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49ers, Raiders Going in Opposite Directions

How quickly things can change.

A year ago, the San Francisco 49ers were the laughing stock of the NFL. The team had lost 14 straight games. The organization was in chaos, with its third head coach in three years and a GM that had consistently failed to deliver decent drafts or sign productive free agents.

Across the bay, the Oakland Raiders were riding high with an 11-3 record. The team was a legitimate threat to reach the Super Bowl, and quarterback Derek Carr was a legitimate threat to win the league MVP award.

But in the ensuing weeks, the seeds of change were sown. Carr would suffer a serious injury, the Raiders would lose in the opening round of the playoff, and the 49ers would fire both head coach Chip Kelly and GM Trent Baalke.

Now, a year later, the teams are going in opposite directions.

Carr, who signed a 5-year contract for $25 million a year prior to the season, has had a disappointing year. The Raiders are 6-8, in all likelihood out of the playoffs. Coach Jack Del Rio is inspiring a lot of second-guessing, and the future—which will include a move to Las Vegas—looks murky, at best.

The 49ers have new life with GM John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garappolo. They’ve won three straight with Garappolo as the starter, and the future looks bright.

The key actors here are the two quarterbacks. I’ve never met Carr, but people who know him well tell me that his lackluster play this year is not the result of complacency after getting a fat contract. It’s more likely the product of a change in offensive coordinator, an inconsistent running game, and a litany of dropped passes.

In January Del Rio fired offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, despite the Raiders having one of the top offenses in the league last season, and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Todd Downing. The change hasn’t gone well. The Raiders averaged 26 points per game last year; they’re averaging 20 this year and have scored 17 or less in all eight losses.

The Raiders’ rushing game was sixth best in the NFL last year, averaging 120.1 yards per game. This year, they rank 25th, at 93.7 per game. As inconsistent as the running game has been, the play of the pass-catching corps has been even worse. The Raiders’ receivers, as one sage recently quipped, can’t catch a cold.

Down in Santa Clara, tomblike Levi’s Stadium has suddenly come alive. Garappolo, who the 49ers stole from New England for a second-round pick, has been a revelation. He appears to have the qualities and intangibles that the great ones have.

I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time watching quarterbacks with Bill Walsh. Bill used to say that the most important barometer for a quarterback is the amount of time between when he sees the receiver come open and when he delivers the ball. The best QBs have the ability to see the field, release the ball quickly, and make the accurate throw. Garappolo has that ability.

Another thing he does is hit receivers in stride. That’s how a 10-yard gain can become a 30-yard gain. Joe Montana used to do that all the time with Jerry Rice and John Taylor.

Granted, it’s still a small sample at this point. And the 49ers still need to add some talent at wide receiver and elsewhere. And the league’s best defense, Jacksonville, is on tap next week. All true...but there is definitely reason to be excited about Garappolo and the Niners.

What’s a Catch: After watching several NFL games yesterday, I’m more confused than ever about what constitutes a catch. With 28 seconds left in the Pittsburgh vs. New England game, Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw what appeared to be a go-ahead touchdown to tight end Jesse James, but the TD was over-turned on replay. The officials ruled that James lost control of the ball when it hit the ground in the end zone, even though the ball had crossed the plane beforehand. Both announcers Jim Nantz and Tony Romo were as confused as I was.

Earlier, in the Carolina-Green Bay game, Cam Newton threw a touchdown pass to Damiere Byrd that was initially ruled incomplete. Byrd first juggled the ball and then landed on his back as he regained control, with most of his body out of the end zone. Even the Panthers’ own tight end, Greg Olsen, waved it off. But on replay, the officials ruled his right rear end cheek (I kid you not!) landed in the end zone.

I’m sure my old friend Mike Pereira can explain the rationale here, but it’s getting so that fans can’t celebrate a touchdown catch anymore, due to the uncertainty over whether it will stick.

Christmas Break: The Inside Track will take a short vacation. Merry Christmas to our subscribers. I hope you all enjoy a great holiday with your families.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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