Sure the Raiders and 49ers are cross bay rivals. There is a long list of players that have jumped from one team to the other. And their travel arrangements consisted of a short drive over the bay bridge. Hell, the two stadiums are so close that you can practically swim from one to the other as there is mostly just water between them.
Oakland Coliseum and Candlestick Park are both old and past their time. Each having seen many years of greatness. But in both cases, that great success has long since passed. These two proud franchises have struggled mightily in recent seasons. The last time the Niners had a winning season was 2002. A year that saw the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Which, as it so happens, was also the last winning season for the Raiders.
Soon one or both teams will be getting new stadiums. The Niners are hoping to set up shop in Santa Clara in the south bay. The idea was posed recently that both teams share the stadium in much the same capacity that the Jets and Giants share the meadowlands. The Raiders have also looked into a stadium in Dublin, Fullerton and even right next to the current Colliseum in Oakland. Both teams are on the short list of the developer in LA that is looking for an NFL franchise to inhabit the brand new stadium for which Governor Schwarzenegger (that still sounds weird) just approved funding. The 49ers are a much less likely candidate however. Especially considering that the stadium idea in Santa Clara seems like a very real possibility.
Location and stadium issues aside, there has been quite a few other characteristics that have given us reason to draw comparisons between these two franchises.
Both teams also have first year head coaches that were promoted from within the organization. Both coaches were also promoted directly from position coach to head coach and skipped the coordinator role altogether. Tom Cable was named interim head coach in October of 2008 after then head coach Lane Kiffin was fired. Just two weeks later, Mike Singletary was named 49ers interim head coach when then head coach Mike Nolan was fired. Singletary has turned around the 49ers in his first season as the head man. Last season he let the players know very quickly that anything less than maximum effort and winning attitudes will not be tolerated. Tom Cable has a similar philosophy as Singletary. But as long as Al Davis is calling the shots, Cable will never be able to enforce it because the players will never respect his authority. The players will continue to act out as much as they possibly can and not put in the work that is necessary to be a winning team. Which brings me to the next similarity...
Both teams have quarterbacks that were drafted first overall. In the Raiders' case, it is the the big armed, big and tall JaMarcus Russell. For the 49ers it is Alex Smith. Both quarterbacks have been labeled as an NFL bust by this point. Both quarterbacks have been scrutinized for their poor on-field decision making abilities. And that is where the similarities stop. Alex Smith has the work ethic and the intelligence while his physical tools have been in question. JaMarcus Russell has all the physical tools while his worth ethic and intelligence have come into question. But probably the largest difference between the two is how each team has handled them. Alex Smith struggled early on and was benched in favor of whichever quarterback the coach thought gave them the best chance of winning (what a concept huh?). JaMarcus Russell has never been in fear of being benched and therefore has never played, practiced or studied with a sense of having to win his job. Last week those roles were reversed half way through each team‘s game. Russell was benched just before halftime after fumbling once, throwing two interceptions and almost throwing two more. Alex Smith was put into the game to replace a struggling Sean Hill and Smith promptly threw three touchdown passes. Which, as pathetic as it may be, is more TD passes than Russell has thrown all season (2).
These days the popular excuse handed out for Russell's struggles is the lack of productivity from his receivers. Dropping the ball being the big one. The 49ers have one of the worst receiving corps in the league as well though. In fact their most reliable receiver this season is their tight end Vernon Davis. And who is the Raiders most reliable receiver?-- Zach Miller, the tight end. And speaking of receivers...
The most talked about comparison between these two teams this season has been that of their 2009 first round draft choices. The Raiders chose speedster (big surprise) receiver, Darrius Heyward-Bey with the seventh overall pick. Then three picks later the 49ers chose the consensus best receiver in the draft, Michael Crabtree. The rumblings about what a huge mistake the Raiders made in drafting Heyward-Bey died down a little when it came out that Michael Crabtree was insisting on getting paid as a top five pick because he thought he should get more than Heyward-Bey. Then he held out and missed six games of the season until finally agreeing to his original deal (sort of) and joining the team last week. Raider fans were glad to see Crabtree was holing out and thought that with DHB starting every game, he would have a nice head start. But after six games, that head start consisted of two total catches. A total that Crabtree overtook in the first half of the Niners game against the Texans. DHB had two catches in the Raiders' game against the Jets last Sunday to bring his total to 4 catches. However, Crabtree caught two more balls in the second half to bring his total to 5 catches. Yeah, Michael Crabtree has more catches in one game than Darrius Heyward-Bey has through seven games.
So why, despite all the similarities between these two teams, are the 49ers suddenly competitive while the Raiders still look completely lost? Well, that brings me to the final and most important similarity...the owner.
All of the Raiders poor decisions were made by Al Davis. The coach and his inevitable lack of authority, the busted quarterback, and yet another speedster receiver who can't catch the ball are all products of big Al.
Both organizations are or have recently been led by controversial owners. And both have sons that were or are in line to take over the decision making duties. In the Raiders' case it is Mark Davis that is in line to take the reins of the Raiders whenever his father Al decides to hand over the keys. Even if that means Mark literally has to pry them from his cold dead fingers, as the saying goes. The 49ers were ruled by the tight fist of John York for quite a few years. During those years the 49ers struggled to win games. Word got out that York Sr. was even forcing the players to purchase water. In December of 2008 he named his son Jed York as the new team president and as of this season, things are looking much better for the team. When Mark Davis takes over the Raiders, hopefully a similar transition will take place. But at this rate, who knows how long down the road that might be. But the 49ers can act as a blue print for the kind of success that is possible.
Until then, Raider fans can sit in mount davis shaking their fist at Candlestick Park across the bay and hope their team can turn things around in much the same fashion.