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Prospecting for fool’s gold in the 49ers preseason

In exhibition games, 49ers players you haven’t seen much before often look like stars. They are almost never stars. #KSWOF

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers
Not pictured: Anybody worth getting really excited about
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s a rite of passage, happening in living rooms all over our country every August. Veteran NFL fans who know better convince themselves that a player fighting for a spot on their team’s roster is a diamond in the rough. Not only make the team, they could very well become a star. Why? Well, because they shredded the third-string run defense of the Minnesota Vikings in a preseason game. Or because they tore up the secondary of the Jacksonville Jaguars — never mind it was the fourth quarter of the first preseason game and the defensive backs in the game at the time might be stocking shelves at CostCo in a month.

I’ve seen it happen time and time again over the years. Usually, the one I see it happening to is me. I’ve been falling in love with guys on the fringes of NFL rosters due to deceptive performances against questionable competition in meaningless games for as long as I can remember. And it’s not just limited to the San Francisco 49ers either. I still vividly remember watching Blake Bortles in the preseason as a rookie, and thinking “I think I was wrong about this guy — he looks like he could be a star.” (SPOILER ALERT: Blake Bortles is not a star.)

Of course it’s much more tempting to believe a player on your own team’s productivity is real, despite logic and years of experience telling you it’s probably a fluke. And clearly, I am not the only one to suffer from this affliction. We all remember Kory Sheets, and the alternate destiny where he WAS OUR FUTURE — you know, the timeline where the mafia didn’t control NFL roster machinations. And while I would’ve never written a FanPost like this, or dreamed this big, I was also impressed by Sheets that preseason. It was hard not to be.

When a guy is making defenders miss and trucking dudes on the way to the end zone, it’s easy to forget those defenders might be missing and getting trucked because they’re not quite good enough to play in the NFL.

It’s more than that though. It’s about hope — a good thing, maybe the best of things — so as humans we’re always looking for that winning lottery ticket. And as longtime football fans we’ve been trained to evaluate talent for years by watching them play against lesser talent. That’s how I became convinced Randy Moss and Ben Roethlisberger were future stars after seeing them play one bowl game each. We see ourselves as amateur scouts, and only really need one example to point to when we were right about a player to believe we could be again.

For me, the gateway drug was John Taylor. When I saw him in the preseason as a kid, I just knew the young wide receiver from Delaware State was a star. I told anyone who’d listen he was the next Jerry Rice. Unheralded? Check. Lacking measurables? Check. From a small school? Check. And when he had a problem dropping passes, it only solidified my belief: “Rice had a problem with drops, too!” Never mind that he was a 7th round pick, rather than a 1st rounder. Never mind the defenders he was burning were third-string cornerbacks. He was going to be a star, no doubt about it.

Of course, he wasn’t Rice, but he was a star. So I was right. But I took from that a bad lesson: I can spot a player. I can find a future star just by watching him play, regardless of the competition. This gave birth to The John Taylor Postulate — wherein, once you’ve spotted a player who has gotten little to no fanfare, identified him as a star-in-waiting after being impressed with his play in exhibition games, and seen him make good on that prediction, you are forever cursed to see that same potential in other exhibition game standouts who will never live up to your expectations.

I remember going into 1995 convinced the 49ers would be okay letting standout running back Ricky Watters leave in free agency, because they had a potential future star in his backup, Derek Loville, the all-time leading rusher at Oregon. Why? Well, because in 1994 he looked great against every run defense he faced — in exhibition games. In the regular season, he was ordinary. But Watters also had an ordinary year running the ball that season (877 yards and a 3.7 ypc average). So after dominating the league and winning the Super Bowl, the Niners thought they could afford to let Watters leave in free agency. They had the same confidence in Loville that I did — unfortunately. In 1995, despite starting all 16 games for a world champion featuring Steve Young, Jerry Rice, and Brent Jones on offense, Loville rushed for just 723 yards on a 3.3 ypc average. He did total 662 yards receiving on an impressive 87 catches, but without the threat of a running game, the 49ers became vulnerable, and lost at home in the first round of the playoffs to Green Bay.

Though Loville never made it as a starter in the NFL, he hung around as a backup. And he picked his teams well, winning three Super Bowls — one with the 49ers and two as Terrell Davis’ backup in Denver. Unfortunately, things have not gone well for him in retirement. And considering that John Taylor also got into some trouble with drugs in his day, it seems I might have a type.

My peak irrational preseason excitement had to be my crush of quarterback Nate Davis in 2009 and 2010. In back-to-back preseasons, Davis practically leapt off the screen, leading the team to 4th quarter comebacks, and displaying impressive playmaking ability. Don’t believe me? Then listen to Chris Collinsworth compare Davis to John Elway on national TV.

Later in the game, Collinsworth would say “I don’t know what else you have to see out of Nate Davis. This young man...his feet are quick. His release is quick. He’s seeing the field. He’s not hesitating, and he’s got a rocket.” So better men than me have also proven susceptible to fool’s gold. Like, this guy for instance.

Before you non-Davis lovers get all high and mighty, remember this was before Jim Harbaugh arrived and Alex Smith transformed from mistake-prone to mistake-averse. The team was an annual disappointment. We were sick of seeing the mediocrity of Smith, Shawn Hill, et al. We were still recovering from J.T. O’Sullivan-related trauma for crying out loud! Suddenly, there was a young, athletic quarterback, making dynamic plays. He even made Jason Hill look good — repeatedly. The part of my brain explaining this was all at the end of exhibition games against future CFL players was shouted down by the part screaming “Look at that throw! So poised!”

Again, I chose poorly. Davis was known to have a learning disability, was accused of being immature and unmotivated, and had his work ethic questioned publicly by his coach. So it’s probably no surprise he never made anything out of his football career — two years after being cut by the 49ers in 2010, he had bounced from the Seahawks to the Colts to something called the Amarillo Venom of the Lone Star Football League, where he can’t even air out his cannon without the risk of breaking a fan’s nose. But wait, there’s a happy ending!

On July 13, 2013, they faced the Laredo Rattlesnakes, where they won 70–69, winning back-to-back championships in the LSFL. Davis won the MVP of the Game.[7]

Nate Davis: Championship QB and MVP. Maybe I really can pick ‘em.

Or maybe not. In recent years, I’ve fallen for the likes of Ricardo Lockette, Quinton Patton (though not on this play), B.J. Daniels (not to be confused with B.J. Thomas, the “Hooked on a Feeling” singer), and Glenn Winston.

Of course, it always helps when the holes open wide and you’re barely touched, but as you can tell from the commentary, Troy Aikman and Joe Buck couldn’t help but be impressed with Winston. Though probably not as impressed as he was with himself. I wasn’t making reservations in Canton for these guys or anything, but I thought they all could have a bright future with the team to varying degrees. And in my defense, Winston did end up helping the 49ers on the field.

That’s usually the final stage of the fool’s gold saga — the player gets cut and picked up elsewhere, where they gently fade away, never coming back to haunt your team. I understand the phenomenon, but I’m powerless to stop it. The only question is, who will it be this year?

A skill position player in all likelihood. Though pass rushers and defensive backs can show up on the radar from time to time, it’s easier to write them off due to the competition — they’re often going up mano a mano against someone you’ve never heard off. It’s harder to write off a RB slicing through a team’s entire run defense, or a WR beating multiple defenders, or a QB dicing up a secondary. I’m confident C.J. Beathard and the other backup QB’s are who we thought they were, so that’s likely out. There are a couple of WRs who could stoke the hype machine by becoming preseason standouts, most notably Dante Pettis — though some might say his draft pedigree takes him out of consideration. The same could be said for Joe Williams at RB, but his destiny has already been foretold.

So my top candidate would be Williams. If he goes off this preseason, I won’t just be on the bandwagon, I’ll be driving it. And maybe even choreographing a dance as tribute.