SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- I was thinking when I pulled into the San Francisco 49ers training facility, the once state-of-the-art Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre, how much times have changed for the 49ers.
Because I couldn't pull into the place.
On Monday, the first steel beams were laid in place for the 49ers' new stadium -- set to open in August 2014 -- and there was the core of a steel structure in the parking lot and street in front of the building where I'd usually park when reporting on the 49ers. So now parking is on the opposite side of the complex.
Progress is everywhere. When I talked with GM Trent Baalke up in his second floor office, he pointed out his window at the new $1.75 million indoor-outdoor weight-training facility being built; that should open this fall. The practice fields were dug up after the 2011 season and replaced with sturdy sod. The stadium will be a green one, with solar panels set to provide all the electricity needed for the game-day operation of the place. And there will be a huge 49er Hall of Fame inside the place; former 49er PR czar Jerry Walker is organizing it.
On the practice field Monday, I met the new team president, Gideon Yu, who CEO Jed York hired from Facebook. I looked out and saw a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The NFC's best defense in 2011 -- the stingiest in both yards and points allowed -- was back intact. How often does a top defense in the Free Agency Era return all 11 starters? The Niners are doing it. On offense, Randy Moss beat corners Carlos Rogers and Perrish Cox in one-on-one drills; who knows if he'll be able to put a Mossian season together, but the reviews are all good so far. LaMichael James, the quick Oregon rookie, and Brandon Jacobs, the giant ex-Giant runner motivated to prove the Super Bowl champs made a big mistake by letting him go, began to show the new dimensions Jim Harbaugh hopes to have at his disposal.
There were times, many times, I never thought I'd see all things Niner hum so smoothly. For eight years before last season, San Francisco hadn't had a winning season. The team kept butting its head against walls trying to get a new stadium built in and around San Francisco. But York, in charge here since late 2008, kept at it and finally got the shovels in the ground in Santa Clara. He hired Baalke, a Bill Parcells disciple, and wooed Harbaugh after his Orange Bowl season at Stanford, and now the personnel and coaching side seem to be set for a few years.
Short-term the 49ers might be limited by the passing game, though Baalke has upgraded Alex Smith's options (Moss, Mario Manningham) in the offseason. Long-term this is the best I've felt about the 49ers since Steve Young walked off the field for the last time in 1999. The NFL has long wrung its hands about the three California franchises (and the fourth one it wants to see in Los Angeles someday) because of stadium issues. But scratch one off the list. The NFL shouldn't have any worries about the 49ers for a long time.
Now for your email:
THE MARKET FOR MIKE WALLACE. "I would be very curious to see what the market would be for Mike Wallace. As you pointed out once Antonio Brown broke out Wallace only had 300 receiving yards in eight games. Wallace is a true talent and and I really love seeing him fly by defensive backs. But he is a one-trick pony, the fly or the drag. Those are the only consistent routes the guy runs. I am a long time Steelers fan but I would love for the Steelers to trade him and get some additional picks or players. I just don't think he is Larry Fitzgerald good. Trade him for a 1st and 2nd round pick.''-- From Jeremy, of Moncton, New Brunswick
Doubt they could get a first-round pick for him. I fear Wallace has overplayed his hand. This season in the NFL, paying a wide receiver $10 million a year on average -- in addition to the draft-choice compensation it would cost -- is not something many teams would consider. With the cap relatively flat this year and next, this is the way teams think: Why pay a very good receiver $10 million a year, plus surrender a top prospect plus the cost certainty of what the top prospect would earn over the next four years? I don't think the Steelers will trade Wallace, and if they were inclined to consider it, the market would be poor.
I DESERVE THE COLD SHOULDER FROM THE SAINTS. "I initially bristled at the fact that the Saints coaches were refusing to speak to you because of your reporting about the pay-for-performance scandal, but I can absolutely see why they wouldn't. Their defensive captain is suing the league for making false statements against him, they all believe that Goodell fabricated and/or exaggerated most of this story, and that it all was done by telling you what to write and how to frame the story. Despite the fact that everyone involved steadfastly has denied the 'bounty' bit, you still don't seem inclined to seriously question Goodell about his evidence or his motives. It certainly makes me think that the real 'cost of doing business' in the modern NFL is that media don't think they can question Goodell and coaches would be foolish to 'trust' that they would get a fair shake.''-- From Nola-Lou, of Louisville
Let me ask you a question: Why would the commissioner of the National Football League take one of the great feel-good franchises in the league, a team that lifted a city that the NFL actively worked to save, and drag it through the dirt with, as you say, a fabricated or exaggerated story? Give me a reason. Please.
Does the NFL have enough evidence to ding the Saints for a total sanction of 77 games? I don't think so. Does the NFL have evidence of a wide-ranging pay-for-performance system over a three-year period -- which is illegal? Yes. You could be right about the exaggerated bounty portion of the story. We haven't seen overwhelming evidence of it, though we did see evidence that Roman Harper was credited $1,000 for knocking Brandon Jacobs out of a 2009 game. The NFL is convinced of Vilma's guilt because multiple sources said he offered teammates $10,000 to knock Kurt Warner or Brett Favre out of a playoff game. That's the big point of contention.
As for my role in this, I accept the criticism and understand it. It doesn't do me any good to defend myself because you and most people won't believe me anyway. I try to present both sides of a story. It's up to you to decide if you agree or disagree with it.
MORE ON THE SAINTS. "I'm a lifelong fan of the Saints. I lived in New Orleans as a very young child and some of my earliest memories include watching the Saints every Sunday afternoon on a small fuzzy black and white television with tin foil on the rabbit ears. Later we moved not far from Atlanta and though I was the new kid in a sea of Falcon fans, I dug my heels in and remained true to my team. I proudly wore an old Saints t-shirt under my football pads all through middle and high school. I've never had the opportunity to attend a professional football game, but I hope someday soon to bring my children to watch the team they now cheer for alongside their father.
All of that to say, while I will always be a fan of the New Orleans Saints, I appreciate how you covered the bounty story. There is no way to make that bitter pill easy to swallow, so you just gave it to us straight up. It has been a good reminder to me that as I help my kids enjoy a team, in the end, this is just entertainment. Professional athletes/coaches/teams must be held accountable for their actions. We have both legal as well as moral obligations. The success or failure of an athlete, whether on or off the field, does not hold one ounce of sway over who we are as individuals. Thank you Mr. King, keep up the good work.''-- From Michael, of Crestview, Fla.
Thanks, Michael. You should keep rooting for the Saints. It's a great franchise with great fans and a fun team to watch.
STOP PICKING ON THE JAGS. "I love reading your columns, but this little gem bugs me enough to write: 'Shad Khan's a smart businessman, but he's also a fan who doesn't want to incur the wrath of his tenuous fan base.' Tenuous? Tenuous? Why did you need to say that? There are several more tenuous fan bases around the league than Jacksonville. Nobody's seriously talking about the Jags moving to LA. We haven't had a blackout in three years, while the other two Florida teams have. Yes, the Jags took advantage of rules allowing the prevention of blackouts, but those same rules are available to other teams who've had blackouts. How about another adjective to describe the fan base that doesn't try to stir up old misconceptions about the Jags?''-- From Brett Godard, of Neptune, Beach, Fla.
Because I think the fan base is on a slippery slope there. You think if the Jags go 3-13 this year that there will be a 95 percent season-ticket-renewal rate? The team has done a good job rallying the community to support the team in the last couple of years, but I'm not sure the Jags are out of the woods when it comes to the long-term fan support.