Monday, November 21, 2005

Johnny Come Lately
By Blogger

Well, I woke up Sunday morning with no way to hold my head that didn't hurt...

Sunday was a good day, even though it didn't seem to start out well. I woke up at 10:15 on only about five hours of sleep. The phone was ringing. I answered, and it was a family friend, Ben.

"David, you awake?"

"I am now." (What is that pulsing in my temples?)

"What are you doing today?"

"Nothing during the day." (I planned on sleeping until this afternoon, but you called and woke me up. This evening, I'm seeing Walk The Line with my buddy, Kenneth.)

"Niner game."

"When are you coming by?" (Hot damn! I'm awake!)

"Twenty minutes."

Seven minutes later, I'd showered, dressed, and was wolfing down breakfast. Ben has fantastic seats, nineteen rows up from the field, in the south end zone, which is the end where the Niners come out of their locker room. He's taken me to a few games over the past couple of years when other people have bailed for whatever reason, and it's always a good time. Seahawks, huh? The boys in garnet and gold don't have a chance, but at least we'll ogle the women, scream for Cody Pickett, scream for Frank Gore, and bow down at the twin altars of Jeremy Newberry and Bryant Young.

Yes, I'll admit I'm a fool for you. Because you're mine, I walk the line...

We got to Candlestick a little earlier than usual because Ben wanted to cook some burgers on his propane grill and fill up before heading in. As he, his friend Morty, and I talked, I realized how much of a 49ers fan I've become. My whole life, I've more or less followed the team simply due to geographic obligation. I was happy when they won after the 1994 season. I was happy when Terrell Owens made the ridiculous catch against the Packers in the 1998 playoffs. I was happy when Dennis Erickson was fired. But until I took a moment to quietly reflect in the parking lot today, I wouldn't have necessarily described myself as a 49ers fan. Its time had come.

Morty, a southern California guy, artfully tread through the Dodgers-Giants conversational minefield with me, but once we started talking football, everything came together. I noticed how passionate I was about the quarterback situation, and that I've been both legitimately disappointed and inspired by the team this year. As far as Morty was concerned, and everyone else we talked to in the parking lot, Seahawks and Niners supporters alike, I was a fan. A guy in a Niners shirt who knew the team and whose feelings varied with the team's fortunes. It was a good feeling.

A jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine. It'll shake all the trouble from your worried mind. Get rhythm when you get the blues...

Ken Dorsey threw the ball well early on. I admit that I'd trashed him in the parking lot, describing to anyone who would listen that he can't throw the ball with any authority more than twenty yards. The man sitting in front of us passed on the radio announcer's comment that the consecutive first downs the Niners gained on their initial drive was the first time they'd done that in six games. Shock of shocks, their rhythm faltered as they approached the goal line, and they had to settle for a field goal, but Dorsey looked good, if a little panicked in the pocket.

Kevan Barlow was D-U-N. (I originally wanted to write D-O-A, but that seems ever so slightly too harsh. Barlow can run sideways with the best of 'em. It's just when he eventually has to go north-south and make contact with defenders that he starts stinking up the joint.) I didn't see Frank Gore in the game, so there was probably an injury issue with him. Each time I've seen him, he's played like a man with something to prove. He looks like a first round talent who had significant enough injury issues that he dropped in the draft, but his reconstructed knees, as far as I know, haven't had any effect on his game. There's a reason the guy was originally ahead of McGahee on the depth chart at The U.

Even though he's clearly better than Barlow, Gore doesn't get the majority of rushes. Barlow has a fairly hefty contract, so Ben likes to point out that even though Mike Nolan has publicly praised Gore over and over again and would probably like to play him every week, it's in the team's best longer-term interests to play Barlow and let him build up some shiny counting statistics so that his perceived value increases.

I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm gonna be a diamond some day...

Ben didn't tell me until we were already in our seats and the Seahawks were driving down the field that it was Steve Young Day. With about five minutes to go in the second quarter, Young made his way through the crowd and onto the field. Wherever he went, the crowd near him stood and cheered. He ended up directly in front of us to wait for halftime, and spent the whole time chatting with Bill Walsh and George Seifert.

When halftime came, a stage was wheeled out to midfield and Walsh and Seifert and several 49ers Hall of Famers made their way there. Notably absent were Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Brent Jones, Harris Barton, Jesse Sapolu, and every other great 49er that Young played with. I suppose the idea was to not overshadow him, but wouldn't their presence and show of honoring him help put to rest some of that lingering crap about how Young somehow really wasn't one of the all time great quarterbacks? Look at his raw numbers, and imagine if someone put up his 1994 numbers today.

When Young was introduced, the crowd gave him, easily, a five minute standing ovation. When the cheering started dying down, a few sections started chanting, "Steve! Steve! Steve!" until the whole stadium was in on it and the cheering began again and didn't stop for another minute or so.

When he was finally able to speak, reciting a memorized speech, he gave all the basic thank yous and all the necessary props to his teammates and coaches. But he started losing it when he began to talk about how San Francisco and the fans had treated him. He said he'd been reborn here, that he became a man in that stadium, that he was embraced and appreciated for who he was in this city, and that he would always be grateful for that. The clear subtext was that in Young's first few years as starter, even after he won the MVP for the 1992 season, there were scores of so-called Niner fans who lambasted him for not being Joe. For years, my dad has talked about how there are Niners fans, and there are Joe Montana fans. I think Young recognizes this. For many people, there never was nor ever will be a player better than Joe Montana. It's a lot like some old time baseball fans and their love for Joe Dimaggio. You can try to explain to them that Mickey Mantle was a ridiculously good ballplayer and easily a worthy successor to the Yankees centerfield position, but they'll always come back with something about "his grace in the field" and "he could do everything better than anyone else" and "he lost twenty to thirty home runs a year to Yankee Stadium's death valley" and "the numbers just don't show how good he was". There are Joe Montana fans out here who will argue along the same lines when talking about Young. None of the sane ones would deny that Young is a Hall of Fame talent, but you better not suggest he was (*gasp*) better than Montana. No no no no no. That couldn't be.

I busted a chair right across his teeth and we crashed through the wall and into the street, kickin' and a' gougin' in the mud and the blood and the beer...

Brandon Lloyd kills me. He has trouble making routine catches to the point that I wonder how much he really wants to play football. I know I wouldn't want to slant over the middle. I know I wouldn't want to fight in the trenches either, and that's why I quit my freshman football team the day after the team picture was taken. But this guy is getting paid to play the game at the highest level. Every throw his way is an adventure. He might curl up into the fetal position, like the play near the goal line against the Bears, or he might make plays like the ones he made Sunday. Steve Young had something to prove. Ken Dorsey had something to prove. Frank Gore had something to prove. Mike Nolan may have finally gotten it into Lloyd's head that he'd better fight to prove he belongs in the NFL right now.

Three catches. All spectacular.

Early in the second quarter Lloyd made a diving one-handed stab of a "bomb" (forty yards) from Dorsey. Kelly Herndon was right on him, but somehow the ball made it past the defender, and Lloyd got his hand under it, cradling it against his body as he dove.

Halfway through the third quarter, on second and goal from the Seattle three, Lloyd ran a fade to the corner of the end zone and Dorsey lofted it towards him for a jump ball. This was in our end, in our corner. Lloyd leaped above everyone, again reached up with only one hand, snared the ball one-handed, and came down out of bounds after a Seahawks defender appeared to make contact with him in the air. The play is not reviewable, and a touchdown and extra point would have brought the Niners to within one. As soon as the play ended, every fan in the end zone stood up, screaming, chanting "Push! Push! Push!" and making wild pushing gestures. I haven't seen the replays or found any pictures, but it sure looked like he got pushed out. The officials conferred for a moment and ruled the pass incomplete.

Then in the fourth quarter, Dorsey found Lloyd open for a 22 yard touchdown pass. Lloyd had to twist his body to make the catch, and he fell awkwardly. He appeared to be okay, if a bit shaken up. Joe Starkey's radio call was classic (paraphrasing): "Touchdown 49ers! Touchdown! Let me say it again! Touchdown 49ers! You hear me? Touchdown! 49ers!"

It was a big day for Lloyd, who ended up with 7 catches for 119 yards and helped Dorsey essentially match Matt Hasselbeck's numbers. The day was won and lost with the running game, though, as Shaun Alexander was steady if unspectacular, making decent run after decent run, and finally breaking loose with a forty yard whoop dee whoop before getting ridden out of bounds. Meanwhile, Kevan Barlow was abysmal, rushing 12 times for 21 yards. That's right, 12 for 21. The utter lack of a running game makes the Niners' passing day that much more impressive. The Seahawks' blitzing style didn't help their cause, unnecessarily leaving receivers in single coverage most of the day, but the 49ers' passing game has been so execrable, no one saw this coming. However, by the end of the game, the Niners were able to come back largely because Barlow was hurt and Maurice Hicks had come into the game. Hicks ended up with 11 runs for 83 yards, with one huge 50 yard run. Any way you slice it, the third string running back was easily more effective than the marginal starter. Kevan Barlow: do you have something to prove?

Just around the corner there's heartache, down the street that losers use...

The Niners lost. Dorsey became Dorsey again when he panicked and underthrew the two point conversion attempt at the end of the game. It was a terrible play call, anyway. They'd just punched it in on a run and should've tried again.

What can I say? The Niners' best quarterback this season is now in Tampa. Their second best quarterback right now is as good as he'll ever get. That means he'll occasionally have games like this one, but more often will look like the destitute man's Trent Dilfer (ouch). Their third best quarterback hasn't been given a real chance to play and grow in two seasons, and rumor has it that they may attempt to convert him to wide receiver next year. Cody Pickett could probably handle it and become a decent fifth receiver and special teams guy, but they already have that guy in converted quarterback Rasheed Marshall. I still believe his potential at quarterback, if he would only be given a chance to play, is too great to give up on him and hand the backup job to Dorsey. The fourth best quarterback could be the next Tim Couch, or the poor man's J.P. Losman. I'm not kidding. Alex Smith has done absolutely nothing to convince me that he'll be a good NFL quarterback someday. Nothing. He's not the overall athlete or thrower that Pickett is. He doesn't have the in-game awareness that Dorsey possesses. He can't match Kyle Orton for pure passing ability. Orton is proving that he was a huge steal in the fourth round. God knows what will happen when Jason Campbell and Aaron Rodgers see playing time, but as of now, Smith is behind at least one quarterback in his draft class and, given the advantage of sitting the others have been given, could soon be behind two more, or even three if the Saints want to give Adrian McPherson a chance to win the job next year.

It's a thin line to walk between bitterness and unconditional love, and I've walked it with the San Francisco Giants far too often. Maybe the 49ers will be different.


Blogger The Armchair Quarterback said...

Don't you think it's a bit soon to give up on Smith? If you made a prediction last year after Eli Manning's first couple of starts then you would have to say that he would never throw another touchdown pass. Now, Eli is not All-Pro yet but he's had a decent season so far and shows promise of becoming much better. If you threw every rookie QB that struggled (and looked like crap doing it)under the bus after a few games, then there would be no Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, and yes even Steve Young.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

I wouldn't give up on Smith either. Smith, like Eli, needs weapons.

P.S. Sorry for the painful layout. I'm working on it I promise :P

9:24 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

The problem with Lloyd is that he still drops easy balls. On the final drive he dropped a very catchable pass from Dorsey. It ended up not mattering, but until he starts making all the catches he should, the fantastic catches won't mean quite as much

9:39 PM  
Blogger David Arnott said...

TAQ/Tony-- Here's the thing about Smith vs. all those other guys you mentioned: They were all clearly competent, if not very good, in the beginning. Young's raw numbers through 1989 were actually pretty good for a backup, Aikman completed more than 50% of his passes, Favre didn't play until his second year when he went to Green Bay and was amazing for a second year player, and Manning was possibly the worst of the group with a completion percentage just under 50%. (I know these don't tell the whole story, but bear with me, here.) Smith isn't even a competent quarterback right now. His quarterback rating is at 17 right now. 17! You get 39 for throwing all incompletions! I couldn't find the older guys' numbers, but Manning had a 55 rating last season, and Roethlisberger had a 98, and Vick had 62 his rookie year. Even Joey Harrington put up a 60 rating. Smith's interior line is actually pretty good, and the receivers aren't embarrassing. Someday, he might be worthy of a spot on an NFL roster, but for him to improve to the point of being a good to great QB after seeing where he is now... I think that's out of the question.

10:24 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

I understand your lack of faith in Smith, David. You can't give up on him after three games though. He's much more of a raw talent than the recent guys you mentioned; he didn't come close to playing in a pro style offense in college. It was idiotic for the Niners to put him in this season and expect much more than they've gotten. But, money talks and they wanted to showcase their "franchise QB".

The problem for the Niners however is that he might be so bad, it could permanently wreck his confidence. In many ways, Nolan would be better off just benching him for the rest of the year. Of course if you do that, you risk hurting his confidence and ego as well. That's why I think he keeps delaying putting Smith back in, using the injury as an excuse. He doesn't want play him, but he knows he techincally has to.

12:24 AM  

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