Of all the concerns that die-hard San Francisco 49er fans have, it all starts with one question...what is the offense going to do this year? After seven offensive coordinators and yet another new head coach it HAS to get better, doesn't it? Under Mike Nolan back in 2006 we had one brief offensive thrill that was quickly extinguished. With Nolan now gone and the Mike Martz experiment over, can we get back to the fundamentals that made this offense tick?
I have to believe we can. New head coach Mike Singletary realized that the tactics that worked in 2006 under OC Norv Turner was destroyed with the internship of raw coordinator Jim Hostler the Don Coryell antics of mad Mike Martz. Although the 2007 and 2008 seasons showed some highlights, nothing replicated the genuine power running attack in 2006. Singletary intuitively knew this would be the catalyst for our overall success.
The main weapon of choice in 2006, and now, is none other than Frank Gore. Back in 2006 he carried the ball 312 times for a career high of 1,695 yards. His production fell sharply as new coordinators were named following Norv Turner's departure for the San Diego Chargers. Frank Gore's stats declined down to 260 carries for 1,102 yards in 2007 to 240 carries for 1,036 yards in 2008. His receptions with Mike Martz at the helm increased but his hard-nosed style of running the ball and chewing up the game clock were mere thoughts of yesterday. Gore was also handcuffed after losing his bosom buddy in powerhouse fullback Moran Norris, who was replaced for the more agile and athletic Zak Keasey.
Mike Martz, although an offensive mastermind in his own right, immediately overthrew all the main fundamental concepts that made the San Francisco 49ers a dynasty in the first place. The West Coast Offense was the main artery that pumped life into its power running attack and dominated the tempo of a game on any given Sunday. Martz's offense was the finesse, spread-them-out, one-back style offense. It seemed to look down in disdain at the traditional fullback-running back type tandem often associated with successful West Coast style offenses of the past.
The last time the 49ers ran a successful running game prior to 2006 was during the last playoff run, when we had the tandem of fullback Fred Beasley and running back extraordinaire Garrison Hearst. Back then we ran the ball with pride behind a dominating offensive line that won the battles in the trenches, allowing great quarterbacks to be ultimately successful. With Singletary's knowledge of the game and his fondness for Bill Walsh, I sense he knows this to be the basis for bringing success back to the franchise.
This is why he chose to let Martz go...completely different offensive styles. Frank Gore lobbied his coaches to reconsider bringing Moran Norris back, as he was cut from the roster in favor of Zak Keasey towards the end of training camp just last year. Instead, Moran Norris was signed by the lowly Detroit Lions.
What is even more promising is the presence of running backs coach Tom Rathman, who played a vital role in the 49ers last NFC West title run in 2002. At that time he was in command of Garrison Hearst and Fred Beasley who were one of the most prolific NFL running tandems in the league.
Frank Gore gives credit for his first ever Pro Bowl in 2006 to the lead blocking of fullback Moran Norris. The trust that is formed between the two is unmistakable as each player gives unquestioned credit to the other for their own success. From training together during the off-season, which is a rotation between Frank Gore's home in Miami to Moran Norris's in Houston, the two are hitched for the long haul.
New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye is counting on this tandem to be the main weapon for the new San Francisco 49er offense by having them set the tempo early to control the game. Jimmy is an old-school type teacher on the field in that he wants all his players to understand each other's position to better react to the action around them. This is a drastic change for the players, and requires lots of time to be on the same page.
In every practice session from mini-camp to organized team activities, Jimmy Raye's offensive system is well written very similar to the 2006 Norv Turner style offense. His system is designed for two backs who will grind down opponents with the running game while keeping the pass as an effective counter option. The linemen especially benefit from understanding the entire play from a positional standpoint. They can assist more on run blocking by knowing what the other players are doing.
Mike Singletary's hiring of Jimmy Raye as our new offensive coordinator shows that the running game will take priority over all other offensive weapons. He wants to "impose our will upon our enemies," meaning that no matter what we do, we will be able to run the ball at anytime we see fit, even if that means against an eight-man box. Not only did he hire a running minded OC, but he addressed the depth behind Frank Gore in the off-season. Reacquiring Moran Norris was a big part of that, but the 49ers went a step further by drafting Alabama running back Glen Coffee in round three of the 2008 NFL Draft.
Now the team believes it has a backup that will share the limelight with Frank this year. In his first attempt as the full-time starter Coffee ran for 1,383 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and tied former NFL MVP Shaun Alexander for the second-best season total in school history. Rolling in his success as the full time starter he chose to forego his senior year and declare himself eligible for the 2008 NFL Draft.
Coffee is passionate about running the ball. He loves the physical contact and the exhilaration of achieving success for the team. He doesn't think twice about hitting the hole and lowering his head to make that initial contact. Although only 6 feet tall and 209 pounds you'd never guess that he was a physical, take-no-prisoners type of back. He hits the hole with authority and he loves to plow people over. Glen Coffee will vie for the premier position right behind Frank in the rotation with an average of 5-10 carries a game. He is predicted to beat out veterans Michael Robinson out of Penn State and Thomas Clayton out of Kansas State for this coveted position, with Michael likely to be in reserve and playing the bulk of his duties on special teams.
The San Francisco 49ers added even more fuel to the competition by acquiring as an un-drafted free agent Purdue's running back Kory Sheets, who was very productive and finished with 3,341 career rushing yards against Big 10 competition and scored at least 10 touchdowns in each of his four college seasons while finishing with 48 for his career. What is likely to happen here with Sheets is a battle with Thomas Clayton on who stays on the 49ers practice squad in the bitter end.
What we do know is that the 49ers are in a great position as far as depth at running back. All four mentioned are in special categories of their own and will assist Frank Gore in establishing a rushing attack equal if not better to the statistics he registered in the 2006 NFL season. Despite having our seventh offensive coordinator in a row and adjusting to a new playbook all over again, the similarities to Norv Turner's offense are definitely there.
Competition is apparent all through the quarterback, wide receiver and tight end positions. This is shaping up to be a replication of the 2006 season, however we want this one to last well into the post season. All we need is continuity and consistency in the offensive line, a solid right tackle, and to identify the future quarterback.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.