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Harbaugh takes wrong route in fueling 49ers' QB controversy; mail

Before we get started on another very serious day of football coverage, I bring you the back page of today's New York Post.

Thought you'd like it.

***

I do not support Jim Harbaugh's decision to make the 49ers quarterback derby a derby. Which apparently he's going to do in the wake of backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick's other-worldly performance Monday night in San Francisco's 32-7 beatdown of the Bears. Afterward, asked who his starting quarterback is, Alex Smith or Kaepernick, Harbaugh said, "We'll see. I usually tend to go with the guy who's got the hot hand, and we've got two quarterbacks that have got a hot hand.

Alex Smith, just three weeks removed from one of the best games I've seen a quarterback play in a long time (read my dissection here, in my Nov. 5 column) has done absolutely nothing to lose the job -- except get concussed. But I understand why Harbaugh is doing what he's doing. This is from the time I spent around the 49ers the day Kaepernick was drafted 19 months ago:

Harbaugh wanted a baller out of his quarterback. He wanted a player who loves to practice, loves to learn, loves to play. As a friend of Harbaugh's and GM Trent Baalke's, Trent Dilfer, told me in a quote I used in Sports Illustrated this week: "Kaepernick's a football junkie, and he'll be trained 24/7/365 by Jim Harbaugh to be an NFL quarterback. Every aspect of his life will be about being a quarterback. Perfect guy for Harbaugh." As another draft analyst told me Sunday: "Harbaugh drafted himself.''

When San Francisco drafted Kaepernick, it was about 3:17 p.m. in Turlock, Calif., south of Sacramento, where Kaepernick lives. That's about 90 minutes from Santa Clara, where the 49ers train. And when Harbaugh got on the phone to welcome him to the team, he told him maybe they could meet halfway in the morning, then drive together the rest of the way to Santa Clara for his welcome-to-the-49ers meeting. Harbaugh just couldn't wait to get going, and even if he wasn't going to be able to talk football much because of the lockout, he wanted to start getting to know his new quarterback.

Kaepernick trumped that. "Coach, I'm only 90 minutes away,'' he said. "I can come over right now.'' And the Niners ended up taking him up on the offer. Kaepernick was in the building, grinning like a 10-year-old digging into birthday cake, by 6:30 p.m.

"Whether it's checkers or the Super Bowl,'' Kaepernick told me, "I've got to win. We had such a good time when coach Harbaugh came to work me out at Nevada. His energy is what got to me. I thought, 'I'd really like to play for this guy.' The first thing we did was throw the ball to each other, and he made it a contest ... Who could throw five perfect spirals in a row? Then who can throw the ball through the goalposts from difficult angles? He just wanted to compete with me and see how I would react.''

Colin Kaepernick has just made life as a 49ers beat writer very difficult. I don't agree with Harbaugh, and if I'm Smith, I'm supremely ticked off. But I wanted to give you a view of Harbaugh's mindset and why he's thinking the way he is.

My gut feeling is Smith will start against the Saints at New Orleans Sunday. But he'll have the shortest leash of any starter in the NFL.

***

The can of worms got opened on punter Ray Guy's candidacy for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in this column by Les Carpenter of Yahoo! Sports last week.

Then came this from Vikings punter Chris Kluwe blasting the Hall of Fame's 44 selectors (of which I am one).

My response is about halfway down this page of Monday's column.

***

Kluwe's response to my response:

The reason I wrote my open letter to the Hall of Fame committee in the way that I did was twofold:

a) Measured appeals to reason haven't worked. The simple fact that Ray Guy (or any other punter) is not in the Hall of Fame is testament to that. People have tried asking nicely for almost 20 years now and sooner or later, Mr. Guy is going to die. I'm tired of asking nicely to have an integral part of the game of football recognized on the same level as everyone else. You've all had your chance to respond to "nice."

b) It amused me. As players, we get excoriated in the sports media every week when we mess up. We're told we're terrible, that we should be replaced, that we've let everyone down, that our replacements are on the way, that we should just quit now, et cetera et cetera. Well guess what? The sports media are the ones screwing up here. Your utter refusal to acknowledge the fact that specialists are just as much a part of the game as anyone else is on par with me hitting a 20-yard punt (which I've done and been ripped for), or a quarterback throwing multiple interceptions in a game, or a linebacker blowing multiple coverages -- in short, gentlemen, the shoe is on the other foot.

You all may have the best of intentions (I know that we never set out to play poorly) but the simple fact remains that you've failed to get the job done. You suck. You're terrible. You should be replaced, you've let everyone down, and you should quit now. The only ones keeping specialists out of the Hall of Fame are the voters, and you've consistently voted, year in and year out, to perpetuate the idea that specialists just don't matter.

As far as Ray's stats, I can personally assure you that gross average is quite possibly the worst way to judge punting in the world. Coaches ask punters to sacrifice their numbers to help coverage all the time, and we do it, because THIS IS A TEAM GAME. No offense to Shane Lechler; he's a great guy and has a hell of a leg, but he's had the luxury of playing on a team whose sole drafting criteria was how fast you can run a 40-yard dash. Do you know what that translates to? Really good coverage guys on your special teams which lets you crush the ball down the middle of the field. Of course he has great numbers! He has a cannon for a leg, and a team designed to let him use it. Most of us aren't that lucky.

Sadly, like Ray said in his interview, those who haven't punted just don't get it. They don't understand giving yourself up for the good of the team. They don't understand prioritizing hangtime over distance. They don't understand that stats cannot tell the story, because the stats aren't designed to tell the story. Where is the stat for hangtime? Where is the stat for location of the kick? Where is the stat for how much field you had to work with? Hell, the NFL didn't start keeping stats on punts out of bounds until the mid-80s, and you're going to tell me that his stats aren't good enough for the Hall of Fame? WHAT stats? Why does Ray Guy belong in the Hall of Fame? Because he changed how his position was perceived. He changed the dynamic of the game. He was an extraordinary player, in a league of extraordinary players, and everyone knows it. Everyone, apparently, except for those "in charge."

As I said in my earlier p.s., there's a very simple fix for this. Change the selection criteria to 0-1 specialists, 2-5 offensive players, 2-5 defensive players, and 0-1 administrators, with a majority (or hell, even supermajority) vote required. You have the power. No one's stopping you.

***

My response, and then I'll let all of you have your say:

As I wrote to Kluwe Monday, I don't respond to yelling very well. But it seems to be a way of the new world today.

I remember Paul Zimmerman, the longtime SI writer, talking about why he never supported Guy as a Hall of Famer. He felt he was a very good punter, but he hadn't separated himself from the pack of very good punters of his day, like Jerrel Wilson. "I'm not voting for a guy just because he boomed a punt so high it hit the gondola in the Superdome,'' Zim said.

We're all different on the committee. Some feel strongly about Guy's candidacy, some don't. Same with mountains of others. I think I addressed most of what Kluwe said in his response here, but there is one thing I haven't answered that I believe merits some serious thought. It might be time for us as a committee to weigh the contributions of special teamers more seriously. I'm not sure how we can do that. Maybe it's that we should mandate one kicker, punter or predominant special teams players (such as Steve Tasker) be included among the final 15 modern-era candidates each year when we choose the Hall class. Or maybe we mandate the inclusion of one in the discussion every other year. It's something that's a valid point, seeing that we haven't elected a kicker, punter or special-teamer in the last 21 years. (Jan Stenerud, kicker, went in the Hall in '91.)

As for the "you have the power'' comment, we don't have the power. The power to change the bylaws or election procedures belongs to the Hall of Fame. The 44 selectors vote for the class each year, and we can make suggestions for a change of bylaws, but we don't change the bylaws. That is done by the Hall's board of directors. But I will suggest that we consider a bylaw to focus in a more concentrated way on special teams ... but as with many suggestions we have made over the years, I have no control whether they get adopted.

And I'll just end with this: I still don't understand why Jerrel Wilson, who was Ray Guy's peer, if only half-a-career earlier, gets zero discussion and Guy an avalanche.

***

Now it's your turn:

"In response to your Ray Guy 'defense,' I think you are completely wrong. It's not just about stats for Guy, it's also about how he changed the emphasis on the position to usher in the modern era of punters. By your reasoning, Fred Biletnikoff shouldn't be in the Hall because he only averaged 3.1 receptions per game and 47 yards per game. The NFL game has changed and you have to take in the entire argument. Guy should be a Hall of Famer.''-- From Mark H

"I think the problem you have with the Kluwe article is somewhat generational and reflects the changing face of sports journalism. Kluwe is writing in the kind of over-the-top, mock serious tone that is common currency in the looser, more cutting edge world of internet journalism. Grantland can be like this as well although maybe not as far out there as Deadspin. It's not as collegial as the old guard of sports journalism (SI being Exhibit A) but, because of that, it's sometimes a little more compelling. I think a younger readership instantly understands the half-serious irony in Kluwe's piece. It's not to be taken at face value. He means his general point, but he is intentionally being melodramatic for effect. It's a snarky, hipsterish approach that is pretty typical of the younger generation of internet writers.''-- From Aaron, of Austin, Texas

"... Civilized discourse has been lost to inflammatory opinion pieces and editorials, because it creates page views. I have read Mr. Kluwe's piece to Mr. Burns and it is disgusting, hateful, and inflammatory. You offer your approval of the Burns piece even now yet are bothered when the venom is directed at you. I am sorry but this is your own fault. Your reaction is akin to positively reinforcing a dog to attack people, and being shocked when it bites you. Saying that, I want you to know that I appreciate the way you handle social topics in your work. Whether I agree with what is said or not, your work is almost always calm, professional, and thoughtful, hallmarks of a true professional."-- From Michael, of Birmingham, Ala.

"I can understand Kluwe's point: No punters in the HOF just seems wrong. Is a punter ever going to be more worthy than a WR, QB, MLB? Probably not but that isn't the point. The HOF selection committee, again in my opinion, should understand the importance of having all phases of the game represented and "force" a punter in. It would be like Cooperstown having no 3B inducted. Baseball has a similar issue with no DH's inducted, which is also wrong after 35 years of them in the lineup.''-- From Gary Stitch, of Templeton, Cal.

"Ray Guy has a cult following like no other punter because he was a Raider with a Raider's attitude when the Raiders had attitudes. That's about all that separates him from some of the other punters. He was great but Jerrel Wilson was better.''-- From Jake Higgins, of Pensacola, Fla.

"I can respect Vikings punter Chris Kluwe for speaking up for Ray Guy and his entire profession as a whole but for me the lack of a true punter in the Hall of Fame underscores my theory that it is the easiest position in all of team sports. (I would put Major League catcher as hardest.) The punter is probably on the field the least of any member of the team (5 punts a game, maybe holding for the kicker on some teams?) and doesn't have the same pressure the place kicker has in a win or lose end of game scenario. On the rare occasion a punt is blocked, it's often the line that's blamed and if a punt is poor, it may still roll for a few extra yards and look decent in the box score. Worse, with the offensive explosion of the past 20 years or so, field position is less important than ever before. Is a great punter a great asset for a team? Sure, just look at Niners punter Andy Lee, but for me the Hall of Fame has too many options of great offensive and defensive players to consider before a punter gets in.''-- From Joe Nye, of Bears, Del