Nothing in sports offers more intrigue in such a meaningless forum as the NFL preseason.
Local fans are understandably excited about the return of football with Raiders kicking off the exhibition season Thursday in Oakland against the Arizona Cardinals, and the 49ers debuting in New Orleans against the Saints on Friday.
But what happens in August has virtually no bearing on either team’s prospects in 2011. Dare we remember last year when San Francisco’s (4-0) exhibition record and ensuing playoff hype came crashing down with a season opening 31-6 loss at Seattle. Or Oakland’s (3-1) preseason success that was followed by a 38-13 loss at Tennessee?
Of course, both Bay Area teams look to new head coaches rather than changing quarterbacks in hopes of ending their respective eight-year playoff droughts. Unfortunately, 2005 first-round picks Alex Smith and Jason Campbell both have losing records as NFL starters: Smith (17-33) and Campbell (27-37).
But believe it or not, Smith has a better chance now of succeeding than he ever has before. The optimism starts with Jim Harbaugh’s innovative gamesmanship which will remind 49ers fans of the West Coast attack that former offensive coordinator Norv Turner operated in 2006, by far Smith’s best season.
Only this time around, Smith finally has a strong down-field target in former Pro Bowl receiver Braylon Edwards and an improving young offensive line anchored by veteran center Jonathan Goodwin, a former Pro Bowler with the Saints.
The 49ers’ run defense, which hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 22 games, will miss nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. But the formerly porous S.F. secondary gets a huge boost with the arrival of strong safety Donte Whitner, who had 140 tackles with the Buffalo Bills last season, and cornerback Carlos Rogers, a three-year starter on a good Washington Redskins defense.
If the 49ers can avoid overusing Frank Gore and keep Smith out of third-and-forever situations, they might actually be playing games that mean something after Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile, the Raiders, fresh off their first perfect season (6-0) against AFC West opponents, look to improve minus their best defender (Nnamdi Asomugha), leading receiver (Zach Miller) and most reliable offensive lineman (Robert Gallery).
The Silver and Black’s defensive line is among the fiercest in the league, but it better be considering the coverage skills of starting cornerbacks Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson.
Newly signed former New York Giants tight end Kevin Boss is a better blocker than Miller, but he is not as fast nor sure-handed.
Campbell, who struggles with consistency and poise under pressure, has even more challenges playing behind a shuffled-up offensive line.
Receivers Jacoby Ford, Chaz Schilens and Louis Murphy could be nice complements to the “Smash and Dash” backfield of Michael Bush and Darren McFadden. New coach Hue Jackson brings much-needed offensive wizardry and dynamic leadership.
It’s too bad the same can’t be said about his starting quarterback.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.