Report: Mike Leach hired by Washington State

Bruce Feldman and others are reporting on Twitter that Mike Leach will be named as the new head football coach at Washington State.

Leach has been sitting tight waiting for the right opportunity after he left Texas Tech in a controversial breakup at the end of the 2009 season. He’s been hanging out in Key West and doing some announcing. Leach is widely considered to be one of the best offensive minds in college football and he turned the Texas Tech program into consistent winners. His overall record at Texas Tech was 84–43.

Meanwhile, Washington State has become an embarrassment in the PAC-12 under Paul Wulff, going 9-41 over the past 4 years. To put it in perspective, Wulff is coming off his best season with the Cougars at 4-8. Washington State isn’t considered to be on of the marquee programs of the PAC-12, but the school has had some excellent teams over the years and has produced some good quarterbacks like Drew Beldsoe and high draft picks like Ryan Leaf.

Leach has helped to develop some excellent college quarterbacks. He coached Tim Couch at Kentucky and Couch became the #1 pick in the NFL draft. At Oklahoma he coached Josh Heupel and he coached Graham Harrell at Texas Tech. Michael Crabtree was considered the best receiver in college football under Leach’s supervision.

It looks like a great fit for both parties involved. Leach will bring a high-powered offense and some attitude to a program that has hit rock bottom. The PAC-12 is competitive, but Leach comes from the equally competitive Big-12 where he battled the likes of Oklahoma. Leach probably won’t elevate Washington State above USC and Oregon, but he’ll likely make them competitive. He should also do well with recruiting given his history of coaching scoring machines.

Leach also brings some baggage as well, so he’s a high risk/high reward candidate. The Adam James incident was ugly for Leach and for Texas Tech. For that reason, he didn’t get serious consideration from the biggest programs. For example, I couldn’t see Leach being considered for the open UCLA job. But Washington State is perfect. Given their recent history, what do they have to lose? At the same time, it’s a big enough program where Leach could do some serious damage and build a dangerous football team.

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Looking ahead to the 2011 fantasy season

I know, I know, with championship games still hanging in the balance, it may be a little early to start looking forward to next season, but there were a few late-season performances that got me thinking about 2011. After all, it’s never too early to find a few sleepers.

Jonathan Stewart
All right, he doesn’t qualify as a sleeper, but with DeAngelo Williams’ future in Carolina in doubt — he’s a free agent and the Panthers may not want to pony up to keep him — Jonathan Stewart could emerge as a first- or second-round fantasy RB next season. “The Daily Show” was handed the keys in Week 8 and really disappointed fantasy owners with just 30 yards on 14 carries against the Rams. He looked pretty good on just five carries (for 30 yards) against the Saints before being knocked out for two games with a concussion. But after returning in Week 12 against the Browns, he rattled off five quality rushing performances, averaging 106 rushing yards and an eye-popping 5.5 yards per carry over the last five games. Granted, the Seahawks, Browns and Cardinals were all in the bottom third against the run, but the Falcons were 13th and the Steelers were 1st, and Stewart averaged 7.4 and 3.9 ypc, respectively. (The Steelers only gave up 3.0 ypc on the season, so 3.9 is actually impressive.) The fact that Stewart was able to run like this despite zero threat of a passing attack is also encouraging. If the Panthers can find a QB (or the light goes on for Jimmy Clausen), and Williams is elsewhere next season, Stewart could be in for a big 2011.

Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham
There’s a lot of talk about the Bengals cleaning house this summer, and that includes Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Both guys can still play, but the spend-a-lot-of-money-on-receivers strategy hasn’t worked in recent years and the franchise might do well to start fresh with Simpson, Caldwell and Shipley, who have all performed well in stints during their short careers. Simpson and Caldwell are both third-year players, while Shipley is a rookie. After getting the start against a good Chargers pass defense, Simpson caught six passes for 124 yards and two TDs. He has great size and could be a solid starter if given the opportunity. Caldwell had a good sophomore season (51-432-3) as the de facto WR2 in 2009, when Laveranues Coles’ production was less than expected. His targets fell off a cliff when Owens came to town. Shipley seems destined for a long career in the slot a la Wes Welker or Danny Amendola. As for Gresham, the rookie has quietly put together a really solid first season. His 52 receptions mark just the seventh time in league history that a rookie TE has caught 50+ passes. The Bengals can save $2.5 million if they cut ties with Ochocinco and T.O. is a free agent, so the Cincinnati receiving corps could look very different next season. Of course, these wideouts aren’t going to have much success if there isn’t a good QB throwing the ball The franchise has to decide what it wants to do with Carson Palmer, who has had his ups and downs this season (but looked awfully good throwing to this crew against the Chargers on Sunday).

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Will the 49ers be more explosive under Mike Johnson?

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 20:  Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes against the Philadelpia Eagles defense at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

It’s hard to argue that the 49ers aren’t the most disappointing team in the NFL thus far. While the Vikings, Giants and Chargers have played below expectations themselves, the Niners were supposed to be well on their way to winning the weak NFC West by now.

Instead, they’re 0-3 and were the first team to make a major coaching change earlier this week when they fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye on Monday. Mike Johnson will take over the position and already he’s vowing to do things differently than his predecessor.

Johnson wants to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers by spreading things out and giving defenses more looks. Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis have been underutilized so far and the hope is to confuse opponents with different packages.

Of course, Raye wanted Crabtree and Davis to get their hands on the ball more too, but when Sundays came he would stick with a more conservative approach. Communication issues between Raye, head coach Mike Singletary and quarterback Alex Smith only complicated things and subsequently led to Raye’s firing earlier this week.

The Niners take on a Falcon team this Sunday that ranks 21st in the league in total defense, but is only allowing 15.3 points per game. They’re prone to giving up the big play, so if Johnson is aggressive Smith may be able to connect with Crabtree and/or Davis in the vertical passing game. On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be a good matchup for the 49ers. But considering Atlanta is coming off an emotional victory over the Saints and could be due for a letdown, this is a situation San Fran may be able to take advantage of.

But it’s up to Johnson to deliver on what he’s saying now. Plenty of coaches and coordinators talk a good game during the week but then when game time approaches, some of them lose their gumption. They call plays too close to the vest and before they know it, their team is down by two scores and they’re playing catchup.

We’ll see how Johnson fares in his debut.

Singletary calls out Smith and Crabtree for Week 1 performance

PHILADELPHIA - DECEMBER 20:  Michael Crabtree #15 of the San Francisco 49ers rushes against the Philadelpia Eagles defense at Lincoln Financial Field on December 20, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Following the 49ers’ 31-6 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday, head coach Mike Singletary reportedly “called out” quarterback Alex Smith and receiver Michael Crabtree for their performances according to CSN Bay Area News.

“Alex (Smith) is our quarterback,” Singletary declared. “At no time did I think about putting David Carr into the football game.”

That is what Singletary said in his remarks to the media. But in the 49ers’ locker room, Singletary “called out” Smith, receiver Michael Crabtree and the offensive line, a team source told Comcast SportsNet after the game.

By all accounts, Smith had a very good offseason. He demonstrated a greater knowledge of the 49ers’ offense and earned his status as a team captain. But there was no carryover into the regular-season opener.
Smith and Crabtree certainly did not grow as a tandem during training camp. Their work together was limited, as Crabtree never stepped onto the field during the exhibition season because of a neck strain.

Crabtree was called out by teammate Vernon Davis for his perceived lack of effort during the offseason, so it’s not a total surprise to see everything come to a head on Sunday. Smith’s work ethic hasn’t been questioned, but the bottom line is that if he and his top receiver aren’t on the same page then that’s a problem. Obviously Singletary went to lengths to talk to both players following the game, so hopefully the team’s issues will be ironed out by Week 2.

Either way, it wasn’t a very pretty start to the season for a team that is expected to challenge for the NFC West crown this year.

2010 NFL Preview: NFC West Predictions

MIAMI - DECEMBER 14:  Head coach Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers looks at a replay while taking on the Miami Dolphins at Dolphin Stadium on December 14, 2008 in Miami, Florida. The Dolphins defeated the 49ers 14-9.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

While it’s counterpart in the AFC is likely in store for a rough year as well, the NFC West is by far the worst division in football. The Cardinals are going through a major transition year, the Rams will be rebuilding for a couple of years and nobody quite knows what to make of Pete Carroll’s Seahawks.

That leaves the 49ers, who don’t come without their weaknesses but is definitely the team to beat this year in the West. Now it’s just up to Mike Singletary’s squad to execute.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC West in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season.

1. 49ers

What to Like: As you would expect from a Mike Singletary-led team, the 49ers can play a little defense. They finished a very average 15th in total defense last season, but stats don’t tell the whole story. The Niners finished sixth against the run last year by allowing just 97 yards per game, largely due to the play of inside linebacker Patrick Willis, who led the league in tackles. Takeo Spikes continues to be a steady veteran presence and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is highly underrated. Staying on that side of the ball, Justin Smith may not put up flashy numbers, but he’s easily one of the best 3-4 ends in the league. Offensively, the Niners have a solid core in Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and second-year player Michael Crabtree. With more consistency at quarterback, this won’t be the dreadful unit it was at times last season.
What Not to Like: The offensive line is still a concern, although removing Adam Snyder from the starting right guard spot is a plus. There are high hopes for Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis, but it’s usually not wise to rely on one rookie lineman, nevertheless two rookie linemen. There have also been mixed reviews on Alex Smith this offseason. Some think he’s ready to turn the corner, while others believe he’ll probably be just as inconsistent as ever. OC Jimmy Raye will try to balance the pass more with the run this year, which is a good thing because the team’s strengths is at running back. But Smith still has to step up and make plays when opponents successfully take away the run. Defensively, this is a unit that gave up 229.4 yards per game through the air last season, which means it needs better production out of Nate Clements, Shawntae Spencer and especially, free safety Dashon Goldson (who struggled in coverage last season).
Keep Your Eye On: The two rookie O-linemen
Iupati and Davis might be the difference between this team challenging for a division title and it failing to deliver on high expectations. Both players are excellent prospects but they’re going to have to grow up in a hurry because this team expects to compete this season.
The Final Word: If the Niners played in a more competitive division I’d be saying something along the lines of, “Improving team, but will probably come up just short of making the postseason.” But since they’ll be able to feast on the trash that is the NFC West, there’s little to no excuse for San Fran to win a division title this year. I’m not completely sold on Smith turning a new leaf, but there’s enough talent on both sides of the ball for this team to produce a 9-7 or 10-6 record. I don’t foresee them advancing in the playoffs unless a couple of players overachieve, but I still think this is a solid football team and you know they’re going to compete every week under Singletary. Plus, don’t forget that the year the Cardinals went to the Super Bowl, they were highly average in the regular season, only to turn it on during the playoffs. I’m not saying…I’m just saying.

San Francisco 49ers 2010 Question Mark: Offensive Line

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