When a team loses in the postseason for multiple seasons, the natural question to ask is whether its Super Bowl window is closing.
To some observers, it might be natural to ask this question about the San Francisco 49ers. This team has lost twice in the NFC Championship Game and once in the Super Bowl in the past three seasons. The rumblings being heard? “The 49ers have peaked. … They can’t win the big one. … Their window is closing.”
Here’s my advice to those who are pondering whether the 49ers have missed their opportunity: Throw that notion out the window.
The 49ers’ Super Bowl window is wide open. This is an elite franchise with endless possibilities.
The 49ers’ near-misses in the past three postseasons aren’t a negative moving forward. Opportunities were blown, but experience was gained. San Francisco can continue to improve and grow.
In fact, I expect the 49ers roster to be improved in 2014. When you study rosters around the NFL, it’s difficult to find too many that are set up better for long-term success.
There aren’t many holes in this program. Jim Harbaugh became the first coach in history to advance to the conference title game in his first three NFL seasons. Harbaugh and his staff are top notch. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 21-8 in his career starts. Although inexperienced, Kaepernick is already a proven winner. He will get better. The defense is top notch and will stay that way.
Overall, this is a young team with plenty of depth. Plus, the 49ers are equipped with 13 draft picks and have a chance to dictate May’s NFL draft.
– Bill Williamson, ESPN.com
The Raiders simply cannot miss with their first-round draft pick. Better yet, not missing is insufficient. They’ve got to nail it with the No. 5 pick.
They need a game-changer. A franchise-lifter. If the past couple of years were indeed the deconstruction of the franchise, as owner Mark Davis said, then reconstruction needs to begin with a cornerstone player. Which means they can’t draft a quarterback.
The answer is Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.
Jadeveon Clowney, the stud defensive end deemed a rare talent, may not be there when the Raiders select. But his lack of production this past season, whispers about effort, concerns over him being injury prone, should all be enough to scare away the Raiders.
Oakland’s offensive line could use Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews. He and a re-signed Jared Veldheer are a formidable foundation. But Matthews may not be there either, and the Raiders haven’t selected an offensive tackle in the first round since Robert Gallery in 2004. And when you don’t have a franchise quarterback to protect or featured back to feed faithfully, you’re perhaps best going for a lineman later.
But Watkins will be there, and he might be the closest thing to a can’t-miss for the Raiders. He’s 6-foot-1 but he’s no one-trick pony.
He’s not just a speed guy who can stretch the field, though he can. He’s not just a possession guy who can get open underneath, though he can. He’s not just a guy you want to get the ball to in space and let him make a play, though he can.
Watkins has his issues. His performance this year, capped with a stunning Orange Bowl, was a bit of a comeback. His two-game suspension for a drug arrest proved to be a fitting start to a mediocre 2012 season. Injuries caused him to miss games, and his production dropped when he did play.
That’s worthy of concern even though Watkins more than made up for it his junior season: 101 catches for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. If he’s not a No. 1 receiver, he’d be a stud at No. 2. He’s Percy Harvin with no history of concussions.
The Raiders desperately need an upgrade in talent, and few in the draft are more talented than Watkins. They need a playmaker who can make a difference as a rookie. They need a low-risk, high-reward option to stem the tide of unfruitful high draft picks.
Even if you conclude it’s too early to adequately judge cornerback D.J. Hayden a miss, the Raiders’ previous six first-round draft picks paint an accurate picture of franchise’s woes: Fabian Washington, Michael Huff, JaMarcus Russell, Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Rolando McClain.
The Raiders can’t miss again. Just can’t.
– Marcus Thompson II, San Jose Mercury News
It has hung in the air for a long time, almost as long as one of his majestic kicks, and Ray Guyis anxious for the ball to come down one way or the other.
The former Raiders punter will find out a week from Saturday if he finally gets into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It would be the thrill of a lifetime to be the first punter so honored, but Guy is past being nervous about the pending announcement.
“No, I’m not nervous … really,” he said in a phone interview. “I just want to put this thing to rest. This is my eighth time going through it, and the days are starting to drag the closer we get to it. I try to keep busy and keep my mind off it.”
Guy, 64, and former Raiders receiver Tim Brown are two of the 17 candidates who will be considered by the 46-person Hall of Fame selection committee on Feb. 1 in New York City, a day before the Super Bowl. Guy is one of the two senior candidates, along with former Falcons defensive end Claude Humphrey.
To be elected to the Hall, a candidate must receive approval by 80 percent of the committee.
It says here that both Guy and Brown should be elected, but only Guy is expected to get in this time. Seven of the past eight senior candidates have reached the Hall, but none of them were punters.
Guy, already a Modern Era finalist for a bronze bust seven times, doesn’t understand the bias against punters, and all special-teams players for that matter. (Jan Stenerud is the only kicker in the Hall.)
“Football is a team game,” Guy said. “Special teams is a key ingredient to having a successful season and winning a championship, and punter is an important position. The roster of all the great players in the Hall of Fame is not full until all the positions are accounted for.
“You can’t win without a punter.”
Guy, who won three Super Bowls with the Raiders, was a dominant punter. He played in seven Pro Bowls and was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994. Guy’s booming kicks – he hit the ceilings of both the Superdome and Astrodome – brought the term “hang time” into the vernacular, even if Guy himself wasn’t familiar with it.
“I could always kick it high, even when I was a little bitty guy growing up in Georgia,” said Guy, who is now the director of community relations at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi. “But I didn’t have any idea it was worth anything until I got to the Raiders, where they charted hang time and told me the importance of giving my coverage team more time to get downfield on the kicks and limiting the returns.”
What about in college?
“No, I only heard oohs and aahs there,” said Guy, who had a 93-yarder in college.
Guy was the first pure punter ever to be drafted in the first round when the Raiders selected him with the 23rd overall pick in 1973. He never missed a game or had a punt returned for a touchdown, and over the years developed a knack for pinning teams back in their own end, and for punting out of bounds. In 1985, 31 of his 89 punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.
“He changed the game,” former Raiders head coach Tom Flores said. “There was no one like him before, and he became the model for punters after that.”
– Vic Tafur, San Francisco Chronicle