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When the 2009 season started, no one expected what the faithful fans of 49erland have had to endure thus far...a 4-5 start. The faithful are a vocal bunch, and as the team has endured its four game slide, everything from play calling to quarterback play have been offered up as the reason for the Niners' sudden inability to close out games.
There is no denying that the 49ers are a team with problems...real problems. The offense shows up...sometimes. The defense plays lights out...sometimes. The coaches put together outstanding game plans...sometimes. This begs the question...what's been going on with this team? Will it get better? When? Will fans (me included) have to spend the remainder of this season's weekends popping antacid tables like M&Ms whilst simultaneously apologizing to neighbors and the occasional peace officer about their sudden bouts of profanity laced shouting on Sundays?
In part one of my three-part look back at the first half of the season, I'll be looking at the offense to determine what's gone right, what's gone wrong, what's getting better and what fans can expect to see going forward.
Looking Back at the Offense
Though the 49ers managed to win 3 of their first four games, and were in a hair's breadth of winning their first four, the offense started the season in disappointing fashion. Let's face it...the offense did not deliver on the rather sizable expectations the team managed to build this past off season, particularly on the ground.
Over the team's first 5 ½ games, starting quarterback Shaun Hill was less than impressive, averaging an anemic 171 passing yards per outing, and less than one touchdown pass per game. While Hill started out the season playing efficiently, posting ratings of 89.3, 86.1, 94.6, and 104.9 respectively, the 49ers' Week 5 match up with the Falcons was telling: Atlanta played man defense almost exclusively, choosing to crowd the line of scrimmage with 8 defenders. In short, the Falcons dared the 49ers to beat them with the pass, and they couldn't. The Texans employed the same strategy in the first half of week 7, with similar results. Many have pointed to play calling and poor offensive line play for the 49ers early woes on the ground...but the fact is that no team can sustain prolonged success on the ground when opposing defense routinely park 8 and 9 man fronts at the line of scrimmage. For the first 5 games of the 2009 season, the 49ers were playing with half of an offense. For example, even though the team would run a 3-wide set with at least one man running a deep route designed to pull the safety away from the line of scrimmage, over the first 5 weeks of the season, the 49ers simply did not throw deep. After showing the same tendency for 4 straight weeks, the Falcons caught on, and came up with the perfect scheme to stymie the 49er offense.
So why didn't the 49ers throw deep in their first four games? The simple answer is that they couldn't. In the NFL, coaches know exactly what their players can and cannot do...Jimmy Raye is not an exception. Given the conservative nature of 49ers leadership, it isn't very difficult to diagnose the 49ers early aversion to the deep pass: the team's coaching staff was not about to ask Shaun Hill to do something that he simply could not do...especially if the team was winning football games. As a result, game plans became disturbingly conservative, and the stage for the week 5 meltdown was set. The week 3 injury of Frank Gore (5.2 ypc) certainly didn't help matters...especially considering the sizable drop off in production on the ground with Glen Coffee (2.6 ypc) in the game.
Going Forward with Smith at the Helm
At halftime of the team's week 7 match up with the Houston Texans, Coach Singletary shook things up...he installed Alex Smith at quarterback. The results were immediate and impressive. In the final 2 quarters of the game, Smith threw for 206 yards and 3 touchdowns in a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful comeback bid. Over the next three weeks, Smith's performance has been serviceable for the most part...and though the results didn't show up in the win/loss column until last Thursday night's victory over the Bears, indications that the offense was picking up steam were plainly evident from his first play under center. In Smith's first three starts, Frank Gore has averaged 7.0, 5.3, and 4.16 yards per carry respectively, and Smith has averaged 230 yards passing with 1.7 TDs per game...a marked improvement over Gore's 1.36 and 3.4 yards per carry (outside of his two world beating runs against Seattle) and Hill's 171 yards passing with .90 TDs per game. The simple fact is that even if the 49ers don't throw the ball deep more frequently, opposing defenses have no choice but to respect Alex Smith's ability to stretch the field vertically, and as a result, Gore has more room to run, and fewer defenders to deal with at the point of attack.
As Smith's chemistry with receivers Michael Crabtree, Jason Hill and Josh Morgan grows, look for OC Jimmy Raye to find ways to work all three into upcoming game plans...but if any of you are looking for the 49ers to become as pass-happy as the Cards, you will probably be sorely disappointed. The fact of the matter is that Jimmy Raye's offense was designed around a healthy Frank Gore, and Shaun Hill. Couple the QB change with the fact that the team has only had one offseason to gel with the system, and add in the fact that Alex Smith's style of play is the diametric opposite of Shaun Hill's, and you get an offense in transition...in the middle of the season. The good news is that the offense is coming around...though last Thursday's score isn't the best indicator. As Raye becomes more comfortable with Smith, and Smith becomes more comfortable with Raye's offense, things will open up a bit more, and this team will score more points. Going forward with Smith is a make sense move, and if the statistical trends of the past three weeks are any indication, the last 7 weeks of the season should be a lot more fun to watch than the first 9.
Will it get better? When?
To sum it up...though the offense has been disappointing this far, things are getting better (believe it or not). In their last game, the team actually managed to convert 42% of its third downs...which is a vast improvement over the 28% conversion rate they had through the end of the Atlanta game. The playbook and the play calling still leave something to be desired (not as much as you might think, though), but we'll get into that a little more in the look back at coaching. All told, the offense is getting better...even if it isn't where it should be just yet. This weekend's game against the Packers should be a solid measure of how much better they've gotten in recent weeks.
Coming tomorrow: A mid-season look back at the defense.