The Strange Repackaging of Jimmy Raye

Jul 14, 2009 at 6:45 PM

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?
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.


  • Basil
    Bit late here but I just found this story. Nice read, thanks! Sing says you have to be able to run the ball at any time, Yes! if you can run the ball at any time in the game, you keep the defense honest, save the QB's career. I understand what they're talking about. I think the bottom line is What works!
    Aug 12, 2009 at 6:27 PM
  • charlesm
    good luck jimmy raye---you are going to need it. i really hope you can pull it off!!
    Jul 17, 2009 at 3:12 PM
  • RichM
    With Coach Sing an admirer of Bill Walsh, I think that he is probably doing what BW used to say and is "using the pass to set up the run." I don't think that any of us would say that BW wasn't thinking right and we did quite well both passing and running. To use this kind of thinking he must have a team that can run at any time. I think that we will. I also think that our passing game is going to be fun to watch. 1 thing that Coach Raye said was that his offense was not complete because he did not know all of the strengths of his players yet. Smart! Last year MM wanted all of the offensive players to fit into his system even if it was not the strength of his players. The team was a collection of misfits because they were playing out of their abilities. Let's only do the things that we do best, and forget the rest. We might have a chance to show improvement. Hurray for Coaches Sing and Raye. Go Niners. RM
    Jul 15, 2009 at 10:15 PM
  • KMat
    Thanks for the article...Raye has been somewhat off the radar in most publications I have seen. I have had great respect for his experience and knowledge from the git go just because you don't last long in the NFL without something. I have had older coaches as a player and they already know things that a younger coach thinks are brand new (e.g. the wildcat offense). I also figured Raye wasn't "successful" because of the lack of talent on the teams he coached. I also think that Singletary will stand down and let Raye coach...because earlier he had stated he wanted a QB before the pre-season games got underway...after Raye got there he changed his stance to delaying a decision 'til after both QB's show what they got in pre-season games. Which is what Raye wanted. As for Singletary telling the world what the 49ers' offense will be, I think it is gamesmanship. The head coach blowing a little smoke to camouflage what's really coming. After all, the most important "stamp" or "identity" he can put on this team is that of "Winner."
    Jul 15, 2009 at 11:22 AM
  • James
    If you have actually read what sing has said you would know you are wrong about him wanting a run heavy offense. Sing said that he wants to be able to run the ball at will, but he wants a balanced attack. He wants to be able to impose his will through the running game when leading in the 4th quarter instead of giving up the lead like they did so many times last year. Do your homework before you write an article trying to sound smart.
    Jul 15, 2009 at 9:37 AM
    Response: If I'm wrong about what Singletary's said, then I'm far from alone. According to Dan Brown, for example, "Coach Mike Singletary has said repeatedly that he wants a run-oriented attack." Now to be fair, Singletary's also said, "Hopefully you have a balance, 50-50," but he immediately added that "the most important thing is you have to be able to run the football." Hence his description of his general philosophy as "more of a traditional one, more of a run-to-pass." That's the opposite of, say, Bill Walsh's WCO (pass to run), and my point here is that it's also inconsistent with the Zampese offense that's Raye's specialty. Oh, and in the 49ers' nine losses last year, only twice did they lead in the fourth quarter. Singletary needs to worry about developing an offense that GETS the lead; then he can worry about developing one that KEEPS the lead.
  • SanFranAddic
    Very encouraging article for those of us who wondered what we had with Raye. Thanks!
    Jul 15, 2009 at 9:29 AM

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