Admittedly, watching pro football players practice in only helmets and shorts is a far cry from the grueling slugfests that reveal all in the fall, but both Bay Area teams made noticeable improvements this offseason.
For the 49er Faithful, Alex Smith looks sharp and spry coming off shoulder surgery and says he likes new offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s passing scheme, which emphasizes timing and precision. Martz also knows how to deal with blitz-happy defenses, so Smith hopefully won’t reprise his role as a humanpinata.
The addition of stretch-the-field receivers Isaac Bruce, with a career average of 15 yards per catch and still making it look easy at 35, and solid veteran Bryant Johnson, who averaged 13 yards a reception in five years with the Arizona Cardinals, should keep opponents from loading the box to gang up on running back Frank Gore. Of course, a shuffled-up offensive line holds the ultimate key to reviving the sagging S.F. attack. Don’t be surprised if second-round draft pick Chilo Rachal, the team’s fastest offensive lineman, pushes his way into the starting lineup.
First-round pick Kentwan Balmer, a defensive tackle, is another promising rookie and with former Cincinnati Bengals star Justin Smith coming off the edge on one side and speedy Manny Lawson coming off ACL surgery on the other, the beleaguered-but-talented Niners secondary may finally get some help from upfront.
Meanwhile, wait until Raider Nation gets a look at the new JaMarcus Russell. No longer the game’s highest-paid clipboard holder, the 22-year-old quarterback is noticeably leaner and stronger. Although Russell still struggles with short, touch passes on his rollouts, other QBs can only dream of firing the ball downfield with his power and precision. Javon Walker who made the Pro Bowl catching passes from Brett Favre, looks right at home snaring Russell’s zingers and says his recent knee problems are no longer an issue.
Tuesday, running back sensation Darren McFadden was lining up at wide receiver and made a couple of sweet, leaping catches. McFadden is playing like the tattoo emblazoned on his right arm that reads, “Bustin’ Loose.”
Much hinges on whether former 49er Kwame Harris can shake his “bust” label as Oakland’s new left tackle. Kwame says the Raiders’ zone-blocking scheme bettersuits his game and he welcomes having a clean slate with a new team.
On defense, Gibril Wilson is getting rave reviews at strong safety, while former Pro Bowl pick DeAngelo Hall, playing opposite Nnamdi Asomugha (still unsigned, but expected back soon), gives the Silver and Black two of the best shutdown corners in the league. Newly signed veteran defensive end Greg Spires exploded with a couple of great pass-rush moves in his first practice, bringing a rare smile from usually stoic coach Lane Kiffin.
Certainly after five straight losing seasons on both sides of the Bay, these two storied franchises are works in progress. Heading into the 2008 season, ESPN’s Power Ranking moved the Raiders from 27th to 26th, switching places with the 49ers. Other pro football sites rated the local teams even lower.
When told of that, Derrick Burgess, the Raiders’ one-time Pro bowl defensive end, said: “I don’t give a crap what they say.”
Sometimes getting mad helps you get even.
Rich Walcoff is the sports director at KGO Radio (810 AM) and can be heard weekdays between 5-9 a.m. on the “KGO Morning News.” He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.