Ron Agostini

To NFL: Beware the sheriff

Raiders, 49ers not victims of Goodell's reign; season kicks off for most today

Only the nastiest, strongest and most determined survive in the NFL.

But enough about new Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Truth be told, Goodell has fashioned himself as the new sheriff in town, the man willing to stake his reputation on strong-arming bad-actor players back in line. His agenda, as transparent as Terrell Owens' gamesmanship, exposes his theory that the NFL had to crack down on some low-brow personal conduct.

So far, Michael Vick, Adam "Pacman" Jones and others have proven correct Goodell's instincts. Goodell talks about protecting "the shield," a reference to the exalted NFL logo but, more important, the image behind that logo. For the league to remain the world's largest ATM for owners, TV and other interests, the shield must be shined, not tarnished.

Goodell has bet the success of his tenure on that idea.

Meanwhile, we've reached a most refreshing time, when talking about strip joints and dogfights finally is shoved to the periphery. The actual game, the blocking and tackling stuff, takes over with the Oakland Raiders' first game today at home against the Detroit Lions. The 49ers follow with their first Monday night appearance in four years, a NFC West meeting with the visiting Arizona Cardinals.

It's been a while since we've written these words before Week 1: Both teams will show improvement this season, perhaps not playoff-worthy improvement, but necessary steps in an often unforgiving league. And Goodell's hammer hasn't yet touched down in Northern California.

The 49ers enter the third year of the Mike Nolan Era as frisky colts eager to try out their fresh legs. They're getting younger, faster and, well, better. The best sign was rookie tackle Joe Staley beating out veteran Kwame Harris, one of the final reminders of the failed regime of former General Manager Terry Donahue.

The 49ers plunged to 2-14 before Nolan arrived, then spiked to 4-12 and to 7-9 in 2006. Other teams have improved faster, always a possibility in a league which mandates parity, but the 49ers' progress has been slow, incremental and not without some growing pains.

Continuing the upward curve depends on Alex Smith, the third-year quarterback and the source of much exhaling a year ago. Smith threw one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions after he was chosen No. 1 in the 2005 NFL Draft. His hands were too small, the talent around him too weak, which was why the word "bust" often cropped up in the same sentence as "Smith."

His development last year, coupled with the arrival of workhorse running back Frank Gore, infused the 49ers with their first bona fide hope since the Steve Mariucci years. Better still, Smith's confidence has climbed in tandem with the upgrading of his wide receivers. If Smith stalls, however, so will the 49ers.

The matter lacks such clarity across the bay. The Raiders have won only 11 games the last three years, two fewer than the 49ers, and they've staggered into a mud puddle caused by a poor coaching hire (Art Shell) and the signing of a miscast star (Randy Moss).

The best news here is that both are gone, and the Raiders already appear to be better off. Wins and losses aside, they've featured a new sense of purpose under new coach Lane Kiffin, whose focus reminds observers of another young coach who made good in Oakland -- Jon Gruden.

The Raiders' defense is first-rate. Their offense is not. Step 1 to fix the latter long-term is the signing of JaMarcus Russell, the Raiders' future quarterback. Trouble is, they collide today with the prospect they could have annexed in Russell's place, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

I think the Raiders have a better chance than the 49ers, however, to win Game 1. Lions quarterback Jon Kitna vs. the Raider secondary is a matchup that tilts toward the Silver and Black. Kiffin's Raiders have displayed a faster tempo and better direction, qualities that should extend into the regular season. Anticipating months of success with Josh McCown calling signals, however, is a way-out-there reach.

The view from here: 6-10 for the Raiders, 8-8 for the 49ers, and if anyone even jaywalks, they will hear from the new sheriff in town.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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