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What do the Ravens and the 49ers have in common? Well, the Ravens have a pretty good defense, which forms the identity of the team. They have a quarterback who was supposed to save the franchise but is not fulfilling his pre-draft hype. They have an offense predicated on the run that always seems to need help and they don't have any real threats at wide receiver. Their former defensive coordinator was Mike Nolan, and their former linebackers coach was Mike Singeltary.
Sound familiar 49er fans? It shouldn't.
Ask a casual NFL fan what comes to mind when they think 49ers and a rushing attack is not it. The 49ers have been and should always be known as a finesse offense predicated on short timing routes. With the hiring of Norv Turner as offensive coordinator Nolan is making the final shift away from the 49ers of old and moving to the new 49ers. The new 49ers are a power running team; they are a team that runs first, second, and some times third. They certainly do not have an offense people describe as "explosive" and rely on their defense to bail them out. In short, the new 49ers have the potential to be a lot like the Ravens.
Of course, Norv Turner is supposed to make that model successful. Legions of fans and NFL talking heads alike are applauding the move. Well, forgive me for approaching his hiring with guarded optimism but there has been enough in his past to merit some skepticism. Lets begin with his most recent transgressions in Oakland, including the 23rd ranked scoring offense, despite having Kerry Collins, Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan. He has one postseason appearance as a head coach and has a 58-82-1 record.
That's the guarded part. Now lets move to the optimism part. He was the coordinator when Dallas won their Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993. Troy Aikman and Jimmy Johnson have both stated that Turner is a fantastic offensive mind. He took San Diego (2001) from the NFL's 28th ranked offense to the 15th ranked offense. In 2002 he moved to Miami where he took their offense from 24th to 15th. Here's that guarded part again: 2001 was LaDainian Tomlinson's first year with the team, 2002 was Ricky Williams' first year with the Dolphins.
There is no doubt that Nolan has the team moving in the right direction. He is the strong leader this team needed since George Seifert departed to Carolina. If Nolan follows the Raven's model, a model that won a Super Bowl on the shoulders of one of the best defenses in NFL history, I am sure his hiring will be heralded as one of the best moves John York has ever made. Who can argue with results?
What is being sacrificed for results, however, is the true identity of the San Francisco 49ers. This past season Nolan continually said that his team needed to find an identity. Why, I ask, re-invent the wheel? The 49ers won five Super Bowls with a West Coast offense that set up the run with the pass. The offense was the identity of the team despite the fact that the team fielded several stout defenses. The passing game scared people, and even though teams knew what was coming they couldn't stop it. The team knew who it was, the league knew who the team was, and the fans knew what to expect from their team. Even in McCarthy's iteration of the West Coast offense the slants were scant, the screens invisible and the only "short drops" Alex Smith experienced were attributed to his (apparently normal) hand size.
Nolan and Turner will usher in an era where the run game will be the centerpiece of the 49ers' offense; this is not a secret. I am in no way saying that the philosophy is not successful; just ask anyone in Pittsburgh what the running game can do. With the 49ers doing the west coast-vertical passing-west coast-power running-mambo Nolan's identity for the team seems to be set. It is up to Nolan and Turner whether San Francisco's future is Baltimore's present.