Here is a link to my Sunday column. The full text runs below:
The Raiders, who open at home today against the Bengals, did right to sign Aldon Smith to a one-year deal.
Oh, that’s such a tepid, cautious statement. The Raiders didn’t only do right. The Raiders did brilliant.
Before you point out that I recently praised the 49ers for dumping Smith after yet more off-field problems, yes, I praised the 49ers for dumping Smith. I plead guilty to being inconsistent on the Aldon Smith issue. Sue me.
In my own defense, I will point this out. The Niners preach winning with class.
Question: If you have class, do you brag about it?
Anyway, the Niners preach winning with class but have had all sorts of players acting with no class, i.e. getting into trouble. The 49ers needed to retake the moral high ground and, by necessity, they got rid of Smith. Whether this actually gives the 49ers the moral high ground we will find out.
The Raiders don’t have a particular problem with the moral high ground — certainly not like the 49ers. They’ve generally been above reproach. Let’s say, in recent years, they have not continually fallen below the Reproach Line like that bunch in Santa Clara.
But the Raiders have a problem winning games. Last season, they won only three. A total of three wins is either laughable or sinful depending on your point of view. The Raiders certainly have been below reproach on the football side of things.
Aldon Smith, who seems to be below reproach in his personal life, could make the Raiders above reproach in football terms.
Because Smith is one hell of a pass rusher.
The Raiders have not been good at rushing the passer. Kind of crummy, actually. Suddenly, they will have Khalil Mack and Smith coming at quarterbacks, and just as suddenly, the Raiders could have an elite pass rush. Among the best in the NFL. Better than, say, the 49ers.
Considering what Smith has to offer, the Raiders would have been nuts, silly-headed, derelict in their duty not to sign him. All praise to the Oakland Raiders.
And Aldon Smith is not a locker-room problem. To the best of my knowledge, he was not a problem in Santa Clara and I doubt he will be a problem in Oakland. He is a self-effacing, approachable man with a shy smile. People like him. His bad actions were so shocking precisely because they seemed out of character. Obviously, they are not out of character. That’s the sad part.
I’m saying Smith does not tear apart a locker room. He is self-destructive, and property-destructive and tree-destructive and, some day, he may seriously hurt someone with his car — he has momentous work to do in his personal life. But he is not team-destructive. The Raiders know this. So, they took a chance on him. Nothing to lose.
And there’s one other thing.
Head coach Jack Del Rio.
Del Rio is the kind of grownup who can handle Smith — to the extent anyone can handle Smith. Del Rio can meld Smith into a locker room with wisdom and tact. If what I’m writing sounds like an endorsement of Del Rio, it sure is. Del Rio is the perfect coach for the Raiders. He would have been the perfect coach for the 49ers.
As head coach at Jacksonville, a crummy organization, he twice brought the Jaguars to the playoffs. Most recently, he was defensive coordinator in Denver.
Why point out Denver?
Because Del Rio knows the AFC West, the Raiders’ division, that’s why. He has a book on every AFC West club including the Raiders. He knows the Raiders from the outside, as an opponent. Has a realistic assessment of his own team. No illusions.
Look at Del Rio. Look at his military posture. So upright. Study his demeanor. After exhibition games, he answered every media question patiently, and, in the politest way, said almost nothing. He is self-contained. He understands the monumental task he faces with the Raiders — he does face a monumental task.
So, he showed no false bravado with the media. Made no false claims. He knows his job. Reshape the locker room. Reshape the Raiders’ self image. Give the players, so downtrodden, self-worth. Get rid of the lousy taste of losing. Make the players believe they have a chance to win. Make the players believe in themselves and make them believe in him.
All this is hard to do, doesn’t come in the preseason, or by claiming to be a players’ coach, or by getting all warm and emotional. Del Rio has kept a low profile. He had to. Better to keep a low profile than to over-promise wins or oversell the players on their talent, or put pressure on them by what he said to the media. He kept the talk low-key.
Del Rio is the wise tough sergeant in black-and-white World War II movies who knows more than the officers who learned from textbooks at West Point. He learned from being on the frontline. He was a linebacker at USC, but he also was the catcher on the Trojans baseball team — he got drafted by the Blue Jays. He played linebacker in the NFL.
He played blue-collar positions in two sports — took big hits in football, took foul tips off his fingers in baseball. He is a blue-collar guy who can portray a white-collar image. He is tough and steady and sophisticated.
He is the antithesis of Rex Ryan, the buffoon, always bragging with the media. Overselling his team and himself. Usually under-producing on the field. Rarely living up to the hype. Del Rio is calm. He works behind the scenes. He does not broadcast himself to the world like Ryan — “Look at me.”
Del Rio understands that his team needs to grow. Understands the players must learn to trust him. And themselves.
He is the perfect coach for Aldon Smith.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn firstname.lastname@example.org.