In the high pressure arenas of college and pro football, it’s always better to over-achieve than to disappoint.
That’s why most coaches prefer to be listed among the also-rans, rather than the favorites, in pre-season rankings.
The late Bill Walsh was a master at downplaying expectations and building up the opposition. At Stanford, he’d always talk about how the other guys had much more talent, and how it was just “an honor to be on the same field with them.”
Occasionally, Bill was right. Some of us are old enough to recall a 49-0 thumping by USC in 1977, when Stanford quarterback Guy Benjamin spent most of the afternoon on his back.
But most of the time, Walsh’s teams exceeded expectations, both at Stanford and during his glory days with the 49ers.
This year, for the first time in recent memory, all of the major Bay Area football coaches will be dealing with high expectations. Here’s a quick take on the optimism—and the realistic outlook—for the 49ers, Raiders, Stanford and Cal.
49ers: It’s rare for a team that finished 6-10 to inspire so much pre-season hype, but the 49ers won their last five games after starting 0-9, and they believe they’ve found their franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. The former New England Patriot backup completed 118 of 176 passes for 1542 yards and 7 TDs in leading the 49ers to victories over Chicago, Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Los Angeles to close out the 2017 season in fine fashion.
Garoppolo is very impressive. He sees the field, has a quick release, is accurate, hits receivers in stride, shows good movement in the pocket, and has a commanding presence. But his team has holes to fill and questions to answer.
To get to the next level the 49ers will need to finish more drives with touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. In three of those season-ending triumphs, kicker Robbie Gould booted five, four and six field goals against Chicago, Houston and Tennessee, respectively. The secondary is a question mark, the offensive line is banged up, and it remains to be seen whether Reuben Foster can overcome his off the field problems and running back Jerick McKinnon can justify his big contract.
Most pre-season pundits have picked Coach Kyle Shanahan’s team to reach the playoffs. Barring a significant injury, I think 10 wins and a playoff berth are realistic goals.
Raiders: The biggest story of the off-season was Jon Gruden’s return to Oakland with a
10-year contract reportedly worth $100 million. Unlike many coaches who’ve returned to the sidelines after spending time in the broadcasting booth, Gruden doesn’t seem to have lost his fire or his passion for the game.
Long known as one of the NFL’s true quarterback gurus, Gruden should work wonders with Derek Carr, who faltered in 2017 after a sensational ’16 season. It’s very early, but the entire team seems re-energized by Gruden’s presence, particularly coming on the heels of laid back, non-headset-wearing Jack Del Rio.
Don’t be surprised if the Raiders rebound and Carr leads them deep into the playoffs.
Stanford: David Shaw has raised the bar at Stanford, becoming the winningest coach in school history and leading the Cardinal to seven consecutive post-season appearances, including three Rose Bowls. He has proven that it is possible to maintain a top 10 program without sacrificing academic standards or integrity, which is no small accomplishment.
This year, expectations are quite high. Stanford will have one of the most explosive offenses in college football, and anything short of a Heisman Trophy for running back Bryce Love will be considered a disappointment. There are question marks on defense—particularly on the line—so the Cardinal will need to win a lot of 41-38 games.
The biggest problem is the schedule, with almost all of the key games—Washington, UCLA, Oregon, Notre Dame, and Cal—on the road. Still, a 9-3 season is realistic, and if Love and Shaw can somehow engineer an upset in Seattle, another Rose Bowl is possible.
Cal: Justin Wilcox has done the unthinkable—produce a strong defense at Cal. After the Bears allowed over 45 points a game during the Sonny Dykes era, Wilcox virtually cut that in half in his first year as head coach in Berkeley. Better days lie ahead.
Although a couple of deep threat wide receivers have transferred, the Bears still have enough weapons, including tackle-breaking, faster-than-you-think, blue collar running back Patrick Laird, to get to a bowl game.
Car Wash: Speaking of college football coaches, it’s hard to fathom why 11 of the 12 Pac-12 coaches passed up the opportunity to participate in the annual pre-season “car wash” at the ESPN studios in Bristol. Only Stanford’s David Shaw made the trek East for the opportunity to meet with the network brass and do interviews on a number of high-profile ESPN shows.
Shaw’s a very smart guy, gaining valuable promotion for his program and for Love’s Heisman candidacy. The other coaches are not only short-sighted, but hypocritical. They complain about lack of exposure and then fail to take advantage of a golden opportunity.
ESPN is far from perfect—their announcers took some cheap shots at Washington coach Chris Petersen last year—but the worldwide leader airs a full slate of games on ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN3/ESPNU every weekend, carries almost every post-season bowl, and promotes college football 365 days a year.
The Pac-12 used to arrange transportation for the coaches to and from Bristol, but in recent years has made the trip optional. Given the current state of the conference (see last week’s blog), it might be time to re-think that decision.