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Let's not dwell on the process, okay? Yes, it was ugly. It looked like Mike Singletary was interviewing everyone who'd ever even seen a game of football. Worse, it looked like he was getting rebuffed. (One guy even withdrew so he could go to the Lions, for God's sake.) And when he finally settled on Jimmy Raye, we responded with a collective cry not of joy, not of sorrow, but of..."Who?"
In looking for an answer to that question, we found a bit of a mixed bag. Plenty of experience as an offensive coordinator, so that's good; experience always helps. A disciple of the Ernie Zampese digit system, so that's good too; Zampese's got the most impressive offensive coaching tree this side of Bill Walsh. But on the other hand, what's with these rankings? Twelve seasons coordinating offenses, and only one offense, one, in the top 10?
Yes, Raye's run some bad offenses. And he's done it for teams that were just deplorable. Take the '85 and '86 Bucs, the '90 Patriots, and the '91 Rams. Their win totals? Two, two, one, three. I mean, those teams were bad. Those Patriots are particularly notorious; in last year's USA Today poll, they upset the winless '76 Bucs (who, you'll be relieved to know, weren't coached in any capacity by Raye) to take the title as the very worst team of the Super Bowl era. Bob Ryan famously quipped that "they would be no better than even money in an intrasquad scrimmage." And lest you think (or hope) that the team's weak link was its defense, rest assured that the offense was just pathetic. Last or close to it in every category across the board, Raye's guys scored 14 points or fewer in 12 different games. Seriously, after this debacle, Raye was lucky to coach anywhere again.
But Raye did coach again, perhaps because the NFL knew what he'd been working with; for just one example, his top quarterback with the Patriots was the infamous Marc Wilson, who bombed with the Raiders and only got worse. And anyway, nobody gets more second chances than an NFL coach. So Raye just kept plugging away, bouncing around, until finally, 10 years after his New England nightmare, he gave us a reason to believe.
Let's take a close look at the 2000 Kansas City Chiefs.
The 2000 Chiefs were a passing machine. Old friend Elvis Grbac threw 547 passes; only two 49ers (DeBerg '79, Garcia '00) have ever thrown more. Yet he completed nearly 60 percent and racked up 4,169 yards; again, only two 49ers (Garcia '00, Young '98) have ever gained more. He also threw twice as many touchdowns (28) as interceptions (14), posted a quarterback rating just short of 90, and made the Pro Bowl.
Doing most of the catching were two 1,200-yard receivers: Derrick Alexander, who caught 78 passes for 1,391 yards and 10 touchdowns, and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who also made the Pro Bowl after catching 93 for 1,203 and 9. Know how many times the 49ers have had two 1,200-yard receivers? Zero.
The Chiefs didn't have a thousand-yard rusher, but that was only because they primarily used two backs instead of one: fullback Tony Richardson rushed 147 times for 697 yards, and halfback Kimble Anders rushed 76 for 331. Together they had 223 carries for 1,028 yards; that's an average of 4.6. Not a bad output for a couple of guys you don't remember.
Put it all together, and Jimmy Raye's offense ranked eighth in the league (ninth in points). Of course, when you replace Richardson and Anders with, say, Frank Gore, you'll go for a bit more balance between run and pass; Gore should get at least a hundred more carries and 450 more yards. But is there any one of us who wouldn't be ecstatic with the eighth-ranked offense in the league this season?
The 2000 Chiefs tell us two things; one is very good, the other is very confusing. The good news is that Raye is a good offensive coordinator. Sure, it'd be nice to have seen him run more than one good offense. But that one good offense proved that when he's got good players, he knows how to use them. Are you really surprised he couldn't turn Marc Wilson into Joe Montana? That doesn't prove he's not a good coach; it only proves he's not a miracle worker.
That said, even with some of his lesser offenses, he's made good use of what he's had. With the '83 and '84 Rams, he had Eric Dickerson and not much else; Dickerson rushed for 1,808 yards one year, a record 2,105 the next, and a total of 32 TDs. With the '01 Redskins, he had Stephen Davis and a bunch of spare parts, and Davis rushed for 1,432 yards; only three 49ers (Gore '06, Hearst '98, Craig '88) have ever gained more. Again, if a good coach is one who recognizes and exploits his players' talent, then Raye is a good coach.
But let's get back to the 2000 Chiefs, and here's the confusing thing. That team proved that Raye is basically the second coming of Norv Turner. So why is Singletary making him out to be the second coming of Woody Hayes?
Singletary's made no secret of his desire to emphasize the running game, and at his introductory press conference Raye made sure to show he was on board, saying he and his boss shared a vision of "tough, physical football teams that run the ball." One writer predicted that "the 49ers playbook will do a complete 180 degree turn," going so far as to describe Raye as "Fred Flintstone" to Mike Martz's "Elroy Jetson." My God, we thought. Years ago, we were the West Coast Offense. Now we're three yards and a cloud of dust. Poor Bill Walsh must be rolling over in his grave.
But what on earth is going on here? Remember, Raye is a graduate of the Zampese school, and the Zampese offense is a descendant of the aptly-named "Air Coryell" offense. It's a balanced offense that does commit to a power running game, but its hallmark is a vertical passing game that produces gobs of explosive plays. Another Zampese disciple is Turner, Raye's boss in Oakland. And a third disciple is...wait for it, wait for it...Mike Martz!
In 2000, in Jimmy Raye's system, Elvis Grbac threw 547 passes. In 2001, in Mike Martz's version of the same system, Kurt Warner threw more passes than he'd ever thrown before.
He threw 546.
Yet Martz is Jetson, and Raye is Flintstone?
Something strange is going on. If Singletary wants to go heavy on the run, that's fine; after all, he's got an elite back, and Raye (unlike Martz) has shown he knows what to do with one. But for the first time in years, the 49ers are built for an explosive passing game. I know, I know, there's uncertainty at quarterback. But Josh Morgan is a star in the making, Isaac Bruce is a perfect #2 going into his last season, and I'm sure we didn't draft Michael Crabtree at #10 just so he can throw downfield blocks. And beyond all that, now is the time for Vernon Davis; when we drafted him at #6, Gonzalez was exactly what we had in mind. Again, as long as Gore's around, our quarterback shouldn't have to throw for 4,000 yards. But we should be passing, and passing a lot.
Singletary would've excited all of us if he'd said, "I've hired Jimmy Raye because I want the 2000 Chiefs plus Frank Gore. I want an explosive (though balanced) Zampese offense, and since Norv Turner isn't available I've hired his virtual twin." Instead we've been told that Raye's here to produce a tough, physical team that runs the ball. Singletary's taken an expert in one of the game's most modern offenses, and he's dressed him up like he's some kind of dinosaur.
I think I know why. Singletary's a new head-coach, and he's gotta deliver what he's selling. And what he's selling isn't a mastery of Xs and Os, or an expertise in teaching and technique. What he's selling is his identity, his "brand." Intensity. Toughness. Discipline. "Physical with an F." And he wants to make sure he's got an offense that reflects that. And what do you think of when you think of a "physical" offense? You think of an offense that runs the ball, runs it again, and then runs it some more. And despite what his coordinator's done best, and perhaps despite his personnel, that's the offense he's going to have.
So here's the bottom line. If things go right, we'll have the coordinator and the personnel to be an explosive offense. In his quest to create an offense in his own image, though, is Singletary going to get in the way?