Bay Area teams execute puzzling offseason moves

In recent days, the Oakland Raiders signed two players with significant injury histories to huge contracts and the San Francisco 49ers gave big money to a defensive end who might not fit their defensive scheme.

And this is how the two Bay Area teams expect to reverse their culture of losing in the 21st century?

It seems hard to believe now when it's only a quaint memory, like the hippie days of Haight-Ashbury, but there was a time the NFL's power structure actually revolved around the Bay Area and not the Northeast, which has produced six of the eight Super Bowl champions this decade.

A trans-continental power shift, however, has left the two Bay Area teams floundering, both working on a streak of five consecutive losing seasons and trying to find their way out of the bog in an overpriced, under-talented free-agent market.

Consensus around the league: They haven't done it yet.

Consider the Raiders. They guaranteed more than $18 million to a defensive tackle, Tommy Kelly, coming off ACL surgery, and gave Randy Moss money -- $27 million in the first three years -- to wide receiver Javon Walker, who twice in two years underwent surgery on the same knee.

In 2007, Kelly played in seven games, Walker in eight.

Asked about Kelly, one AFC coach who plays the Raiders regularly said, "He's been hurt so much I couldn't remember who he was." And Denver, where Walker labored the last two years, thought so little of the wide receiver it wouldn't pick up a $5.4 million deal for one year.

Although Oakland is one of the league's lowest-revenue teams, Al Davis suddenly is flush with cash after taking in partners and is loose with the money because, according to one long-time NFL executive, "It's the position he's (forced to be) in because not a lot of guys want to go there."

"He's just spending somebody else's money," the executive said.

Consider the 49ers. Although they have been more restrained, opting mostly for second-tier players, they gave defensive end Justin Smith, formerly with Cincinnati, a $20 million guarantee and more than $32 million in the first four years of his contract.

But Smith is a 275-pounder who has played home games on artificial turf in a 4-3 defense, while San Francisco plays on grass, which tends to neutralize speed, and coach Mike Nolan generally prefers the 3-4, which calls for bigger defensive ends. One opponent expects the 49ers to try to use Smith as a pass-rush specialist, but the 49ers have indicated he's a full-time player, and Nolan insists his team can play the 4-3 as well as the 3-4.

At any rate, Smith's impact is questionable. He made only two sacks in 2007 and has not made as many as nine in any season of his seven-year career.

"I wouldn't classify him as a savior," said an opposing coach who's familiar with Smith. "He brings a lot of things -- a great work ethic. I think he'd be a good guy to have, but he's not a difference-maker."

At least Smith, who will be 29 in September, is not at the end of his career. The same may not be said for at least two other San Francisco signees, which seems an odd way to go for a team that's supposedly building.

Desperate for wide receivers, the 49ers signed 35-year-old Isaac Bruce, the former St. Louis Rams star whose best years are way behind him. Yet Bruce, particularly re-united with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, his former St. Louis coach, might be the best receiver on the San Francisco roster. The 49ers also signed kick returner Allen Rossum, who will be 33 by midseason.

The situation the two teams find themselves in now is far different from their not-so-distant past.

In the first 33 years after the Raiders joined the 49ers in the NFL through the 1970 merger with the American Football League, there were only three seasons in which both Bay Area teams missed the playoffs and there were no seasons in which they both had a losing record. Between the two, they won eight Super Bowls and played in 21 conference championship games during those 33 seasons.

In the last five years, however, neither team has made the playoffs and both have had losing records every year. The Raiders (19-61) and the 49ers (25-55) have the league's two worst records since 2003.

It has been a combination of bad decisions (the Raiders have had four coaches since 2003) and bad luck (the 49ers, needing a quarterback, had the first pick in the draft in 2005, a year after Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger entered the NFL).

Of course, it's possible that luck could turn, just not likely. Walker, for example, shared the league lead in receptions after two games last season before a knee problem knocked him out. By the time he came back, according to one of his coaches, second-year quarterback Jay Cutler simply had a "better feel" for the team's other receivers.

Unfortunately, that's not Oakland's only problem. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell, last year's top overall draft pick, is a strong-armed, deep thrower who might not be suited for the West Coast offense preferred by coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. Then again, Kiffin's status is tenuous, and Knapp is certain to join good friend Jim Mora when Mora becomes head coach in Seattle in 2009.

San Francisco is pinning much of its hopes to improve the league's last-ranked offense on Martz. The 49ers, whose best offensive player is running back Frank Gore, seem unconcerned by Martz's history of ignoring the running game and giving short shrift to protecting the quarterback.

Martz is San Francisco's fifth offensive coordinator in five years. While his St. Louis teams piled up great numbers, particularly early in his time, there were plenty of disconcerting signs.

Even with Orlando Pace, a probable Hall of Famer, at left tackle for the Rams, the Martz-coached teams never ranked better than 15th in the league at protecting the quarterback, based on sacks allowed per pass play. And during Martz's six years as head coach of the Rams, they led the NFL in turnovers lost three times and ranked in the bottom six the other three years, leading to an overall turnover margin of minus-66, far worst in the league during that time. And even with Marshall Faulk, only once did the Rams rank in the top half of the league in rushing.

Meanwhile, it remains uncertain who will start at quarterback for San Francisco.

Alex Smith, the first player chosen in the 2005 draft, will compete with Shaun Hill, an undrafted player who won two late-season starts in 2007, for the starting job. Smith, whose career passer rating is a dreadful 63.5, missed the end of last season after undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.

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