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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
11:13AM

RealClearSports: The Raiders Mystery

By Art Spander

ALAMEDA, Calif. – He used to be the most fascinating maverick in sports, a man who cared about nothing except success and for so many years had that success.

“Just win, baby’’ was his mantra, and to hell with how he played the games. Of football. Or of life.

Al Davis owns the Oakland Raiders and in a way owned pro football. He never met a rule he didn’t believe couldn’t be broken.

The more that people, the league, the consultants, told him what couldn’t be done, throwing deep, moving a franchise, the more intent Al was on doing it.

The Raiders were the NFL’s original bad boys — in image, not record. If the Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s were America’s Team, the Raiders were Satan’s Team. Davis relished the idea.

“I love to go to a visiting stadium and hear the fans boo us,’’ Davis said, or words to that effect. “It is better to be feared than loved. It’s the Raiders’ mystique.’’

The mystique has ebbed into mystery. And agony.

Nobody fears the Raiders these days. Except their own fans.

As the franchise a couple of days ago was involved in what officially is called an “organized team activity,’’ or off-season workout, Davis was out of sight, upstairs in the headquarters building.

But he never was out of mind.

The Raiders have been losing it. They haven’t had a winning season since 2002, when, they actually went to the Super Bowl, getting crushed by a Tampa Bay team led by Jon Gruden, who the year before had been the Raiders’ coach.

The question asked too often these days is, has Al Davis lost it?

In a month, on the Fourth of July, Davis will be 80. A leg problem has required him to use a walker, making him seem even older. Yet he is very much in control, at least by one definition.

“I am the Raiders,’’ Davis reminds those who want him to relinquish the power. He still calls the shots. He still runs the draft. He still hires the coaches, and thus still fires the coaches. Beginning with 2002, he has hired and fired four coaches and then during last season brought in a fifth, Tom Cable, who hasn’t yet been fired.

Al Davis is a football man. He coached the Raiders in the early 1960s, briefly became commissioner of the AFL before it was merged into the NFL and for more than 40 years has been owner, general manager, dictator, czar and everything else possible.

The Raiders could be described as football incestuous, Davis rarely going outside the organization for a new face or new ideas. Two of the three times he has done so, bringing in Mike Shanahan to coach in the 1980s and Lane Kiffin in 2007, ended up in bitter divorces. Shanahan still claims the Raiders owe him back pay. Kiffin was dispatched “with cause,’’ which is about as nasty as it gets.

A football team is many parts, but the single most important of those parts, as in any business, is the individual at the top.

Davis knows more football than half of the NFL combined. One wonders if his concepts work in 2009. No less significantly, do the players used to employ those concepts meet the standards of 2009?

Two years ago, Oakland made a 6-foot-6, 260-pound quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. Russell virtually can reach the moon with his throws, the extreme of the Al Davis philosophy of going deep. But he struggles to throw short. To read defenses. To be a leader.

When practice ended the other morning, the media chased after Russell. He’s making a ton of money, which in a way is incidental. All anyone cares about is whether he’ll make an impact.

LeBron-like, Russell refused to wait for an interview. In some ways, he couldn’t be blamed. How often need he respond to the same doubts?

In other ways, he could be blamed. Is JaMarcus learning the offense? Is he, as demanded of the very first man selected in any draft, capable of bringing a team back to glory?

That very question has been asked again and again of Al Davis. His appearance and the Raiders’ failings over the past several seasons give the critics their ammunition. He’s ancient, we’re told. His football style is ancient.

His mind, however, is sharp. That he walks slowly doesn’t mean he can’t think fast. He can remember players and games from the 1970s. He knows systems. He knows schemes. Maybe his own major fault is he doesn’t know how to – or doesn’t want to – delegate authority.

Davis admits mistakes, signing DeAngelo Hall, drafting Robert Gallery, who, despite size and potential, was incapable of becoming the blind-side tackle. But Davis won’t admit he no longer can create a champion.

Some despise Al. I admire him. He won’t give in or give up. Who can’t appreciate staying power, in a team or a man?
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. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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http://www.realclearsports.com/articles/2009/06/the_raiders_mystery.html
© RealClearSports 2009
10:33PM

Raiders’ first pick is a first-class guy

ALAMEDA, Calif. — In person, Darrius Heyward-Bey didn’t look bad and sounded good. The most disparaged, berated, criticized individual in pro football who never had played a game was wonderfully slick and carefully glib.

Heyward-Bey spent a few hours showing his moves on a morning of sunshine and curiosity, and then followed that up with a few minutes showing his intelligence.

Not a tart word or an angry thought about those who deem his selection in the first round by the Oakland Raiders nothing short of blasphemy.

For the past two weeks, since the draft, observers who weren’t wringing their hands — “How could the Raiders take this guy when they had a chance at Michael Crabtree?’’ — wanted to wring someone’s (yes, Al Davis’) neck. It was if football had been profaned.

“Everybody wants to get you when you’re down,’’ said Raiders coach Tom Cable when asked to explain what some saw as a greater national scandal than the economy. “People get upset when you do something they think you shouldn’t do.’’

What the Raiders did, of course, was with the No. 7 pick in the draft take Heyward-Bey, who was a junior at Maryland, who caught passes for only 600 yards and who has brilliant speed, but that apparently didn’t enter into the equation — except, as always, for Al Davis.

Saturday was the first day of the rest of Heyward-Bey’s life, minicamp for a franchise that, after six consecutive losing seasons, needs a maximum of help. He was out there with the big guys, JaMarcus Russell at quarterback, Nnamdi Asomugha, the all-pro, at cornerback.

Then while a continuous loop of videotape ran on a television screen above him, the Raiders’ ingenious method of proving Heyward-Bey can catch the ball as well as run with it, Heyward-Bey faced the media and the music. He departed leaving an impression.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Maybe, as the analysts predict, Heyward-Bey will be a bust. Then again, listening to the young man (he’s 22) after watching him, one is struck with a surprising thought: He might be the next Bay Area superstar.

It isn’t only talent that elevates an athlete into that rare position, although you don’t qualify without having a great deal of that. You also need personality, an ability to handle an interview as smoothly as a deep pattern. You need a smidgen of arrogance and a great deal of confidence. You need a sense of humor. And to make it all work, you need a topping of self-deprecation.

If the sit-down after his first practice is an indication, Heyward-Bey has all of the above, at least off the field. And he believes he has what is required on the field, too. Naturally.

“It wasn’t strange to me,’’ said Heyward-Bey, when someone wondered about the controversy created by his draft selection. “Things like that happen all the time. But I was happy to be a Raider. I know Al Davis and the rest of the coaching staff made a great choice.

“All I can do is worry about me. My attitude was going to be the same whether I was the first pick in the draft or the last pick in the draft or a free agent. I was going to work hard, regardless.’’

Cable hasn’t commiserated with Heyward-Bey, who didn’t arrive in town until Friday. The player said he doesn’t need happy talk. “He called me,’’ Heyward-Bey said of the coach, “and said he had my back. I felt good enough with that . . . you can run through mountains when a coach tells you that.’’

Mountains he doesn’t need to conquer. Rather it’s the doubts of the non-believers. The Sporting News Today gave the Raiders a grade of D, adding, “Bad teams can’t make mistakes such as WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and S Michael Mitchell.’’ Another scouting service awarded the Raiders an F.

“My mom doesn’t understand,’’ said Heyward-Bey. “It doesn’t bother me at all. You brush it off and keep working. That’s what we’re born to do.’’

When it was pointed out he and Crabtree, picked by the 49ers, might be linked competitively as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are, Heyward-Bey quickly answered, “I don’t think we’re like Kobe and LeBron yet. I’ve just got to worry about getting into the playbook and making the team.’’

What he made was a leaping catch and a couple of adjustments on routes, as both JaMarcus and Jeff Garcia threw to him and other receivers.

“Every time you’re in there,’’ said Heyward-Bey, “you want to think you’re a starter and hold on to the spot as long as you can, and don’t want to be starstruck with all those big-name guys, You want to feel part of the group, and they made me feel right at home.’’

And his reaction after his first workout as a Raider? “I didn’t pass out, so that was good.’’

This kid is a comer.
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