Across 49erland over the past few weeks, fans have been clamoring for a fundamental shift in the 49ers offense...from the Jimmy Raye's conservative spin on the digit system to the "spread" offense, with the idea that this will somehow magically fix what ails our beloved Niners. Ladies and gentlemen, that would be an exceptionally bad idea. You see, kids...the offense isn't the 49ers' only problem, and unless this team finds a way to address its more pressing woes on the fly the 49ers will very likely miss the post season...again.
All shotgun, all the time...why not?
I know what you're thinking: "But AJ, what about Alex's success out of the shotgun? Shouldn't we just run out of the 'gun all the time?" The short answer is no. Smith is particularly effective out of the shotgun, there is no denying that. The team moves the ball out of the 'gun really well, too. Still...the answer is no. Why? The answer is a simple one: the team can't run out of the 'gun all of the time because their offense wasn't built around the 'gun, and they don't have enough plays in their shotgun package to scheme an entire game...let alone to build any variation into their offense to effectively "fool" opposing defenses over the course of five games.
Balance is critical in the NFL, and without a viable rushing threat, the Niners wouldn't fare much better over their next 5 games than they have over their first 11. If the 49ers shifted to an all-out shotgun passing attack, the faithful would be treated to a show quite similar to the 49ers' recent matchup with the Tennessee Titans...lots of yardage, points, and turnovers. Why? Because one-dimensional teams are predictable...and predictable teams do not win football games. Ladies and gentlemen, before the 49ers can start scheming a wide open, all out aerial assault Jimmy Raye and Alex Smith have got to get familiar with each other...learn to communicate...and develop the kind of trust that takes an off-season to develop. Given time, the offense will get better. Can Raye and Smith pull things together in time to have a significant effect on the offense? If yesterday's game was any indication...they just might.
But...isn't the offense what's been hurting the Niners?
Yet again, I know what you're thinking: "But AJ...hasn't the offense blown some critical games this season?" The answer here, too, is a simple one. The system favored by Coach Singletary is one that relies on disciplined play, basic assignment responsibility, and overall roster buy-in to the grand design for winning. This team was built to win by playing fundamentally sound football. The 49ers are a team that MUST block and tackle in order to win...and does not yet have the ability to overcome its own mistakes. In the 49ers' worst losses this season (Atlanta, Houston, Tennessee, and Green Bay) the team has suffered less from failure of scheme, and more from individual loss of discipline, failure to execute, and loss of bearing in the face of adversity in critical situations. Don't believe me? Fine...let's look at four game changing plays from the aforementioned losses to illustrate my point:
Loss of discipline vs. Atlanta: With Atlanta backed up inside their own 10 yard line facing a 3rd down and 5 in a very close game (the falcons were leading by a score of 14-10), Matt Ryan threw the ball short to Roddy White, who was covered well by Nate Clements. Instead of knocking down the pass or setting himself up for the stop, Clements went for the ball and missed...and in the process, took himself out of position to effectively pursue White after the reception. With Mark Roman frozen by the slot receiver, Clements had no help over the top, and his gamble gave up a 90 yard TD that changed the momentum of a game, and started an avalanche of second quarter scoring for Atlanta. This was not a poorly designed defense, it was not indicative of a lack of speed by the defense, either...it was the result of a poorly timed gamble, and a lack of discipline.
Failure to execute vs. Houston: On 4th and 8 from the Houston 46-yard line Matt Turk punted to Arnaz Battle. Battle muffed the punt, and one play later Houston scored. This put the 49ers in a 14-point hole, and essentially killed any positive momentum for the 49ers in the first half of their eventual loss. If Battle secured this punt, odds are the 49ers might only have been trailing by 14 points at the half...a deficit that we now know they were capable of overcoming.
Failure to execute vs. Tennessee: On 4th and inches from the 2-yard line, with the 49ers leading 20-17, the Titans decided to go for the TD instead of the tying field goal. On the ensuing play, Parys Haralson had Titans RB Chris Johnson wrapped up for a loss at the 7-yard line for a 5 yard loss...but instead of going low and taking him out of bounds, he went high, missed the tackle, and allowed the Titans to take the lead. The defensive call was perfect...Haralson was not too slow to make the play...but he did fail to execute on the tackle, and that cost the Niners the lead (and very likely the game).
Loss of discipline and a failure to execute vs. against Green Bay: On 1st and 10 from the 49ers' 20-yard line, Ryan Grant is initially stopped for a loss by Isaac Sopoaga, who failed to secure him, resulting in a 20-yard gain for the Packers, a complete shift in the games momentum, and a 49 second drain on the clock at a time when the 49ers absolutely needed to secure a stop. Couple this with Coach Singletary's ill-advised challenge just before the two minute warning (which cost the team its final time out) and you have one colossal lapse of judgment and one failure to execute which cost the Niners a chance to win the game.
The point here is that Coach Singletary's design for winning is not a bad one...but in order for it to be effective, the team must play fundamentally sound football, display discipline on the field as it pertains to staying on assignment, and by executing in critical situations...regardless of what offensive system they employ. Without the aforementioned, this 49er team would be hard pressed to win a game...even if they played every offensive snap from the shotgun. Before this team thinks about making drastic changes in scheme, they must first eliminate the critical errors that have kept them from winning their closest losses.
Why don't Raye and Sing try some of the stuff the Colts are doing?
I know what you're thinking: "But AJ, why can't the 49ers shake up their offensive play calls like the Colts, Saints, Cowboys, Packers and Patriots do? If those teams can do it, why can't we?" The short answer is that the 49ers don't have the same systemic continuity as the NFL's leading offenses. The Patriots been running the same offensive system since 2000, the Colts have been running the same offensive system since 1999, the Packers have been running the same system for 4 seasons, and the Cowboys have been running their offense for 2 seasons. The 49ers have been running this offense for 11 games.
What's the point of the aforementioned? Simple...if the populace of 49erland wants to see a living, breathing, flexible offensive system, the populace of 49erland needs to stop calling for the heads of HC Mike Singletary and OC Jimmy Raye, chill out and allow the 49er attack to develop around the abilities of its most talented performers...and that will take more than one off-season, kids. The offense will grow...play calling will become more varied...and the 49ers will start winning games. Alex Smith will become better at running this system, and with a bit of stability, the 49er offense could actually begin to strike fear into opposing defenses. In short, if you want the 49ers to become a powerhouse again, then you should be screaming for continuity...not an administration change and a roster purge.
So...what happened yesterday?
Yesterday, the 49ers employed a varied offensive look, kept their respective heads, blocked well, and played a very complete game...probably the most complete game they've had all season. The defense played well against a very good runner, sacked David Garrard six times, and generated two takeaways, which could have easily been three had Manny Lawson managed to haul in a third quarter interception.
More important than the defense was the offense. The team used the shotgun for 35 of its 61 offensive snaps (57%)...but that isn't what made the 49ers' afternoon. Instead, it was a combination of outstanding play and strategic use of shifts, motion, clearing routes & formations to inhibit Jacksonville's pass rush. With more time to find his targets, Smith was a force to be reckoned with, completing 66% percent of his passes to five different receivers. The shotgun worked well yesterday...and it worked because Jimmy Raye was smart enough to employ it intelligently by balancing his play calling.
The object lesson from yesterday's game is not to open the offense all the way up, or to throw the ball 50 times per game...but instead that we should realize that the 49ers are a talented team, that Singletary and Raye have a method to their madness , and that the 49ers are not in need of a roster purge or an administration change...just some patience from their fan base.