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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Mailbag: Who is the 49ers’ best offensive weapon? Has Brian Griese helped Jimmy Garoppolo?

Marc Adams
Nov 23, 2022 at 10:07 AM--

It's Thanksgiving week, and San Francisco 49ers fans are giving thanks for the team's current winning streak, now at three games, as well as being victorious in five out of the last seven games. The defense is dominating, as usual. And the offense is starting to look dangerous, too.

Between the Monday night game and the holiday, it's a short week, and a brief mailbag. But we still took time to open it up and hear from 49ers' fans. Let's get to it.

Who would you say is the 49ers' best offensive weapon at the moment? - Paul H.

I would say Christian McCaffrey is the best offensive weapon the 49ers have. But I also think each week, the best offensive player could be someone different.

The week before the bye, against the Rams, it was McCaffrey. Last week, you can make a case for Elijah Mitchell or Brandon Aiyuk. On Monday night, it would be hard to say. Mitchell was the leading rusher, Deebo Samuel had a long touchdown run to go with seven catches for 57 yards, Aiyuk had two touchdowns, and George Kittle also scored twice and had 84 yards receiving.

And let's not forget Jimmy Garoppolo, who is playing the best he's played since 2017. Over the last few games, he has been a weapon, as well.

But let's be a little less diplomatic here. The offense has changed since McCaffrey joined. His presence takes the pressure off Garoppolo because it gives him an outlet. It's no coincidence that the QB hasn't thrown an interception in the last three games. With McCaffrey as an option, Garoppolo is not forcing near as many throws.

Not only that, but McCaffrey makes things easier for the rest his teammates as well. For example, instead of Samuel being the focus of the defense, McCaffrey takes much of that focus away, giving Samuel more space. When safeties are forced to pay more attention to the running back in the backfield, they aren't able to pay as much attention to the wide receivers and tight end, opening things up for the receivers.

But here's the biggest reason I believe McCaffrey is the team's best offensive weapon. I wrote a story earlier this year about Roger Craig's case for the Hall of Fame. When I was preparing for the story, I spoke with 49ers reporter, Matt Maiocco, who said, "Bill Walsh told me that he was not able to do all the things he wanted with his offense until Roger Craig arrived."

Think about that. The great Bill Walsh said he couldn't fully use his offense until he had Craig.

Mike Shanahan used Ricky Watters similarly. Remember the second touchdown the 49ers scored in Super Bowl XXIX? While Jerry Rice scored the first one, a 44-yard touchdown catch from Steve Young on the third play of the game, Watters had the second one, a 51-yard touchdown catch. Young has often said that the biggest mistake the 49ers made in the offseason after that Super Bowl was not letting Deion Sanders leave, but letting Watters leave.

Watters and Craig were both huge weapons out of the backfield. So is McCaffrey, and if what he brings to San Francisco is what Craig and Watters did, maybe he can bring a Lombardi trophy back to the Bay Area, as well.

Someone ask Jimmy how Brian Griese has impacted or if he has impacted his play this year? Seems Jimmy is playing his best ball. Reading the field better than ever. - Ron D.

I don't entirely understand your question, Ron, but I'm going to answer as if you're asking if someone has asked Garoppolo if Brian Griese, his QB coach, has had an impact on his play in 2022.

I don't know if anyone has asked Garoppolo about that, and even if they did, he's going to give an answer that toes the company line. Even if Griese was terrible, Garoppolo would never say so. But I don't think Griese has been terrible. In fact, I think he has helped the QB. As I mentioned above, Garoppolo has become a weapon, instead of being a liability.

On Monday, the Cardinals let it be known that if they were going to lose, it would be because Garoppolo beat them. In other words, they weren't going to let the running game beat them. They were going to force the 49ers to put the ball in the air.

Much to the Cardinals' surprise, the 49ers were happy to put it in the air, and Garoppolo came through. So it would seem to me that Griese is helping Garoppolo play more freely and efficiently. The quarterback is taking more chances, throwing the ball downfield more often, outside the numbers more often, and even throwing the ball away when nothing is there. And he's not turning the ball over like he has a tendency to do.

Most of it is Garoppolo. But some of it has to be Griese.

Oh, and the Cardinals' plan to shut down the run game and force the 49ers to throw didn't work either. Arizona couldn't stop the pass or the run.

Can the defense succeed against strong passing teams, like KC and the upcoming game vs Miami? The loss of Mosely hurt. Seems like coverage and tackling could be a liability. - KCarps

I'm not too concerned about the tackling. This defense swarms to the ball and usually tackles very well. I do worry sometimes about pass coverage. The loss of Emmanuel Moseley really hurts. The loss of Jason Verrett hurts, as well.

But as long as Charvarius Ward is healthy, and Deommodore Lenoir continues to play well, I think the 49ers will be ok. The key will be the pass rush. If the defensive line can get healthy, and keep bringing the pressure, then I believe they can play well against teams like Miami and Kansas City.

How will Shanny approach using CMC/Mitchell for the rest of the way? - Danny

I think it depends on the game and on the situation.

Against the Chargers, McCaffrey wasn't that effective as a rusher. But Mitchell was. Against the Cardinals, McCaffrey had a strong game, and Mitchell didn't play much in the first half. But in the second half, he made his presence felt.

My best guess, and what I'd like to see, is that Kyle Shanahan uses McCaffrey when he needs to score or move the ball, and then uses Mitchell when he wants to put the game away, run the clock or wear down the defense. Ultimately, the 49ers' offensive strategy, and the opposing defense's approach, will determine how they are used. If a team game plans to take away McCaffrey, then Mitchell has to step up. He did last year. I'm confident he can do it this year.

The team is getting better and better, like every year they make playoffs, do you think us playing Miami, and how it goes, could define how our season could play out? - Eric S.

I think the Miami game will be a good game to see where the 49ers are at this point. It will be a huge test.

But I think the Seattle game could be more important in defining how the season plays out. It's a conference game, a division game, and the Seahawks currently have the same record as the 49ers. It's in Seattle, so it will be loud. It's going to be a big game.

So has Brendel kept his job at center because Brunskill is splitting time with Burford? Seems Brendel is good for 1-2 ill-timed penalties per game. - Robert S.

I've spent much of the year talking about how terrible Jake Brendel is. I'd be stunned if he's the starting center next season, unless he continues to improve throughout the rest of 2022. But on Monday night, he played well. Who wasn't impressed with Brendel's downfield blocking on Samuel's touchdown run?

The main reason Brendel is still the starting center is that there's no one who can beat him out. Daniel Brunskill is a capable right guard, but he's not a good center. So that's the biggest reason Brendel's job is safe for now.

Thanks so much for your questions. I wish each of you a Happy Thanksgiving. Let's hope the holiday weekend brings an '80s-type beatdown of the Saints. It should be fun.
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