak.

You know there’s going to be opposition, because in Northern California, unless it’s a vote to save salamanders or marijuana fields in Mendocino, there’s always opposition.

Back in the late 1990s, after San Franciscans, at least those who actually voted, passed a $100-million measure that seemingly enabled the Niners to get a new facility at the old location, the team was going to have a combination 
stadium-shopping center at Candlestick.

But first the team went semi-bad, then was snatched away from benevolent owner Eddie DeBartolo, who according to the courts was more than semi-bad, and taken over by the man Eddie wouldn’t invite to his own parties, brother-in-law John York.

About the only thing Eddie and John had in common was the undeniable belief the Stick was a pig sty and not a very pretty place.

Nor were the Niners a very pretty team the last few years.

In the 21st century, it became apparent San Francisco had neither the political maneuvering (come back Willie Brown, wherever you are) or the financial support to keep its team within the city limits.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, with the assistance of one-time Niners executive Carmen Policy, couldn’t make a go of it, and so the Niners are destined to flee one city named after a saint to another.

“It’s a great deal,” said Patricia Mahan, the mayor of Santa Clara.

You expect her to be critical?

Good riddance, then, Niners. The City will still have the Giants and AT&T Park, the anti-pig sty. Things could be worse.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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http://www.sfexaminer.com/sports/Spander-Odds-of-49ers-staying-in-SF-are-slim-to-none-46775722.html
Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company