Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Ultimate Battle For The Really Big Bay

Funny how life works. Conduct your life on and off the field with the courteous restraint of a Tasmanian devil and eventually you get nailed for steroids. Match up football teams by all-time win-loss percentage and play them through a bracket, and the ‘Niners meet the Raiders in the second round.

This one shapes up as a barnburner, in part because the teams are simultaneously of an era and not of an era. Many of the teams’ best players played against each other, but the games they played scarcely resemble one another. The ‘Niners played a pass-first, controlled-passing, athletic-defense game. The Raiders ran first, beat you up in the lines, and had a passing game that could beneficently be called uncontrolled.

I know this sort of analogy descends into cliché faster than Lindsay Lohan can go from house arrest to rehab, but the two teams really reflect their communities. Oakland is gritty and nasty, a black vision of doom set to a soundtrack by N.W.A.; San Francisco has been so wide-open you’d almost expect to see Jerry Garcia rolling numbers on the sideline and Steve Young marching out of Candlestick arm-in-arm with Harvey Milk.

Furthermore, there is no clear-cut favorite between the two. Both have mystique, both have a resume, and both have a relatively limited past, so unlike the Cardinals, they can’t dredge up an Ernie Nevers to make up for six decades of Marcel Shipp and Elmer Angsman.

So let’s set the scene: The Raiders trot out an offense featuring Marcus Allen, Fred Biletnikoff, Tim Brown, and a massive line to face a defense consisting of Ronnie Lott and some bodies. The Niners counter with Steve Young, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Joe Perry, and Hugh McIlhenny (and not much of a line) versus a defense consisting of Ronnie Lott and some bodies. (Actually, Ronnie Lott does not make the all-time Raiders roster, and the bodies include Howie Long, Lyle Alzado, and the vastly underrated Greg Townsend. But it makes for nice symmetry.)

It sounds reasonable that like the Bears, the Raiders could ride their up-front superiority to a grind-it-out victory over a high-flying offense.

Well, no.

The devil for the Raiders is in the details. They have no quarterback, and you need one to win one of these games, especially when you’re playing a team where the guy holding the Sharpie cap for the guy holding the Sharpie for the guy holding the clipboard (John Brodie) threw for 12,000 more yards than the Raiders’ No. 1 (Ken Stabler).

The Raiders’ secondary is likewise a little light – el baddo when you’re playing a team like the ‘Niners that hooks up more than Bret Michaels on South Beach. It’s not that the secondary is missing HOF-quality talent; it’s that the talent outside of Willie Brown is either past its prime (Lott), before its time (Charles Woodson), not quite ready for prime time (the soonly departed Nnamdi Asomugha) or star-crossed in some other way (Lester Hayes, Jack Tatum).

Worse yet for a team playing a West Coast passing offense, the linebackers are highly suspect. It’s asking a lot of Phil Villipiano for him to chase around Brent Jones, run down Roger Craig, and basically be the guy back there.

The offensive challenges are likewise daunting. The Raiders’ long-bomb passing game plays right into the hands of a talented secondary that includes Jim Johnson, Eric Wright, Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks, and Abe Woodson in addition to Lott. The 49ers’ D-line is a potent mix of run-stuffers (Dana Stubblefield and Leo Nomellini) and pass-rushers (Bryant Young and Fred Dean). And the linebackers are rangy and athletic enough to chase down Marcus Allen (and who else? Mark van Eeghen? Justin Fargas?).

Still, the Raiders put up a good fight. They take the opening kickoff and pound the ball down the field, running Marcus Allen right and left and mixing in little bits of Biletnikoff and Todd Christiansen. The drive bogs down inside the 20 and the Raiders settle for a short Sebastian Janikowski field goal.

As it turned out, that was all the opening the ‘Niners needed.

Young marches the ‘Niners down the field at head-spinning speed, capping the drive with a short TD toss to Brent Jones. A booming Ray Guy punt pins back the ‘Niners against their goal, but Young could care less. He rolls out for 16, Perry and Craig crack off big runs, and then Rice splits the defense from 43 yards out. The first quarter ends with San Francisco on top 14-3.

The Raiders come back on a Stabler-to-Branch bomb set up by a long Tim Brown kick return, but the ‘Niners strike yet again. This time it’s Montana doing the honors, swinging one out to Perry and watching him jet it in from 27.

The remainder of the half follows the same pattern. The teams trade scores unevenly, the ‘Niners score their fourth straight TD, and the first half ends with San Francisco up 28-13.

Things change little in the second half. San Francisco’s superior depth wears down the Raiders, even Y.A. Tittle plays a few snaps, and the 49ers move on 42-23.

The stats tell the story. Marcus Allen runs for 121, but Stabler completes only 14 of his 33 passes for 278 yards, a score, and two interceptions. Young, Montana, and Tittle throw 39 passes, complete 25, and roll up 407 yards passing, with four TDs and only one pick. Rice catches 11 and Jones seven, and everyone else pitches in. Perry runs for 67 and Craig 51, and that’s more than enough.

The tough paper matchup turns out to be not so tough after all. The Raiders’ greatest weakness meshed with the ‘Niners’ greatest strength, and the result was carnage.

The Silver and Black still have their swagger (and not the Old Spice swagger, either). Nothing can take their swagger. But what they could really use is a few more good players.

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