2010 NFL Draft: 49ers Legend Roger Craig Talks Niners, Draft, and Fishing

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IApril 21, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 20:  Running back Roger Craig #33 of the San Francisco 49ers looks for room to run during the 1990 NFC Championship game against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park on January 20, 1991 in San Francisco, California.  The Giants won 15-13.  (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
George Rose/Getty Images

You can cast 1,000,000 times, but without a bite you're just throwing a worm around with a stick.


Yes, catching a good one takes patience and luck.


I got lucky yesterday, when Bobb Bartels gave me an offer I couldn't refuse. Next thing I knew, I was hooked up—and talking with 49ers legend Roger Craig about the 2010 NFL Draft, just 48 hours before NFL teams go on the clock.


On which running back most reminded him of himself coming into the NFL, Craig noted "It's smaller backs this year—Spiller, Best, but a guy I'd say is a hard-nosed runner is the kid from Stanford, Toby Gerhart. A real bulldozer type of guy. Cut and run, he doesn't hesitate to get up-field, and does that really well."


On how Glenn Coffee could do this year: "It's kind of strange—the first year you're learning so much and they're throwing so much at you, you kind of calm down and relax and basically know what your responsibilities are and you know what to expect. He could have a breakout year. It depends on how they utilize Frank (Gore) and him, but it's a matter of getting playing time. If he plays, he's going to get better."


On which offensive lineman he would like opening holes if he was taking handoffs in the backfield:  "(Brian Bulaga) from Iowa is really good, I'm from Iowa and I've heard he's been blowing some holes open...he'll step up to the plate and do a good job at the next level. Iowa's always been able to produce good linemen as well as Nebraska."


On who he would take if he had the first overall pick this year: "Ndamukong Suh, baby. He changes the game, but the 49ers just don't have picks that high to get him."


"I've been hearing talk that Spiller looks like he might be a guy they're going to go after, but I think they should get a lineman. You can never have enough linemen, offensively or defensively. You need guys up front that win battles for you, especially to protect our quarterback...Alex Smith...and open up holes for Frank to run through."


When asked if any quarterbacks in this year's draft had caught his eye: "I wouldn't go out and look for another quarterback, that's what they really don't need to do...When you go out and get another quarterback, they have to learn the system and it takes time. We don't have that kind of time. We've got Alex Smith and we're seven points away from making the playoffs last year.


"If we beat the Colts, the Vikings and Seattle, we're 11-5. That's playoff numbers. That's how close we were last year. I think Alex is finally mature enough he knows what he has to do. We don't have to keep reminding him...You're not going to have success at 20 years old being a quarterback in the NFL. It took Joe (Montana) two or three years before he really stepped on the field and it took Steve Young about six or seven years before Joe gave it up...watch Alex do some damage this year."


No rookies caught his eye though. "There's no rookie in the draft that caught my eye as far as far as a quarterback. All the quarterbacks coming out this year are suspect—suspect not to have success early in their career, trust me. They've got a lot of learning curve before they can step up to that plate. It's going to take time."


We even played a little rookie running back word association with some of my favorite prospects:


C.J. Spiller—"Very Explosive"


Ryan Mathews—"He's elusive"


Jahvid Best—"Game Changer"


Toby Gerhart—"Heart of a lion."


Montario Hardesty—"Shock. He could shock some people"


Ben Tate—"Auburn's always got aggressive backs. Very aggressive."


Joe McKnight—"Clone of Reggie Bush"


LeGarrette Blount—"Awe man, he could be a beast. He keeps his head, he'll be all right."


While reeling this one in, I thought back to bait I'd been using. It was being a Husker and 49er fan that got me conversing with this class act from the golden age of 49er football.


Craig's transition from Tom Osborne's option offense at Nebraska to Walsh's West Coast in San Francisco always impressed me and spawned a theory in my mind that backs taking laterals and turning corners on option plays translate well to taking screen and swing passes. I had to get Roger Craig's take on this.


"I was prepared when I came to the 49er's organization. I was prepared because I left a great program at Nebraska that was all about winning...We only lost about five games my whole four years at Nebraska. That's an amazing record to have that kind of success, so leaving a program like that is only going to prepare you for the NFL."


"I was ready to take on anything Coach Walsh was going to throw at me. Of course I had to adapt catching the ball...I redeveloped even when I got there. I caught a lot of passes and I had to run routes so running patterns was tough. I never did that at Nebraska. We did the option and that was it. That was the only pass I caught."


Down goes my old West-Coast-Option theory. Big-school preparation, however, is very real.


Having been a big fish in a very big pond, Craig speaks well of how the experiences he had in Lincoln readied him for the NFL.


"It was a great transition, I was prepared for the battles. I played in big games before so it wasn't new to me to be in a stadium of—the 49ers have (a capacity of) about 67,000, I'm used to 75,000 every home game screaming and yelling—so big stadiums and big crowds did not make me afraid or nervous. I loved being on that stage because that's the kind of stage I was accustomed to playing at Nebraska."


I also talked with Craig briefly about fellow Big Red alumni Marlon Lucky, who now plays football in the shadows, tucked away in the North East, playing for the Colonials in Hartford, Connecticut. "I thought he was pretty good."


If I'm not being transparent enough here, I'm hinting that SF should get Lucky into camp this summer. Roger didn't think it was too bad of an idea. "For some reason he fell off the face of the earth, but I thought he played real well when I watched him."


Two days before the draft, this talk with a childhood hero was the best catch I've had.


So what's with the angling metaphors you ask?


Not only did Craig grow up fishing, and he continues angling today, but it had been a 49er tradition. "I enjoyed our little fish derbies we would have with the 49ers. Bill Walsh would have them at the end of training camp to break up the monotony. He never did go fishing with George Siefert but did catch a 55 lb. king salmon on the Kenai with Bubba Paris once," Craig said.

Roger is currently partnered with 24-hour fishing lifestyle TV channel WFN , and is looking for one lucky person to take fishing as part of a Bay Area promotion.  The promotion kicks off the launch of a Web site at www.wfnbayarea.com , a site specifically dedicated to fishing in the Bay Area.

Mr. Craig will pick one lucky angler to win the “fishing trip of a lifetime” with him, hitting one of the Bay Area’s best fisheries. The winner and Craig will have their fishing adventure covered by a WFN crew, and it will air on the network to give the lucky winner a rare chance to appear on national television.

The grand prize also includes $1,000 in cash and WFN merchandise.  Also, one early bird contestant will win two luxury suite tickets to the June 26, San Francisco Giants vs. Boston Red Sox game.

Fans should to go to www.wfnbayarea.com to enter for their chance to win. Just  answer the question “Why is everyday a great day for fishing?” 

Fans will also have the chance to meet and get an autograph from Craig from 11 a.m.-Noon on Saturday, May 22.   He’ll join the WFN team at Hi’s Tackle Box to host an autograph signing at 40 Chestnut Avenue in South San Francisco; (650) 588-1200.

The only stone remaining unturned is the issue of the Hall of Fame—specifically why isn't Roger getting his due in Canton, Ohio? He's the only one on the all decade team who's not in the Hall of Fame. His numbers match up well against many of the members who have been inducted and his three rings speak loudly for themselves. On January 20, 1985, in Superbowl XIX, he rushed for 58 yards, caught seven passes for 77 yards, and became the first player ever to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl.

Add in that the next year he became the first player in NFL history to run and receive for at least 1,000 yards in the same season. He ran for 1,050 yards on 214 carries and led the NFL with 92 catches for 1,016 yards. He also scored a team high 15 touchdowns.

But Roger won't push the envelope. He's a class act from another era: a dinosaur (forgive me) who simply changed the game for good at the position of running back in the 1980s.

And I just happened to be lucky enough to get a chance to chat with him two days before the NFL draft—hook, line and sinker.