Patriots-49ers showdown lives up to the hype

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Patriots-49ers showdown lives up to the hype

From Comcast SportsNetFOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- Jim Harbaugh might have learned more about his San Francisco 49ers during 20 minutes of sleepwalking than at any other time in his two years as their coach.His 49ers turned a nearly historic collapse into a stunning victory and a playoff berth. They withstood a 28-point comeback by the New England Patriots to win 41-34 on Sunday night in the rain."Our team has now hung in in a lot of big-time pressure games," Harbaugh said. "They've overcome adversity. They've shown they can do that."Michael Crabtree took a short pass from Colin Kaepernick and sped around cornerback Kyle Arrington for a 38-yard touchdown with 6:25 to go, then David Akers made a 28-yard field goal to clinch it."We can win a shootout," Crabtree said. "Whatever it takes, that's our motto. ... We feel like we can do anything, sky's the limit."The 49ers (10-3-1) own at least a wild-card spot and play at Seattle next week with a chance to win the NFC West. A loss would bring the division race down to the final weekend.Kaepernick threw for four touchdowns, two to Crabtree, who had 107 yards receiving. The defense rattled Tom Brady at times, but also yielded 443 yards passing in a sloppy contest between two of the league's more precise teams.AFC East champion New England (10-4), which had won seven in a row, trailed 31-3 in the third quarter and lost for the first time at home in December in 21 games. The Patriots also had won 21 in a row in the second half of the schedule before San Francisco somehow regrouped late in a game it seemingly had clinched long before."I used to live next to a train station in Chicago," Harbaugh said. "And it's like the more you hear the train, the less you hear it. I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure in big games. The more you feel it, the less you feel it."San Francisco forced four turnovers, matching the number of giveaways New England had at home all season.But then the Niners began collapsing, and back came Brady and the Patriots on a 6-yard TD run by Danny Woodhead and a 1-yard dive by Brady. A 5-yard pass to Aaron Hernandez and Woodhead's 1-yard run with 6:43 remaining tied it.And just like that, San Francisco went in front again.Rookie LaMichael James broke free for a 62-yard kickoff return. On the next snap -- the third time the Niners would have a one-play TD drive -- Crabtree took a pass on the left side, spun and headed into the end zone."We faced adversity," James said. "Nobody flinched."New England turned over the ball on downs and Akers made his kick. Stephen Gostkowski added a 41-yarder for the Patriots with 38 seconds remaining, but they couldn't recover the onside kick.San Francisco led 17-3 at the half. And they looked safe after Frank Gore picked up Kaepernick's third fumble and scored on a 9-yard run, followed by Crabtree's 27-yard score in a pinpoint pass from the second-year quarterback.The defense set up both of San Francisco's TDs in the third.Dashon Goldson returned Steven Ridley's fumble 66 yards to the New England 3 before Gore found the end zone. Defensive end Aldon Smith, known for his sacks, grabbed a pass out of Hernandez's hands for his first career interception. After he was tackled, Smith ran directly to the sideline and sat down on the 49ers' bench.He was back up on his feet cheering the next play, when Crabtree broke free to make it 31-3."We just spotted them 28 points," Brady said. "We fought hard, but you can't play poorly against a good team and expect to win. We can't miss plays that we have opportunities with."Still, no one can relax against the Patriots.Unlike a week ago, when the Patriots routed Houston, they fell behind quickly in the rain and ran only 10 snaps on their opening three series. San Francisco's fearsome pass rush was sharp then, and Brady was hit on the arm twice while trying to pass.Even worse, his long throw on their third possession for Wes Welker was picked off by Carlos Rogers, who then slalomed his way on the wet turf toward the New England end zone. Only Brady stood in his way at the 5, and Rogers fell trying to elude him.It was a key stop because Delanie Walker fumbled two plays later.Earlier, Kaepernick accounted for 60 yards through the air on the 49ers' first drive. Randy Moss showed the kind of elusiveness that made him a record-setter in New England from 2007 until he was traded early in the 2010 by getting behind the secondary for a 24-yard TD.His short celebration as he faced the crowd drew loud hoots.Brady preventing Rogers from scoring was about the only highlight for the Patriots in the opening quarter, but the 49ers weren't any more effective beyond their scoring drive and a 38-yard run by Goldson on a fake punt. The slopfest included Akers' being wide left on a 39-yard field goal.All this from teams ranked 1-2 in fewest giveaways."We just didn't even give ourselves a chance," Brady said.When the Patriots finally got their usually unstoppable offense going, they used 16 plays and converted a fourth down. But they stumbled inside the 10 when Brady was sacked by Ray McDonald. Gostkowski made a 32-yard field goal.San Francisco answered quickly, helped by a 35-yard pass interference call on Aqib Talib. Walker slipped behind a zone defense for a 34-yard TD pass from Kaepernick, making it 14-3.Akers made a 20-yard field goal as the half ended, finishing a 15-play, 76-yard drive. The three points were the Patriots' fewest in a half all season, and they were outgained 249-113.Of course, that turned around in the second half.Aside from the players' mistakes, the game also was slowed by officiating confusion that led to several lengthy conferences. One delay took about 10 minutes to decide whether 49ers punt returner Ted Ginn Jr., muffed a second-quarter kick.NOTES:Welker now has 100 catches this season, the fifth time he has reached that number, an NFL record. ... New England has 506 points, the fourth time it has reached 500, also a league mark. ... San Francisco had allowed only 184 points going into the game, lowest in the league. ... Andy Lee averaged 54 yards net on five punts for the 49ers. ... Brady's 65 throws are a career high. ... Brandon Lloyd had 10 catches for 190 yards for New England.

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Sense of stability evident among Bears hierarchy going into pivotal year of major unknowns

Specifics such as whom the Bears will draft at No. 3, or 36, or somewhere in between weren't going to be gleaned from this week's conversations with Bears Chairman George McCaskey, GM Ryan Pace or head coach John Fox. But more interesting, and important, too, are some the the more strategic takeaways from visits with the hierarchy most involved with Bears football fortunes.
 
More significant than anything regarding a player or position is the stability of the core, meaning Pace's and Fox's position under McCaskey. Because that ultimately affects draft choices, signings and myriad elements extending beyond the 2017 season. And some of all that involves understanding McCaskey's vision and history.
 
Realize: Pace was McCaskey's second GM hire in barely three NFL years. The first one of Phil Emery was an abject failure, as was the accompanying coaching hire. The absolute last thing McCaskey wants to be forced by circumstances into doing is replacing another general manager. Brother Michael lost his berth as president due to making the NFL's charter franchise into a laughingstock because of a botched coaching hire; Brother George has no wish to continue the kind of high-level turnover that both reflect, cause and perpetuate dysfunction, and losing.
 
Against that backdrop, one trail of breadcrumbs leads to a strong sense that Pace is secure in his job, barring something going epically wrong. McCaskey was clear that he approved of and likes the direction the Bears are moving under Pace, to the point of having Pace in a video directed to the fanbase. If Pace were on some sort of hot seat, McCaskey and the organization do not make him a short-term face of the franchise while they hope for a player to emerge as that "face."
 
McCaskey could not put a whole lot more pressure on Pace than the latter gets as part of his job and wanting to stay in Chicago for more than football reasons.
 
"Keep building through the draft," McCaskey said during the recently concluded owners meetings. "I told Ryan he should get ripped every time around this year, this time of year ever year for not being more active in free agency. And that's because we're developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys."

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The breadcrumbs from there lead to Fox's situation. Start with the thought that coaches operate for the present and GMs for the future. Not exactly true; GMs balance present and future.
 
But every indication, verbal and otherwise, has been that Fox was very much on board with the major makeover at one spot in particular — quarterback — and a coach with down to possibly a final season pounds the table for win-now material, particularly at that position. And when the Bears didn't re-sign Brian Hoyer this offseason, which may not have appeared to be benchmark non-move but was, at least one Bears coach was apoplectic at not staying a course with a quarterback who delivered 300 passing yards and zero turnovers in his brief Bears "career."
 
Fox, however, was clearly comfortable with giving the quarterback wheel a spin with Mike Glennon, and ultimately so is his staff. Because it is part of program plan.
 
Consider this scenario: The Bears rebound to a respectable seven or eight wins; not spectacular but the NFC North is the only division in either conference to send two teams to the postseason , meaning that Fox's Bears likely put up a couple wins over good teams, which can be construed as the "progress" that McCaskey referenced this week.
 
Meanwhile, Pace has a third draft with impact players, the Kevin Whites, Eddie Goldmans and others come back from injuries, the Bears go into the 2018 offseason and land Kirk Cousins or have Glennon be what they'd hoped, and the Bears are what McCaskey envisions: a challenger with an arrow pointing up.
 
All theoretical or hypothetical, but Pace has a plan that McCaskey knows and endorses, and best guess is that he gives his GM, and coach, time to have it play out.
 
"We have confidence in Ryan and John," McCaskey said, imposing only "progress" and "results" as his conditions. "We want to build through the draft. Ryan said that in his interview when he said he was interested in coming to the Bears. And we like how he has stuck to that plan."
 
Maybe that was the most significant tell; McCaskey has seen progress apart from the record: "Yeah," he confirmed. "Yes sir."

The molding of a manager: How Rick Renteria evolved into the man he is today

The molding of a manager: How Rick Renteria evolved into the man he is today

Rick Renteria made such a lasting impression on John Boles 33 years ago that the former major league manager has kept Renteria in mind for job openings ever since.

Boles first noticed Renteria when their teams faced each other in the minors. Renteria was playing second base for Double-A Nashua, while Boles was coaching third base for the Glen Falls White Sox.

From Renteria's maturity to his leadership and attention to detail, Boles knew almost immediately that Renteria would one day make a good coach. 

Boles believed in Renteria so much that nearly a decade later, he signed him to two minor-league playing contracts. And when Renteria retired, Boles reached out again, vowing to offer a coaching position every year until Renteria accepted — even as he repeatedly declined the offers. 

With Renteria now the White Sox manager, Boles has the satisfaction of knowing that the organization he grew up rooting for and and the one where he began a 33-year career is in great hands.

"I had it in my calendar," Boles recently said by phone. "I circled the date. This is ‘Call Rick Renteria Day.' I would have offered him any minor league position we had open, I was so sure that he was qualified to develop people. 

"I watched this guy. He stood out. I watched his workouts. I watched his batting practice and his infield work. And I saw how he carried himself, how he wore his uniform, how hard he played and I always remembered him." 

Renteria's high-energy morning meetings this spring have similarly distinguished themselves. 

Bursts of laughter and rounds of applause have emanated from the big league clubhouse every day since mid-February. The sessions last anywhere from 15-60 minutes and feature a blend of entertainment and education. 

About half of the gatherings have featured team-building exercises where unfamiliar teammates might be asked to act out a skit together, offer a fishing lesson or do a wild impersonation of their favorite WWE wrestler. An even bigger portion of each session is dedicated to reviewing the previous day's game — what went right and what went wrong — and what the staff expects players to accomplish in their workouts or games.

Veteran Todd Frazier said the meetings have provided the levity necessary to break up a lengthy spring schedule while also including an invaluable education.

"Fun, serious, indifferent," veteran third baseman Todd Frazier said of the meetings. "If guys get sent down, they're going to say ‘This is fun. This is where I want to be.'"

This is exactly what general manager Rick Hahn had in mind when he, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and executive vice president Kenny Williams determined the White Sox would embark on their first rebuild since 1997. 

With the team headed for a youth movement, Hahn wants an emphasis placed on player development. If the White Sox intended to load up on talented prospects, they need a staff centered on teaching to properly hone those players' skills.

One of Renteria's strengths is player development. He has eight seasons experience as a minor league manager and another with the Cubs in 2014. 

Hahn knew of Renteria's reputation as a "baseball rat" and hoped to hire him right after the Cubs hired Joe Maddon. The White Sox reached out to Renteria during the 2014 winter meetings but he declined. 

"Ricky was probably on a list somewhere in every front office throughout baseball," Hahn said. "He was known as a great teacher, great communicator, high-energy guy."

It was only after he took over as the White Sox bench coach last season that Hahn learned about Renteria's attention to detail and preparation.

The team's familiarity combined with Renteria's sterling reputation had Hahn convinced he wouldn't find a better candidate to take over as the team's 40th manager. Hahn quickly hired Renteria the day after last season ended. 

Several months later, the White Sox are extremely pleased with the atmosphere Renteria has created within the clubhouse.

"It's one of the best teaching environments I've ever been in," Williams said. "The way this coaching staff, the way Ricky has brought them together and used it as an opportunity to get back to basics of how we want to play fundamentally, but have fun with it as well … this is one of the best environments I've been in the sport."
 
*     *     *
 
The work ethic and attention to detail that Boles immediately noticed in 1984 dates back to Renteria's childhood. 

As a 9-year-old, Renteria spent weekends selling shoes to help his family, who had moved to Compton, Calif. from Guadalajara, Mexico in the late 1950s. Two of Renteria's older brothers worked at Thomas McAn shoes and were able to purchase several hundred pairs in bulk. 

Renteria's father, Salvador, then received permission to have his son sell the shoes in front of the store where he worked as a cashier. 

Nearly every weekend, Rick Renteria sat near the entrance of Duran's Market in the back of his parents' green late 1960s Dodge Monaco selling shoes for $1 per pair.

Renteria said he never saw a reason to complain because he figured it wouldn't have changed anything. Each of his four older brothers (Renteria is the fifth of nine children and the first born in the United States) always held down jobs. And every summer, Renteria's father found time for him to play baseball, including a trip to the Mickey Mantle World Series in Sherman, Texas when Renteria was 13.

"You were always working," Renteria said. "My dad was always working. My brothers have always worked. It's just a natural progression."

The work ethic and determination naturally carried over to Renteria's playing career. 

The Pirates used the 20th overall pick of the 1984 amateur draft to select Renteria out of South Gate High School in South Gate, Calif. Even though Renteria wasn't a physical specimen, he was a notable player in a system that also included Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. Williams said Renteria likes to downplay how talented a player he was.

"He could hit, run, field and was a fierce competitor," Williams said. "Always hustling."

Renteria made his major league debut in 1986 and appeared in 10 games for the Pirates. That December, he was traded to Seattle and Renteria played 43 games over 1987-88 for the Mariners. 

Two years later, a practice mishap threatened to end the 28-year-old's career early. Playing for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Philadelphia), Renteria was struck in the face by a line drive during batting practice. He suffered a broken left jaw and underwent two surgeries. He had plates and screws inserted in his jaw and chin during those procedures and was forced to sleep sitting up in a recliner for the next year. 

Renteria tried to return later in that 1990 season but, "every time I took a swing, it just rung my face," he said.

Renteria played for Jalisco in the Mexican League in 1991 and was named the player of the year after hitting .442. He also won the award in 1985, 1992 and 1996. In August 1991, Boles signed Renteria to play for Montreal's Double-A Indianapolis club. But after 20 games, Renteria didn't think he had much of a shot to reach the majors and asked for his release. Though Boles didn't want to, he granted Renteria his release.

"Even then he says, ‘We're going to be in touch in the future,' " Renteria said. "I didn't think too much about it."

Renteria played for Jalisco again in 1992 and was two days away from heading down for a third straight season in 1993 when Boles called and asked if he wanted to sign a minor league deal with the expansion Florida Marlins. 

Though it didn't include an invite to big league camp, Boles thought he could get Renteria into a few major league exhibitions and that he'd eventually win a job. 

Renteria signed the deal. A few weeks into camp, Boles called and asked Renteria if wanted to play in the major league game only to be rebuffed.

"I was so excited," Boles said. "I called him into the big league office and said, ‘Hey, you're going to go play in a big league game today' and he said, ‘No thanks, I'm not ready.' That was the first time and the only time in my career than anybody ever said that to me. 

"I went home that night and I told my wife, ‘I've got a first for you.'"

Boles made the same offer a few days later. After they shared a laugh, Renteria accepted. Renteria performed well enough that spring to earn a big league spot and accrued 342 plate appearances with the Marlins as a super utility man/pinch hitter between 1993-94.

"I just wanted to show everybody I could still do it," Renteria said. "I know there was concerns. It was a long journey. There was a lot of things in between. So getting back  and I ended up staying a couple more years — I don't know if it was an affirmation or a validation. But just to be able to come back at the major league level was significant for me."

The players' strike of 1994 effectively ended Renteria's career. But he wasn't ready to retire and in 1996, he played for the Mexico City Diablos Rojos.

Though he wouldn't ever again reach the big leagues as a player, Boles thought the Renteria had the potential to do so as a coach and began to call him with offers.

"He was extremely intelligent, hard working, great personality, compassionate, organized, detailed," Boles said. "He checked every box you're looking for in a young manager."
 
*     *     *
 
When it was clear that his playing career had ended, Renteria decided it was time to go home. Boles hoped to lure him into coaching, but Renteria intended to help his wife, Ilene, raise their four children in Temecula, Calif. 

So when Boles called in October 1995 to ask if he had any interest in coaching, Renteria declined. 

"We've just continued to stay in touch through the years," Renteria said. "I always would reach out when something significant would happen. I'd make sure I gave him a call and just said hello."

Boles recalls that he wasn't taking no for an answer. He informed Renteria he would call every October to ask again. Meanwhile, Renteria looked to find a steady work. He started with a Life Agent license in 1995 and then learned how to be an electrical worker before he settled on construction in 1997. 

"I was looking for a job," Renteria said. "I was trying to stay home. It was simply so I could stay home and be with my family."

Construction looked like it would be a viable option until Renteria needed surgery in 1997 to have the top of his left thumb sewn back on by doctors after an accident. It wasn't long after that Boles called again.

"The phone rang and I remember looking at Ilene and going, ‘It's time,'" Renteria said.

He first managed in the Florida Gulf Coast league in 1998 and after he led Single-A Kane County to a 78-59 mark in 1999, Renteria was named the Midwest League manager of the year. 

Renteria spent two more seasons in the Marlins system. After a year off in 2002, he returned to coaching in 2003 at Single-A Lake Elsinore in the San Diego Padres system. He managed Lake Elsinore from 2004-06, which allowed him to coach at home (Lake Elsinore and Temecula are 17 miles apart).

Renteria took over at the Padres' Triple-A Portland club in 2007 before he was named the big league first-base coach in 2008. During six seasons in the majors, Renteria furthered his reputation as a hands-on, upbeat, hard-working coach centered in player development. He was credited with helping develop Rule 5 draftee Everth Cabrera from an inexperienced rookie to an All-Star in 2013.

"When (Renteria) attaches his name to something, it's the most important thing," said Cubs scout Terry Kennedy, who managed in the Padres' system from 2008-12. "When he gives his commitment to it, it's going to be 100 percent — all of his being, all of his effort. 

"It's in his DNA, his being, his marrow and it's not that fake hustle to prove 'I have value.' It's who he is. He wants to put in quality and leave quality." 

Promoted to Padres bench coach in 2011, Renteria's stock rose so much that the Cubs made him their manager in 2014. GM Jed Hoyer and assistant GM Jason McLeod wanted Renteria to develop their young core of prospects. Though dismissed in favor of Maddon after the 2014 season, Renteria was credited with aiding the development of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, among others.

Renteria said he quickly moved on from the Cubs and didn't sulk or wonder if he'd ever receive another chance to manager in the majors. 

"It wasn't something I was consumed with," Renteria said. "I believed that at some point if it was going to happen, it was going to happen. But you can't force it. You can't force any of these positions. 

"But I don't think I've ever lived my life too consumed with, 'Man, I hope this happens again.' It's kind of difficult to live your life that way."

A year later, Renteria took over as Robin Ventura's bench coach with the White Sox. He impressed Hahn so much in 2016 that Renteria was the easy choice to replace Ventura. 

Now retired, Boles is pleased to see Renteria running the White Sox rebuild. 

Born in Chicago, Boles grew up a huge White Sox fan. He went with his father to Midway Airport to greet the 1959 American League pennant winning club home after it clinched in Cleveland. Boles — who managed the Marlins in 1996 and from 1999-2001 — spent his first five seasons as a manager in the White Sox farm system.

Though he lives in Florida, Boles still feels very close to the White Sox. And he wouldn't have any one but Renteria in charge.

"I said, 'I'm going to keep calling until you say yes,'" Boles said. "Really I felt so strongly that we needed him in our organization, and that baseball as an industry needed people like Rick, that I wouldn't have retired until he said yes."