As we get ready to kick off a new NFL season, pull up a barstool 49ers and Raiders fans for the violence-free Bay Area football smackdown:
Round 1: Hue Jackson or Jim Harbaugh?
If this were a presidential primary, Jackson’s firebrand speeches would win in a landslide. Unfortunately, nobody in the NFL gets points for being clever at press conferences.
Meanwhile, the ever-quirky Harbaugh may act indifferent to all the media attention, but after playing in the league for 15 seasons and turning around two previously pathetic college programs, Captain Comeback brings a winning pedigree to San Francisco and he knows it. Harbaugh’s innovation and experience trump Jackson’s campaigning-style bravado.
Round 2: Alex Smith or Jason Campbell?
Campbell is bigger, faster and stronger. Smith has a stronger field presence and better touch on his throws. While neither first-round pick has come close to living up to expectations, Campbell is more elusive and resourceful under pressure. Smith could make huge strides now that he finally appears to be learning the value of the “check-down” throw. Advantage: 49ers.
Round 3: Who’s got the tougher defense?
The Raiders’ front four is strong and nasty. Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy are two of the best young pass rushers in the league. If perennial Pro Bowl tackle Richard Seymour can get Tommy Kelly to stay in his gap, maybe Oakland’s run defense wouldn’t be so maddeningly inconsistent. Interestingly, while the Raiders lost their best pass defender, Nnamdi Asomugha, the 49ers jettisoned their worst, Nate Clements, The 49ers’ secondary got a huge boost with the additions of safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Carlos Rogers. That said, the 49ers’ posse of hard-hitting linebackers, led by Patrick Willis, may be as good as any this side of the Pittsburgh Steelers. S.F’s defensive line may lack a great pure pass rusher, but it is stout at the point of attack. Advantage: 49ers.
Round 4: Who’s got the better offensive line?
It was trial by fire last year for 49ers first-round picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. Both have come a long way, and so has left guard Chilo Rachal, who dropped 30 pounds and gained a new-found confidence. The Raiders were wise to make Stefen Wisniewski their top pick in the draft. “Wiz-2,” coached by uncle Steve Wisniewksi, looks like a lock to hold down the left guard job. Too bad right guard Cooper Carlisle and center Samson Satele continue to get manhandled by bigger and more powerful defensive tackles. Advantage: 49ers.
Round 5: Who’s got better playmakers?
Oakland speedsters Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Louis Murphy should be unstoppable. Unfortunately, between injuries, fumbles, overthrown passes and drops, none has developed into a consistent threat. Michael Bush remains the Raiders’ reliable weapon. Look for explosive rookie receiver Denarius Moore to force his way into the mix. While the 49ers have hardly been an offensive juggernaut, they do boast three former Pro Bowlers in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Braylon Edwards. Advantage: 49ers.
Round 6: Special teams
It’s a Pro Bowl party for everybody. 49ers’ new kicker David Akers and punter Andy Lee, along with the Raiders’ Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler should all get condos in Hawaii. Although Ted Ginn is a better returner than Nick Miller, Oakland has more experienced coverage teams. Advantage: Raiders.
Round 7: Strength of schedule
The 49ers face only five opponents who had winning records in 2010. Three of those games are at Candlestick Park against the Buccaneers, Giants and Steelers. The closest the 49ers will come to a cold weather game will be in November when they play at Washington and Baltimore or at Seattle on Christmas Eve, Meanwhile, the Raiders have eight games against teams that finished better than .500 last season, including a December trip to Green Bay to face the Super Bowl champion Packers. Advantage: 49ers.
Round 8: Intangibles
The Silver and Black may have the league’s most passionate fans, but they also lead the league in local TV blackouts. Too many losing seasons and empty seats at the O.co Coliseum have undermined the once-legendary Raiders mystique. The equally anguished 49ers faithful continue to fill Candlestick Park eagerly wanting Alex Smith to give them something to cheer about, yet ready to boo at his every mistake. Advantage: Nobody.
The verdict: Coach Jackson can sing Campbell’s praise from the top of Mount Davis, but it will take much more than that to transform Oakland’s reserved 29-year-old quarterback into a dynamic leader. I see another 8-8 season on the Oakland horizon. S.F. appears poised to do better. The wizardry of Harbaugh (or is it alchemy?) will bring quick dividends. Look for Smith to lead the 49ers to a 9-7 record. Not quite Steve Young “monkey off the back” Super Bowl stuff, but it’s a start.
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.