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Raiders, Niners Look To Build From Strong Starts

Will Robinson |
October 11, 2011 | 10:42 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

The 49ers have rolled to an early NFC West lead. (John Martinez Pavliga/Wikimedia Commons)
The 49ers have rolled to an early NFC West lead. (John Martinez Pavliga/Wikimedia Commons)
The Bay is back, baby.

After simultaneously enduring a decade of mediocrity, the San Francisco 49ers (4-1) are on top of their division, and the Oakland Raiders (3-2) are in spitting distance of the AFC West lead.

For the first time since 2002, each team in California's Bay Area has a winning record through five games. In that season, both teams won their division, and Oakland was the AFC Champion.

The football forecast the last decade has been decidedly bleak since '02. Before last season, Oakland failed to have a season with single-digit losses, and hope was lost.

Striking Gold

San Francisco repeatedly garnered high expectations among its fan base and the media to win the crappy NFC West over the past few years, but consistently fell short.

Niners LB Patrick Willis (BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons)
Niners LB Patrick Willis (BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons)
The Niners' return to glory has featured a domineering front seven led by All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis (left, image via BrokenSphere), and a run game that is tough to slow down when it gets going. The Niners have nearly reached last year's win total (six) in five games.

Quarterback Alex Smith has not lived up to his first-overall-selection pedigree since 2005. But this season, he is not killing his team when it matters, as opposed to years past. He looks competent; the poster-child for the "game manager" role, something Smith has never worn.

On defense, new additions are helping instantly. Rookie linebacker Aldon Smith has three and a half sacks, which is the second for all rookies currently.

Cornerback Carlos Rogers has intercepted opposing signal callers three times. The defense has eight total, already nearing last year's mark of 15.

Over on the east side of the bay is a different story.

Raiding Victories

Is Darren McFadden the best running back in football? (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Is Darren McFadden the best running back in football? (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
With exception to Oakland's game against New England -- a team that was out for revenge after a shocking defeat against Buffalo -- the Raiders have been close in every game they played, winning three.

Running back Darren McFadden (right) has squashed any doubts that he was not worthy of a 2008 top-five pick with his electrifying play this season and last. So far, McFadden has 668 yards from scrimmage -- over 133 yards per game.

But stats do not show how unique McFadden's speed and power combination is. It is very Adrian Peterson-esque.

Undoubtedly, the defense mourns the loss of All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, but the guys who remained are filling in admirably. Stanford Routt has developed into a good cornerback, and safeties Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff are a great duo.

Huff, who was seen as a bust, has improved recently; he intercepted Matt Schaub to seal Oakland’s win last Sunday.

The Michigan Man

Success starts at the top for the two squads. Both teams found gold with their coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Hue Jackson, respectively, each perfect for each situation.

49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh
Harbaugh was easily the hottest coach in the market after his 2010 Stanford season. He was on the short list of several professional coaching jobs before the Niners made him an offer he couldn't refuse ($5 million per year, not what Vito Corleone had in mind).

A former Heisman candidate during his quarterback days at the University of Michigan, Harbaugh only had a few weeks to impose his will and system on his players (unlike a regular offseason, where he would have had months to cultivate his talent.)

The lack of time with an unknown group of men was the main reason new coaches were expected to have serious growing pains coming into the 2011 playing season.

"I believed there would be a Harbaugh effect, but because this offseason was so weird, and he was deprived the opportunity to implement his system and do the things new coaches do," Yahoo! Sports NFL writer Michael Silver said.

Silver, an NFL writer since 1994, lives in Northern California and works within a close proximity to the Raiders and 49ers.

"I expected [the Niners] to be better -- and I did pick them to win the division -- but I am very surprised it happened so quickly," Silver added.

Well, Harbaugh and his 4-1 record would beg to differ.

Smith has flourished under Harbaugh. While Harbaugh has not needed Smith to throw for 250 yards every game, Smith's mistakes have been limited with only one interception.

In fact, Smith is on pace for breaking his career high for yards in a season, yards per attempt and completion percentage.

"[Harbaugh] has a quarterback with some limitations, but instead of dwelling on that, he's basically saying, ‘This is what Alex does well. I’m going to put him in a position to do those things well," Silver said.

"It might not look great and it might not impress people, but it will be effective."

The Much-Travelled Coach

Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia Commons)
Oakland did not endure the overhaul the Niners had. For one, late owner Al Davis hired within his coaching staff and gave Hue Jackson his first opportunity to lead a team.

Jackson is the essential journeyman coach. He started his coaching career in 1987 as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, the University of the Pacific. From there, he worked for California State University at Fullerton, the London Monarchs (a team in the NFL Europe pre-cursor WLAF), Arizona State, California, USC, the Washington Redskins, the Cincinnati Bengals, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.

He had any role from position coach (wide receivers, running backs, quarterbacks, special teams) to offensive coordinator, the position he was hired for the 2010 season in Oakland.

Needless to say, Hue Jackson racked up killer frequent flyer miles. And thus far, he has displayed the Raider swagger that has eluded the franchise since its glory days in the '70s and '80s.

Probably more so than any other job, the Oakland coaching job has needed one discernible, unique quality: the ability to co-exist and cooperate with former owner Al Davis.

"What [former Raiders head coach John] Madden did back in the '70s was this very confident, self-assured way of carrying yourself that includes [Davis]," Silver said. "He can't be afraid to talk to Al, not afraid to have him feel like he’s a part of it, but you’re very much carrying yourself like you are your own guy and you just don't give a damn. [Jackson] has that temperament that could succeed there, and he’s good, which helps."

Compared to the last pre-Jackson season, the 2010 Raiders put up 213 more points and 1,400 more yards.

"The last offense [former head coach Tom Cable] ran was almost historically bad,” Silver said. "Then Hue came, and not only is he a great playcaller, there's a lot of talent on that team that wasn't really being used in advantageous ways."

Particularly in his play calling: Just last Sunday, in Oakland’s emotional win over Houston, Jackson called a flea flicker and a fake punt.

Reverses and other trickery by the Silver and Black do not make anyone think twice with Jackson; it has become a state of normalcy in their offensive game planning.

Jackson also zeroed in on his talent. McFadden has received a bulk of the offensive touches, for good reason, but Jason Campbell has been allowed to throw it deep to wideouts Denarius Moore (rookie) and Darrius Heyward-Bey (third-year).

"[Jackson] put people in position to do what they do well," Silver said. "Hue literally took McFadden and some other guys in and said 'What do you like to do? What plays do you enjoy?' It sounds simple, but they were blown away by that."

Can They Keep it Up?

At the rate each team is going, why not?

49ers QB Alex Smith (John Martinez Pavliga/Wikimedia Commons)
49ers QB Alex Smith (John Martinez Pavliga/Wikimedia Commons)
The Niners have the better chance to make some noise come January because of their division and schedule. Next weekend, San Fran travels to the Lions' den for Sunday's marquee matchup.

But after that? Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the only intimidating opponents left on the schedule. Plus, if anything, Harbaugh’s crew should be getting better with more time with their coach. That's a scary thought. Be afraid, the other three NFC West teams.

Oakland has a tougher outlook. They also play NFC North teams, including a road game at Green Bay. Uh-oh. The team has not looked like the strongest team in the AFC West hands down. But neither have the Chargers.

A decent chance exists that Oakland will in the West or perhaps secure a Wild Card berth, but Hue Jackson will have to keep improving his squad.

"If each team can win its division, host a playoff game, and at least play well in that game, win or lose, that's a lot. It's been a long time," Silver said. "If either team can win one of those games and do something more, that's a bonus. If we have two playoff games in the Bay Area and the home teams win both, that’s a home run."

For now, blare some of Oaktown's finest jams over your speakers and enjoy some genuine San Fran sourdough. It's time for NorCal fans to rejoice over their football teams once more.


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