Monday, August 22, 2011

The Battle of the Bay

The idea of California football always appealed to me. Its dusty 50-yard line and sun baked bleachers were the antithesis of traditionalist football - winter winds, heavy snow, frozen tundras. The latter was harsh and messy, evoking icy crunches and cracks. They were bruising affairs that mired Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic teams in muddy trench warfare. The Californian game, by contrast, was brighter, more dazzling. Its football soared and its players blazed. Touchdowns were plentiful.

The type of blue horizon backdrops and sweet lemonade-infused days I'm referring to are San Francisco 49ers games of the Eighties. Football was never more romanticized than those glorious years, during which Joe Montana surveyed the field behind center, dropped back to pass and fired the ball into the hands of John Taylor or Jerry Rice skipping across Candlestick. Forty-Niners football always seemed to be cool and calm, free-flowing and determined. Sure, in reality, it  might have been a little chilly by the bay, and there were probably more imperfections than I can recall, but on television it always looked sunny, and the red and gold uniforms appeared, well, gladiatorial.

So it was certainly deflating to see the 49ers collide with their closest rivals the Oakland Raiders last weekend, in a contest that was a mere shadow of former glories. After all, the "Battle of the Bay", while usually confined to the preseason, is a competition and tradition clubs in remote corners of the map must salivate over. Here you have the golden glitz of the Niners, the team that took the West Coast offense to new heights, against the NFL's footballing pirates, a brand that embodies more than toughness - perhaps brutality. You couldn't script a better story if you were Steve Sabol of NFL Films.

Unfortunately for fans of both teams, Sunday's battlefront was more stunning in the stands than on the field, and in this instance, that's a tragedy.

Alex Smith looked better in the pocket and in delivery, but that's not saying much when you're coming from a state of disarray. Smith just doesn't apply enough zip on the ball, though he is releasing it more quickly these days. His feet look hurried, which my be why his passes are popping out like a pinched grape. One throw to Braylon Edwards - who made a spectacular single handed grab - gave hope. Then a floater to the Raider defensive end Matt Shaughnessy defused any excitement possibly brewing in the stands.

Meanwhile, Oakland's Jason Campbell continued his penchant for clutching the ball too long. On one occasion it hindered his ability to find the open man in the back of the end zone, and on another, his final play of the day, Campbell took a stray knee to the helmet and was forced to leave. It's probably better that he had extra time to think over this performance.

If not for Daniel Kilgore's fine block in the middle of the park that stalled three Raider defenders and sprung Kendall Hunter for a 53-yard touchdown sprint, this day might have felt like a great waste. And if the 17-3 scoreline wasn't crushing enough, it's now apparent that the weekend's fan violence has prompted police to seek a permanent ban on this famed match-up.

So now we're left to reminisce decades past, when those shiny gold helmets furiously knocked about sunny California with the scary silver ones. And it was really fun to watch.


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