49ers Come Full Circle

Oct 12, 2004 at 12:00 AM


It was in 1977 that Eddie DeBartolo took over a 35 year-old franchise that mustered only one winning season in the previous 5 years. DeBartolo took over a 49ers team that could not put it together offensively. At quarterback, Jim Plunkett mustered a paltry 62.1 quarterback rating while throwing 9 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Delvin Williams, the running back, averaged 3.4 yards per carry while earning a team high 931 yards. After the 1978 season, Eddie DeBartolo made a decision that would change the landscape of football forever; he hired Bill Walsh as a head coach and GM, the fourth coach to be hired in a little more than 12 months.

Even though the 49ers went 2-14 during the '79 season, the 49ers went from worst to first in passing offense and 6th in total offense. Running back Paul Hofer chewed up yardage getting 1,277 total yards. It only took Walsh two more years to win his first of 3 Super Bowls.

How did Walsh turn the team around from a bottom feeding second-rate team to an offensive powerhouse? The West Coast Offense.

In a nutshell, the West coast offense is an offensive system predicated on short passes, timing, and quarterback mobility. West Coast quarterbacks need not have a rocket arm, they instead need to be accurate enough to hit your mother-in-law's mole on her right ear from 20 yards away. The offense is predicated on timing, good quick decisions, and a ball control offense that relies on the pass, not the run, to keep the defense off the field. This is the offense that spread to other teams in the NFL like the Macarena.

Why did it spread? Simple: It worked.

Dennis Erickson uses a completely different offensive system. He uses a system based on the downfield, deep pass. He likes to use two tight ends, one running back, and 3 wide receivers. Up until Erickson was hired, the 49ers were a West Coast team. From 1979 to 2003 49er coaches used the West Coast system as the base of their offense. While Erickson's system may work for some teams, in order for THIS team to succeed, Erickson needs to bring the West Coast offense back.

The chances of him doing it are about as good as the chances of J-Lo staying married. But if you look at how the 49ers are built, they are a just asking for it. Tim Rattay works his best when he is in a rhythm. The reason he has a bonkers quarterback rating in the 4th quarter is because he has been able to get in a rhythm. He is accurate, completing 64.4% of his passes this season. Steve Young holds the 49ers record for completion percentage with a 65.8% completion percentage; and he had the benefit of operating under the West Coast system.

More importantly, Rattay has no time to execute Erickson's offense. On the offensive line, Kwame Harris needs to get better faster in order to avoid being labeled as a bust. At best he is a disappointment in his second year. Justin Smiley is a rookie, Kyle Kosier is a utility lineman best used as a backup, not an every down player. Newberry, the Pro-Bowl center, is out for an extended period of time. Rattay has to get the ball out quick because he simply does not have the time to hold it for those deep routes to develop. With 3 and 5-step drops, Rattay can establish a rhythm, move the team up the field, and keep the struggling defense off the field.

Despite preseason prognostications, the running game is struggling. Why not use Conway, a possession receiver, in order to keep the chains moving with screens, slants, and short passes over the middle. Eric Johnson, who leads all receivers (yes, that's including the likes of Owens, Moss and Harrison) in receptions looks likes the second coming of Brent Jones. He already has a career year. Barlow, who is a good open field runner, could get involved with some screens. The 49ers should control the tempo of the game not with their run game, but with the pass.

There is a reason almost every team took a piece of the West Coast offense and integrated it into their offensive scheme. There is a reason that Bill Walsh's disciples go on to be so successful in the coaching ranks. The scheme works, it's that simple. And really, what would the NFL be without the 49ers running the West Coast offense? It looks like the organization has come full circle and the same medicine that worked in 1979 will do the trick a quarter of century later.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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