Sports

Time to go camping with 49ers, Raiders

NFL training camps open this week, so hold me back.

The anticipation for fifth-string cornerbacks covering sixth-string receivers ... it's just too much! Frankly, there's no better time to set the stage for the best story lines and open up multiple cans of worms as the San Francisco 49ers start up in Santa Clara and the Oakland Raiders head to Napa.

Story line No. 1: 49ers coach Mike Nolan is on the hot seat after three wobbly seasons.

Nolan knows he's on the hot seat. What does this mean? I bet Nolan did his research and found an example of a tightly wound coach who was under fire after three seasons and then fixed the problems resoundingly in Year 4.

The perfect precedent for Nolan: Tom Coughlin, who was almost fired by the New York Giants after the 2006 season; diligently tried to re-embrace the media; accepted the rise of general manager Jerry Reese; hired a new offensive coordinator (Kevin Gilbride, promoted from quarterbacks coach); got Eli Manning going at quarterback; and then won the Super Bowl.

Obviously, these teams are not equivalent in talent or range of expectations -- Coughlin was almost fired after getting to the playoffs in consecutive seasons; Nolan was kept on after three consecutive losing seasons. But it seems clear that Nolan has picked Coughlin as his 2008 spiritual model.

This spring and summer, Nolan has gone to the KNBR studios to meet several of the hosts; he has remained calm while general manager Scot McCloughan took over the personnel reins; he hired a new offensive coordinator in Mike Martz; and he hopes to have a reliable quarterback after the battle between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill.

Sound familiar? If Nolan continues down the Coughlin road, he'll loosen up a little with his players and roll with the punches instead of flinching and overreacting. Will he do it? We'll see.

Coughlin won a Super Bowl and made a legend for himself.

Nolan just needs to go 8-8 to make sure he is still employed in 2009.

If not as 49ers coach, maybe as a midday traffic reporter?

Story line No. 2: JaMarcus Russell is under the microscope.

Year 1 with the Raiders was a wash, but Year 2 is when the great ones show signs and the shaky ones start getting exposed. Russell looked steadier and drew raves from coach Lane Kiffin in the camps this spring and summer. But is Russell, the No. 1 overall pick two drafts ago, ready for defenses that are fine-tuned to stop everything he likes to do?

The perfect precedent for Russell: Carson Palmer, who went No. 1 overall to Cincinnati in 2003 and didn't throw a pass that season but didn't leave much doubt once he took over in 2004.

In his first starting season, Palmer threw 18 touchdown passes, completed 60.9 percent of his attempts, helped the team to an 8-8 season and gave off the general vibe of a franchise quarterback in the making.

Russell is two years younger than Palmer was in 2004, but he has the same rocket arm and carries the same responsibilities. If the Raiders hope to pull out of their recent run of squalor, Russell must be at least as good as Palmer and probably better, starting right now.

Story line No. 3: Alex Smith, in his fourth season, either ends the 49ers' quarterback confusion by September, or he's done as their quarterback of the future, present or any other time frame.

If he can't beat out Hill in camp and the exhibitions, Smith will stick around and might win back the job at some point -- but he'll never be thought of the same.

The perfect precedent for Smith: Eli Manning, who was selected No. 1 overall a year before Smith and bounced back from early criticism to play spectacularly down the stretch for the Giants last season, his fourth as a pro.

The bad precedent: David Carr, the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 who got whacked around right away in Houston and never came close to stardom. (Current role: a backup to Manning.)

Story line No. 4: Al Davis' big-money splurge means that splurge recipients Javon Walker (if healthy), Tommy Kelly, Gibril Wilson, DeAngelo Hall and Kwame Harris will be watched very carefully this summer.

But also, the premium players who haven't gotten big long-term money, such as Nnamdi Asomugha (yet to sign one-year franchise tender, and might skip some time) and Derrick Burgess, might not have their hearts in training camp unless they get paid. Which might lead to disruptions in September and October.

The perfect precedent for Davis: the Bronx Zoo-era New York Yankees, who fought each other, fought for attention, fought for contracts, and still won games.

The bad precedent: every other team in sports history that was torn apart by financial disparities and a lack of leadership.

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