Saturday, April 28, 2012

LaMichael James - A 49ers luxury pick, or a need for speed?

Even for a team as complete as the San Francisco 49ers, there was much discussion leading up to the draft about needs.  The 49ers lost Adam Snyder.  With young Daniel Kilgore waiting in the wings as an unproven commodity, right guard was definitely a need, right?
How about cornerback, the only position in their defense that could have been described as a weakness, given the way Eli Manning took apart the secondary in the NFC Championship?
Or perhaps defensive end, because Justin Smith is probably on the tail end of his career, despite the defensive player of the year-type 2011 season he enjoyed.
Need-shmeed.  The 49ers built this team up by using the past couple drafts and free agency so that they could draft in 2012 for luxury. Apparently, it’s speed that Trent Baalke considers to be luxurious.
The 49ers surprised a lot of people (myself included) when they used their late second round pick to draft Oregon running back LaMichael James, one of the most prolific runners out of the NCAA in recent memory.  Following the pick, they traded their third rounder away to the Indianapolis Colts for a fourth rounder this year and a fifth in 2013, ending the first two days of the draft with some shiny new weapons for their offense, and five prospects to be named later. (Note: Since writing this, the 49ers made a number of trades backwards and ended up drafting guard Joe Looney out of Wake Forest in the 4th round of the draft.)

Need for speed

Without further ado, let me introduce you to the 49ers newest running back.  Through 3 years at Oregon, James rushed for 5,082 yards. In 2011, he ranked third overall in the NCAA with 2012 all purpose yards, averaging 182.91 yards per game.  In 2010, he rushed for 1731 yards and 21 touchdowns, and in 2011 he rushed for 1805 yards, 18 TDs and a 7.3 yard average, despite missing time with a dislocated elbow.
James's downside?  His size.  At 5'8", 194 lbs, most teams don't consider him to be an every down back.  No problem for the 49ers, though.  Apparently that's just fine with Harbaalke. 

Why I'm scratching my head

I expected that the 49ers would take a running back in this draft, I just didn't think that LaMichael James would be the guy.  Frank Gore, after enjoying a Hall of Fame-type career with the 49ers, is getting a little long in the tooth.  I would be surprised if there was anything more than one more productive year left in the 49ers' backfield work horse.  San Francisco drafted a similar, small running back in Kendall Hunter last year, and that had LaMichael James nowhere to be found on my draft board.  The logical decision would have been to draft Gore's eventual successor, a running back with enough size and durability to handle a Gore-sized work load.  But yet again, we're reminded that Trent Baalke rarely sides with the logical, and who really knows what he plans to do with James at this point.  Draftniks don't seem to think that an all-small backfield will work.  Apparently the 49ers believe otherwise.
Many believe that the 49ers already had their scatback in Kendall Hunter, however Joey McMurray (of Bay Area Sports Guy and The Flurry) feel that James is more Warrick Dunn than he is Darren Sproles.  If this is true, the 49ers may well be set at the position of tailback. 

Why I'm jumping for joy

I've been condemned for loving the splashy moves, and what can I say?  When you're tucked away in San Francisco, a place where your teams find themselves ignored more often than not, it never hurts to make a little noise.
It doesn't get much splashier than this in the second round of the NFL Draft.  If James was 3 inches taller and 20 lbs heavier, he would have perhaps been the first running back taken, even over Trent Richardson.  Although he wasn't the most sought after running back prospect, he was still a show stopper in college, turning heads every time he touched the football.
Between AJ Jenkins and James, the 49ers have added a whole different level of giddy-up to their offense.  James has been touted for his burst and vision; that, mixed with his 4.37 40, must have had Baalke convinced that there is something special in his new toy (257 yards and 3 touchdowns against Jim Harbaugh's Stanford Cardinal in 2010 didn't hurt his cause either).
The 49ers now have a unique mixture unlike any other team in the NFL right now.  They are returning one of the most stifling squads in the history of the NFL on defense - 11 players with speed, discipline and ferocity.  On offense, their ability to spread the field should be uncanny.  LaMichael James, Kendall Hunter, AJ Jenkins and Randy Moss bring a whole new definition of fast to a team that has never really been considered speedy.  Alex Smith should have weapons o'plenty in the 2012 season, as the skill positions are now stocked to the point of overflow.
Speaking of overflow, is the 49ers backfield too crowded now?  Anthony Dixon is probably on his way out, and it never hurts to have too many playmakers, especially when you're playing with the casino's money.  Just ask Harbaugh.
"It's like poker, that's a full house," he said.  "That's a good hand, right?"

Friday, April 27, 2012

With AJ Jenkins, Trent Baalke proves he has a taste for the unexpected

Last night was the 4 year anniversary for my fiancĂ© and me, so we took to North Beach for dinner at our favorite restaurant - Franchino.  It’s a place that she and I have been to several times, so when I sat down, I grazed the menu despite already having my likely meal selection in mind.
For a brief moment, I considered doing something different.  Lasagna was my go-to dish; in fact, it’s the only thing that I ever order when I go there.  But how about something different for a change?  The clam and mussel risotto was calling my name.  It was unique, different, perhaps healthier.  It was the road less travelled.
Always a slave to the routine, I scrapped the meal with upside for the trusty pick: my lasagna.  It was delicious, of course, but it made me think – lasagna is probably not what Trent Baalke would have gone to in that situation.

Middle fingers to the experts

Since taking over general manager duties for Scot McCloughan in 2010, Trent Baalke has been anything but conventional in his approach to the draft.  Each year, the Mel Kipers of the world try to figure out what the 49ers will do with their respective draft picks and every single time Baalke leaves their heads spinning.
The 2012 NFL Draft was no different.  On the clock with the 30th pick in the draft and names like Coby Fleener, Stephen Hill, and Janoris Jenkins ripe for utterance, the 49ers decided yet again to go unconventional with AJ Jenkins, wide receiver out of the University of Illinois.
This was Baalke’s equivalent of clam and mussel risotto.  While Mel Kiper Jr. foreseeing me picking lasagna would have been an easy call, Baalke’s meal choice was nearly impossible to preconceive.  He is unpredictable yet successful in his decision making, and still people want to second guess him.  This fact casts doubt on the title of “draft experts,” but after a battery of successful drafts in hand, my blind faith in him is growing.

Mourning the loss of Fleener

I was one of that many voices crying out on Twitter for the 49ers to draft Coby Fleener.  Up until about a week ago, I had a strong belief that if he was available, Jim Harbaugh would not allow Baalke to pass on the beastly sized tight end out of Stanford.
Last night, though, as the 30th pick drew closer, my visions of three tight end sets creating havoc for opposing defenses began to fade.  It wasn’t that I thought he would get stolen like David DeCastro going to the Steelers.  I just started to realize that Bay Area Sports Guy was probably right – the pick was simply too obvious.  To my dismay, the 49ers passed, as did every other team in the first round it turns out.
The second round won’t be too far underway before he gets snagged.  The chances that the Colts pass on the Fleener air freshener to go along with their Lucky brand new car are slim.  Time to come back to reality, 49ers fans.  And don’t forget, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker aren’t a terrible tandem either.

 So about this Jenkins guy…

Jenkins was a productive wide receiver at Illinois, a guy that many consider a “burner.”  Although he doesn’t have exceptional size (6’0”, 190 lbs), he has breakaway speed, running 4.39 40 (Jim Harbaugh said they clocked him running a 4.31).  His senior year was his most productive, racking up 90 catches and 1,278 yards en route to catching 8 TDs.
He’s probably not a guy that will step into the 49ers as an immediate starter, but he’s certainly a more proven college producer than the other wide receiver options still available at 30, like Stephen Hill.  Hill gained a lot of attention for his 4.30 40 time at the combine, but 820 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011 pale in comparison to Jenkins’ numbers.
While Hill’s quarterback at Georgia Tech was the main playmaker in their triple option offense, Jenkins’ quarterback at Illinois, Nathan Scheelhaase, recognized AJ as his go to guy.  Scheelhaase threw for 2110 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011; that means that only 832 of his yards passing and 5 of his touchdowns went to any other receiver on the team. 
As for the red zone, Jenkins’ size certainly won’t translate to an immediate fix for the 49ers’  deficiencies. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m giving San Francisco an F for the pick like certain "49ers beat writers."
With Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn, this team is sufficiently platooned at the position of wide receiver even without AJ Jenkins.  Whether he is a metaphorical fire under Michael Crabtree’s ass, or Randy Moss is the stop gap to the 49ers 2012 draft selection, none of us really know.  Jenkins was the Baalke draft crush that we all wondered about.  We’ll have to trust the process.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who cocked his head, thinking “who?” when the selection was made.  Even Damon Bruce, who spent days preparing for his 49ers Draft Special on KNBR, admittedly didn’t have a lick of paperwork on the guy that the 49ers chose. Few people probably did.  After all, I had never heard of Aldon Smith before the 7th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft – look how that turned out.  But this is becoming the norm when you’re dealing with Trent Baalke, so if you’re tuning into to the next episode of the draft tonight with the 49ers future in mind, just remember this – expect the unexpected.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lee v. Cain - An April duel, instant classic

What was it about last night's Giants-Phillies extra innings show down that made it an instant classic?  Perhaps it was the almost certain renewal of a rivalry ignited in the 2010 playoffs.  Maybe it was the fact that fans atAT&T Park witnessed two of the best at their craft facing off, performing at the top of their game.  Or better still, it was a return to that baseball we've come to know and love - well-pitched, futile baseball. One-run ball games.  Walk offs.
More often than not, a gem like the one Matt Cain and Cliff Lee delivered last night would end around midnight with Jon Miller and Dave Flemming on an intravenous caffeine drip, but not this one.  Lee and Cain were so masterful on the mound that the total run time of yesterday's extra innings duel was 2 hrs and 27 minutes.  
How good were they?  Lee and Cain combined for 19 scoreless innings.  9 hits.  11 strike outs. 1 walk. No runs allowed. Oh yeah, and no wins.
Yesterday's game extended Matt Cain's scoreless streak to 18 innings when combined with his one hit shutout over the Pirates only 6 days ago.  Forget the KNBR horse sounder - what noise does an ace make?
Cain had only thrown 91 pitches through 9 innings when Bochy pulled him for Hector Sanchez to bat, and despite the fact that he could have probably gone for three more, this was the right move.  Here's when having a bullpen nastier than a snuff film comes in handy - Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Clay Hensley formed a committee that was nothing short of stifling in relief.
Lee went the extra inning, ending his outing with 10 IP and 102 pitches, in favor of Antonio Bastardo - the man whose name is only slightly less fortunate than how his Wednesday evening ended.  A Brandon Belt pinch-hit single up the middle got the runner on.  A fielding error by Ty Wiggington got Pagan aboard and moved Belt to second.  A single by Melky Cabrera (whose contract year is in full effect, with the Giants reaping the benefits) plated the only run of the evening.  Juego, Gigantes.
Don't look now, but after being swept in their first series in Arizona, the Giants have won their last three against the Rockies, Pirates and Phillies.  They now head to New York for a four game set with the Mets, followed by a three-game trip to Cincinnati.  While the story lines surrounding the Giants - from Lincecum's struggles to the lineup's new found ability to hit - will be plentiful, one thing seems certain:  Matt Cain is locked in, and he's earning his money.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

San Francisco Giants baseball - The Twilight Zone Redux

Alright, now raise your hand if you saw Zito's complete game, 4 hit, 0 walk shutout coming.  That's what I thought.
This is the point where my audience would look like my statistics class on a Wednesday night (not only half empty, but also answerless and baffled).  It's a crazy, mixed up time for Giants fans right now - we live in a world where the aces get shelled and Zito is lights out.  A world where the Giants defense plays like a scene from the Three Stooges remake.  A world where runs are becoming easier to attain than outs.  Have we entered the Twilight Zone?

Not quite.  Some of these are anomalies and some of these are not.  Let's separate fact from fantasy after the first four games of the season.

Lincecum, Bumgarner and Cain getting shelled - obviously fantasy is a poor choice of words here; perhaps a better way to describe this would be a nightmare.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who foresaw a mediocre start to the season - after all, the Giants were opening at Chase Field, the home of a team that squashed San Francisco's hopes of repeating fairly early last season.  I just figured it would be of the 3-1 variety with the runs coming on some sort of bullpen breakdown.  I didn't think Timmy and Co. would be tossing the Snakes batting practice for the first three games of the season.

Luckily for Giants fans, this is a nightmare - one they'll be waking up from soon.  Lincecum settled down for a good four innings after getting smacked around early, while Bumgarner is prone to getting slapped from time to time and Matt Cain was left in perhaps a few batters too long. All of them suffered the consequences of some poor fielding (on an even worse infield in Arizona), making it difficult to end innings that otherwise would have been squandered rallies.  If you're panicking about the Giants' starting rotation, knock it off.  This is not a cause for concern - yet.

Brandon Crawford, Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey audition for The Three Stooges - This is also a fantasy.  Posey is still getting his bearings at catcher, undoubtedly with some jitters in the wake of the Scott Cousins incident.  Brandon Crawford is suffering from a hand injury and the infield position players have yet to field a routine ground ball.  As Posey returns to form and Crawford's hand recovers, this should even itself out.  I certainly don't foresee this season becoming a comedy of errors, that's for sure.

The Giants line up can actually hit the ball - With the exception of Angel Pagan and Ryan Theriot, I would say this has become a fact.  That's not to say that Pagan and Theriot will hit .190 the rest of the way while the rest of the order hits near .300, but this team has shown some pop and I doubt that it's an anomaly.  The Giants decision to go with power in the lineup seems to be paying off.  Melky Cabrera looks like a stellar addition.  Pablo Sandoval is crushing the ball.  Buster Posey hasn't missed a beat at the plate, and the young guns aren't too bad at hitting the balls themselves.  The Giants won't be Cespedesing the ball all over the field for the next 157 games of the year, but they won't be historically bad again offensively.

Barry Zito is going to baffle batters and shock the world - I'll leave this one up to you.  Given this town's ability to insanely overreact when anything out of the ordinary happens, I wasn't shocked by the outcry of praise and hope after Zito's latest shutout.  In fact - I called it. 

But will it last?  His mechanics changed, as promised, and as a result he was able to get his velocity up (88 mph on some of his fast balls, certainly not Santiago Casilla speed but better than the 80 mph we knew and loved last year) and locate his curveball.  The question is whether he can find longevity for this new form and keep hitters from figuring him out.  But if you’re into taking risks, go ahead and grab those Zito jerseys now so you can profess that you saw it coming.  After all, it's a crazy, mixed up world we live in, and when it comes to Giants baseball, anything is possible.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Gregg Williams audio, the 49ers, and what it means for the game

The 49ers divisional round playoff match up against the New Orleans Saints in 2011 is one that will forever live in the annals of this city's sports history.  San Francisco was a team finally on the upswing after nine long years of mediocrity.  New Orleans was a team at the peak of their dominance.  Few chose the 49ers to move on, and yet against all odds, David took down Goliath.  It was a special moment in the life of any 49ers faithful.

In the wake of the Saints' Bountygate scandal, the 49ers' playoff victory became all the more sweet.  But the latest leak of Gregg Williams's pre-game speech to the Saints defensive players has placed that tilt on a entirely different plane.

Sean Pamphilon, a documentary filmmaker, was with the Saints working on a documentary on former special teamer Steve Gleason when he recorded this audio.  What he discovered, and has now shared with Yahoo Sports, is a side of football that most of us only understood to exist in films like "Any Given Sunday." Pamphilon exposed the darkest side of the NFL locker room to the world.

In the audio, Williams makes repeated references to "killing the head" so that the "body will die." This is an obvious reference to taking out the 49ers primary game changers, but his speech doesn't end with vague metaphors.  He refers to Frank Gore, saying "We want him running sideways.  We want his HEAD sideways."

Okay, so this is probably coachspeak.  Perhaps sensational talk to hype his players up.  But keep listening.

He goes on to target Alex Smith specifically, demanding that his players hit him "right here," pointing to his chin.  Then he lets them know, "Remember me.  I've got the first one," rubbing his fingers together to indicate a financial reward.  Williams also makes reference to the 49ers-Saints preseason match up in which they blitzed Alex Smith relentlessly, urging his defensemen to repeat the performance.

He didn't stop there, next targeting Kyle Williams. “We need to find out in the first two series of the game, the little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion,” he said.  “We need to [expletive] put a lick on him, move him to decide. He needs to decide.”

Then he went after both Michael Crabtree's knee and his character:  “We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake-ass prima donna or he wants to be a tough guy. We need to find that out, and he becomes human when you [expletive] take out that outside ACL.”  I don’t have an issue with calling him a premadonna.  I do have an issue with targeting his outside (?) ACL.

Finally it was Vernon Davis, and apparently Williams's tactic was to "decide how many times we can bull rush and we can [expletive] clip Vernon Davis’ ankles over the pile."

All that posturing turned out to be for naught.  Frank Gore got his licks, but he eventually chunked up the Saints defense.  He was critical in converting downs twice on the 49ers game winning drive.  Michael Crabtree caught the second touchdown of the game, completely untouched by Saints defenders en route to the end zone.  Kendall Hunter and Kyle Williams proved to be of little consequence, but they also emerged with their respective “heads” intact.  As for Alex Smith and Vernon Davis?  I don't think I need to tell you what kind of game they had.

While at first glance this audio is inflammatory, the outcome of the game is what's important. The 49ers defense, although they surrendered a pretty hefty portion of points, emerged as the more stifling squad (See: Donte Whitner v. Pierre Thomas).  While the 49ers were preparing to face off with the New York Giants for the NFC Championship game, Gregg Williams was unknowingly preparing for the likely end of his career.  Despite the Saints' best attempts to "kill the head," the 49ers were the ones who owned that afternoon at Candlestick Park, and they came out the other end no worse for the wear.

If that game proved anything, it's that the NFL doesn't need dirty play to survive.  In fact, given that the 49ers moved on to be a Super Bowl contender with a physical and fair defensive game plan, it proved that a bounty system doesn't truly provide a team with any distinct advantage.  Football is about having the will to win rather than the will to injure.  The game of football, as in life, is not always fair.  But go back and watch tape of Gregg Williams's face after Vernon Davis's touchdown; there will be no doubt whose head was truly killed.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Giants deliver six more years of Matt Cain

At long last the San Francisco Giants have found some common financial ground with Matt Cain.  Originally broken by John Shea on Twitter, the Giants have officially agreed to terms with Matt Cain on a 5-year extension worth $112.5M in guaranteed money.  That includes a $5M signing bonus and a $7.5M buyout in 2018.  He also received a full no-trade clause in the deal.
This is the second major agreement that the Giants have made in the last three months, as they agreed to a two-year, $40.5M deal with Tim Lincecum in January.  Madison Bumgarner is a Giant until 2016, meaning that the meat of the Giants’ pitching staff should remain intact for at least the next two years.  With Vogelsong remaining a long term question mark, Barry Zito still learning how to pitch again with Opening Day just days away and a farm system that Carlos Beltran emptied out, this is some fantastic news for fans of 1 run ball games.
There you go – everybody take a deep breath.  Good.  Now exhale.
A ton of good sports talk fodder was created by what felt like a never-ending contract duel with Cain.  He seemed as stoic at the negotiating table as he is on the mound, and if he ever broke a sweat over the discussions he certainly didn’t let the media know it.
During a Spring Training that saw Cain peppered with questions regarding his pending free agency, he always stood pat – either deflecting the questions completely or reinforcing his Opening Day deadline for contract talks.  Giants fans quivered, wondering “What the hell is Brian Sabean’s deal?” They can now rest easy.  He promised that pitching would be a priority, and at 5 years $110M, he certainly delivered.
After all, a contract negotiation is exactly what it sounds like – a negotiation.  The Giants would have been crazy to just walk in and give up whatever Cain was demanding.  From an outsider’s perspective, 5 years for $110M seemed like a no-brainer, but baseball is a business first.  Due diligence had to be attended to.  Low-balling and countering are the name of the game.
Now that the red tape has been shed, it’s time to get back to the game.  Matt Cain will enjoy a nice dinner on the town after the Battle of the Bay tonight because, after all, money is no longer an object.  Giants fans will pass each other on the street with a smirk, knowing that their man is locked up for the next 6 years.  But buyer beware – the Matt Cain deal, as happy as you are, is a pleasant distraction. This is still a flawed team with many holes still left to be filled.
But enjoy it for now.  After a Spring Training like that, you deserve it.