SAN FRANCISCO – During its illustrious 50-year history, Candlestick Park has been the site of many indelible memories. The windswept stadium has hosted The Catch and five other NFC championship games, the Beatles' last commercial concert and the 1962 and '89 World Series, the latter a cross-Bay clash between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's that literally shook the ballyard to its core.
On Sunday, the 21st anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that struck just before Game 3 of that Bay Bridge Series was set to begin, another area rivalry captivated the 'Stick. As the San Francisco 49ers prepared to close out a 17-9 victory over the Oakland Raiders, with the home team facing a second-and-8 from the visitors' 17-yard line with 2:08 remaining, many of the 69,732 fans at Candlestick coped with six weeks' worth of pent-up frustration by unleashing a loud, taunting chant.
Raiders suck! Raiders suck!
Niners halfback Frank Gore(notes), whose 64-yard burst midway through the fourth quarter had set up San Francisco's second touchdown, got caught up in the moment, too, raising his hands to the heavens in an effort to get the crowd to pump up the volume.
Most of the fans complied, seemingly oblivious to the irony of it all, or perhaps in gleeful denial of the fact that the 49ers (1-5) have been one of the NFL's biggest disappointments in 2010. Conversely, Oakland (2-4) has merely been as bad as projected. Perhaps a more accurate chant would have been: Raiders suck even more than we do – at least on this particular rainy October afternoon. Now let's all get out of here and go watch the Giants lose Game 2 of the NLCS to the Phillies …
Granted, that's a little clunky, but no less so than the Niners' offense was for much of the game, or than the Raiders' respective aerial and ground attacks were for virtually all of it. Offensive ineptitude, in fact, is one of many things these two once formidable franchises have in common; another is an incongruously inflated sense of self.
As the two teams head off on separate paths that, in each case, seem destined to dead-end for an eighth consecutive, playoff-free season, let's compare and contrast (and try not to scream like Beatles fans back in the day):
• Embattled coaches: It's likely that neither San Francisco's Mike Singletary nor Oakland's Tom Cable will survive past this season, and it's possible that one or both could be gone even sooner. Each man rose to his current post early in the '08 season on an interim basis and probably wouldn't have been considered for the job if a normal search had been conducted. In addition to embarrassing the organization off the field – Cable faces a civil suit from former assistant Randy Hanson, whose jaw was broken following an alleged altercation in training camp of 2009, and admitted to having committed domestic violence after his ex-wife was interviewed by ESPN last season – Cable has turned out a lousy product. His coaching record is 11-23, and in 18 of those 34 games, including Sunday's, Oakland has produced one offensive touchdown or fewer. He continually proclaims that the Raiders are "turning the corner." On Sunday, coming off a victory over San Diego that broke a 13-game losing streak to the Chargers, it's fair to say that they made a U-turn.
Singletary, who has a 14-17 record, appears equally overmatched, from his mishandling of the communication issues plaguing his offensive assistants (he fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye three weeks into the season) to his seeming inability to handle dissent. He appeared to be grandstanding during a sideline spat with Alex Smith late in the Niners' Oct. 10 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles, informing the quarterback that he was being benched only to rescind the edict, then laughably telling reporters, "I thought at that moment I really wanted to see what his response would be." At this point Singletary has lost so many of his players that pulling down his pants in the locker room, as he did at halftime of his first game as coach in '08, might not even get their attention.
• Struggling quarterbacks: Smith got booed for the second consecutive game, as fans began chanting for his backup, David Carr(notes), with five minutes left in the second quarter. At one point Smith was 2 for 11 for 21 yards; he rallied to complete 16 of 33 passes for 196 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Twice he was whistled for intentional-grounding penalties (in fairness, there could have been more); the second time, after sailing a TransAmerica Tower-high ball over wideout Josh Morgan's(notes) head, Smith argued to referee Carl Cheffers, who shot back (with his microphone still on), "Dude, no one was there." To his credit Smith, on the next play, closed the third quarter with a lovely, 32-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree(notes) that gave the 49ers a 10-6 lead. He later made a nice play-action fake and executed a perfect backside delayed screen to tight end Vernon Davis(notes), who rumbled in for a 17-yard TD reception. In a private moment afterward Smith admitted that, since his heated conversation with Singletary the previous week, he has adopted a less-cautious, to-hell-with-it mentality. "After all I've been through, that's pretty much how it has to be," Smith said. "I'm basically saying '[Expletive] it' and not worrying about what's going to happen."
As for the Raiders, it looks like it's back to Bruce Gradkowski(notes) or bust. Jason Campbell(notes), acquired in a draft-weekend trade with the Washington Redskins, lost his starting job midway through Week 2, then helped rally Oakland to victory over the Chargers after Gradkowski hurt his right shoulder. On Sunday he got another chance to start and made it highly unlikely there'll be a third opportunity, doing a spot-on JaMarcus Russell(notes) impression: He was 8-for-21 for 83 yards and two interceptions and seemed to spend much of the afternoon running from pass rushers who didn't actually exist. (Or, as Cheffers might say, "Dude, why didn't you hang in the pocket? No one was there.")
• Prolific punters: Fittingly, each of these teams has a guy who can get it done on fourth down. On Sunday, Oakland's Shane Lechler(notes), a five-time Pro Bowl selection, punted six times for an average of 53.5 yards per kick – and an astronomical net of 47.3. The Niners' Andy Lee(notes), a two-time Pro Bowl pick, put four of his eight punts inside the Raiders' 20 and had a 37.6-yard net average. When fantasy leagues start giving out points for punting stats, the Bay Area will feature the most fertile ground on earth.
• Second-year wideouts trying to live up to first-round hype: In April 2009, the Raiders stunned most draft experts by selecting speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes) with the seventh overall selection, three spots before the Niners took Crabtree, who virtually everyone else rated as the top receiver prospect. Crabtree was so appalled at the development that he sought a contract better than Heyward-Bey's and didn't end up signing until October of his rookie season. Despite playing only 11 games he nonetheless dwarfed Heyward-Bey's production as a rookie; last week Crabtree told the San Francisco Chronicle that he viewed Sunday's game as a chance to remind the Raiders that he quarreled with their earlier assessment. With Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) shadowing him for much of the first half, as if answering a direct edict from owner Al Davis, Crabtree was shut out in the first two quarters. "I noticed a lot of double teams," he said later, smiling broadly. In the second half Crabtree got less attention from the Raiders and caught four passes for 57 yards, including the game-winning TD.
Heyward-Bey, despite the fervent efforts of the Raiders' PR department to cast him as a star-in-the-making, continues to underwhelm; he had three catches for 19 yards Sunday. Meanwhile Louis Murphy(notes), a fourth-round pick from the same '09 draft, provided Oakland's biggest gains of the day, provoking a 46-yard pass interference call on Shawntae Spencer(notes) on the game's first play from scrimmage and, on the first play of the second quarter, racing 43 yards on an end around.
• Over-the-top owners: Following the Niners' defeat to the Eagles, head honcho Jed York sent a text message to ESPN's Adam Schefter proclaiming that San Francisco, a trendy preseason pick to win the NFC West, would still capture the division. Hey, it's not impossible – with a game at Carolina (0-5) set for next Sunday, the Niners harbor legitimate dreams of a two-game winning streak, though they're staring up at all three NFC West opponents: the Cardinals (3-2), Seahawks (3-2) and Rams (3-3).
As for Davis, who in August suggested that Campbell was the next Jim Plunkett? Well, no one does delusional overstatement like the man who brought us the "Team of the Decades." What, you ask, does Team of the Decades even mean? It has something to do with the fact that the Raiders are, as the franchise proclaims, "the only team to have appeared in Super Bowls in the '60s, '70s, '80s and 2000s." Um, OK. It should be noted that the slogan has endured despite recent evidence to the contrary. One example: Oakland's current streak of seven consecutive seasons with 11 or more defeats, an ongoing NFL record for futility. In other words, even Davis would have a hard time trying to roll out a "Team of the Centuries" title. On a positive note, the Raiders also can't be counted out of their unimpressive division. After each of the four AFC West teams lost on Sunday, the Chiefs (3-2) retained a 1 ½-game lead over the Broncos (2-4), Chargers (2-4) and the Raiders, who, as Cable would be the first to suggest, can get back into theoretical turning-the-corner territory by winning in Denver next Sunday.
So there you have it – two organizations with storied pasts and dubious present-day circumstances met up in a dilapidated stadium Sunday, and very few people will cherish the memories.
Fans with punting fetishes, however, will look back fondly on the proceedings. As York and Davis would undoubtedly agree, it was the Hang Time of the Century.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• During my visit to Seattle Seahawks training camp I heard more than one observer proclaim that wideout Deion Branch(notes) had lost the ability to perform at a legitimate NFL level. Apparently, they were kinda/sorta dead-wrong. "Yeah they were!" Tom Brady(notes) said Sunday evening after Branch, in his first game after being traded back to the Patriots following four disappointing years in the Pacific Northwest, caught nine of the grateful quarterback's passes for 98 yards, including a five-yard touchdown and many of the pivotal receptions in a 23-20 overtime victory over the Ravens. Another of Branch's ex-Patriots teammates, Jets tackle Damien Woody(notes), wrote (via text message) he wasn't surprised: "You've got to use him right, which New England will do – dink-and-dunk passing game with those young tight ends and the run game. Old New England Patriots."
• The Desperation Bowl went to the Vikings by a 24-21 score, and Minnesota (2-3) got some more good news as its NFC North foes, the Bears (4-2), Packers (3-3) and Lions (1-5), all dropped relatively close games. The drama continues over the next two weeks as Brett Favre(notes) makes his second annual Return to Lambeau on Sunday night (Desperation Bowl II?) and newly reacquired wideout Randy Moss(notes) reappears in Foxborough on Halloween.
• After two full seasons without a return touchdown, the Bears' Devin Hester(notes) has resumed his role as the NFL's most dangerous return man, destined to go down as the best ever. Hester's 89-yard TD on a punt return against the Seahawks on Sunday was his second of the season and ninth of his career, tied for second on the NFL's all-time list; with 13 combined kickoff and punt returns for scores, he's tied for first with Brian Mitchell on that list. "I'm not satisfied with tying," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I want to break it." He can do it at home next Sunday against the Redskins, the team for which Mitchell played from 1990-99.
• For all the grief Eagles coach Andy Reid has taken over the years, especially in Philadelphia, Big Red has a right to be giddy after yet another stellar performance by one of his quarterbacks on Sunday. With Michael Vick(notes) still sidelined by a rib injury and unable to play against his former team, anointed/demoted/resurrected starter Kevin Kolb(notes) completed 23 of 29 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 victory over the Falcons. So who'll start against the Titans in Nashville next Sunday? "Take Michael Kolb and we go play, baby," Reid said in his postgame news conference. That's the response of a man who feels as though whatever decision he makes will be the right one.
• OK, so maybe all that stuff about the Saints being hopelessly out of synch was a bit overstated: The defending champs looked very much like their '09 selves in Tampa on Sunday, rolling to a 31-6 victory over the Bucs to move into a tie with the Falcons for first place in the NFC South. New Orleans didn't punt until early in the fourth quarter and produced 475 yards of offense, meaning that Superdome showdown with the Steelers on Halloween night could be a very telling matchup.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. The billboard on U.S. 101 south, just past downtown San Francisco, reading "Daddy Like" and featuring a photo of a Toyota Sienna minivan. I happen to own an older model of that vehicle, and while I appreciate its utilitarian value in transporting my three children and their various youth-sports teammates, I enjoy getting behind the wheel about as much as I once reveled in the majesty of diaper-changing. Seriously, Toyota might as well put up a billboard with a photo of a man being neutered and the caption "Daddy Want Procedure."
2. Why teams don't cover Mike Vrabel(notes) in the end zone. Vrabel, the veteran linebacker who moonlights as a tight end in goal-line situations, caught his 10th career regular-season pass in the Chiefs' 35-31 defeat to the Texans – for his 10th career TD reception, none longer than two yards. The first of these scoring catches came in 2002, when he was with the Patriots. Eight years later, he's still catching opponents off guard? This just in: When Vrabel enters the game on offense, there is a chance he will be targeted in the end zone – and you defenders might want to react accordingly. Just a thought.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I’m going to keep this relatively short, because it concerns something so cringe-inducing that I might actually go into convulsions. Remember how, a week ago, an excessive-celebration penalty on Cowboys tackle Marc Colombo(notes) (who inadvertently fell down after chest-bumping teammate Jason Witten(notes)) set up the late kick return that led to a Titans victory? You’d think the Cowboys would, given that it was a topic of public discussion for several days afterward. I assumed that embattled coach Wade Phillips drove home the message to his players in a private setting, but now I have my doubts, given what went down at the Metrodome on Sunday: After Dallas receiver Roy Williams caught a first-quarter touchdown pass to give his team a 7-0 lead over the Vikings, teammate Miles Austin(notes) raced over and leapfrogged him and got flagged for another 15-yard penalty, which absolutely could have cost his team points: David Buehler’s(notes) kickoff from his own 15 went out of bounds, giving Minnesota the ball at the Dallas 45. No, the Vikings didn’t end up scoring. And yes, I think the NFL’s excessive-celebration rules are overly restrictive, and I’m an unabashed fan of the Chad Ochocinco(notes)/Terrell Owens/Joe Horn(notes)/Steve Smith school of creative displays of exuberance in such settings. But if you’re a player on the Cowboys – fighting for your season, and your head coach’s continued employment, and maybe yours as well – how can you possibly take a chance like that against an equally desperate opponent? Austin is one of the league’s most exciting young stars, and I look forward to watching him atone for Sunday’s sin 20 times over. However, for the rest of 2010, if he or anyone else in a Dallas uniform reacts to a touchdown by doing anything other than slapping hands and jogging back to the sidelines, Phillips should consider going all Woody Hayes on the offender.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Yeah much more confidence. Not perfect but good."
– Text Sunday night from Steelers receiver Hines Ward(notes), assessing the state of the Pittsburgh offense in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s(notes) first game of 2010, a 28-10 victory over the Browns.
"Worst game ever"
– Email Saturday afternoon from my friend Dan Kern during the first half of the Cal-USC game (which ended with the Bears trailing 42-0, on the way to a 48-14 defeat). I missed it, as I was watching the worst youth-soccer game ever at the time.