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The 2009 San Francisco 49ers’ Offense Will Be Striving for Balance

Andre Tameta
Jul 15, 2009 at 5:38 PM


The San Francisco 49ers have been around this block on more than one occasion. For the last seven seasons actually.

Mike Martz, despite having some success with the 49er offense, was given the boot by Mike Singletary due to conflicting offensive philosophies. Then Singletary hired Jimmy Raye, a grizzled old veteran that knows a similar Coryell style digit offense that former offensive coordinator Norv Turner implemented during his one year in San Francisco.

The Coryell Offense combines deep and mid range passing and powerful inside running, an apparent must for Singletary's vision of the team. Pass protection is critical to the success of the play because at least two of the five receivers will run a deep in, skinny post, comeback, or crossing patterns that were often favored in Martz's variation of the offense.

The version that Raye learned from Turner is generally quarterback friendly and favors taking controlled chances, like quicker mid-range post passes to receivers from play action rather than Martz's version which emphasizes seven step drops and slower developing passes that can produce big plays but also leave the quarterback exposed and prone to big mistakes if the pocket collapses.

In order to run a proper version of this offense, quarterbacks need to have big arms with deep accuracy, wide receivers must be able to stretch the field with speed and separation, tight ends must be strong blockers that are heavily relied on in pass protection and the ground game while running backs need to carry a heavy load and have good power to take the constant pounding.

Turner and his associates prefer to feed the ball to a feature back like Emmitt Smith or LaDainian Tomlinson.

The San Francisco 49ers are capable of the running aspect of the scheme but they simply do not have the personnel to run the passing variant of the offense. This was quite obvious when Singletary benched the gun slinging turnover prone O' Sullivan for undrafted journeyman Shaun Hill, a quarterback not known for his big arm.

As a result of Martz having his hand picked quarterback benched, the offense was finally turned over to a good game manager in Hill. The play calling had to be toned down to accommodate Hill's strengths: intelligence and accuracy.

Suddenly the offense started to run some familiar plays from the past. Quick slant here then a quick out there and suddenly the 49er offense started to look methodical, like an old Bill Walsh team.

The reason for this sudden transformation into the "West Coast Offense" is due to the fact that Walsh's offense is a philosophy and an approach to the game rather than a strict set of plays or formations.

Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense emphasizes a short, horizontal passing attack creating player mis-matches, thus opening up running lanes. The West Coast Offense (WCO) features precisely run patterns by wide receivers that stretch the defense out. The offense is then free to focus the remaining plays on longer throws and mid to long yard rushes.

On these passing plays, the quarterback makes three reads after taking the snap from center and if no receiver is open after three reads, the quarterback will then check down to a back out in the flat or the tight end.

Another key element to Walsh's attack was the three and five step drop instead of the seven step drop. The three and five step drop helped the quarterback get the football to the receiver faster, resulting in far fewer sacks. WCO plays generally unfold quicker than Air Coryell.

Wide receivers in the WCO must have good hands and be comfortable catching balls in heavy traffic while the Coryell offense requires speedy receivers that stretch the field vertically.

WCO offenses also rely on complete running backs and fullbacks who are able to catch the ball as well as tight ends that can catch and run. Former 49er running back Roger Craig was a leading receiver out of the backfield for San Francisco on numerous occasions and in the 1985 season, good old "Cat Fish" was the first running back to be a 1,000 yard rusher and 1,000 yard receiver (Roger Craig deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but that's another story for another day).

This versatility often had Walsh's 49ers mislabeled by the media as a "finesse" team but Bill Walsh was a former boxer in the United States armed forces and always preached to beat the other man to the punch.

Walsh knew smash mouth football and proved it on the biggest stages. Watch the 49ers' final drive of the 1982 NFC Championship game. Yes, "The Catch" happened during this game but nobody ever seems to remember former Cincinnati Bengal Lenvil Elliot running circles around the Dallas Cowboys' vaunted "Doomsday" defense on that historic drive.

Finally, the West Coast offense with its emphasis on quick reactive skills is a perfect stage for the athletic quarterback. When a defense like the Tampa-2 negates an advantage of the West Coast Offense, the quarterback that can run will pose a threat to make the first down himself, adding another dimension to the offense.

Singletary has stated on numerous occasions that he wants the type of offense that Bill Walsh used to run as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Hiring Raye as offensive coordinator may seem like a stretch to many because of his coaching background, but it takes philosophy to execute a WCO style of passing offense and maybe a fullback that won two titles with the Super Bowl era 49ers.

The return of Tom Rathman as running backs coach brings back some of the WCO knowledge of the glory years. He also brings a knowledge of zone blocking schemes that were being run during his tenure as the Oakland Raiders' running backs coach.

In order to run such a zone blocking running scheme, the 49ers would need athletic offensive linemen that are always on the move. Tackle Joe Staley is the only lineman on the roster with the athleticism necessary to run such a scheme. The rest of the 49ers' offensive line are big bodied maulers, a much better fit for the power run attack.

Current personnel dictates the 2009 San Francisco 49ers' offense must utilize a bruising power run attack and pick apart pass defenses with a Walsh-like scheme based on a horizontal passing attack where the receivers' ability to run after the catch can be utilized for this team to compete.

When opposing defenses start to press at the line of scrimmage and cover the shorter routes or stacks eight men in the box, it's time for some play action Air Coryell that Raye should be well versed in by now.

Will this harmony be achieved? We'll find out September 13, 2009.


ROSTER RUNDOWN


QUARTERBACKS

No. 13 Shaun Hill

Strengths: Excellent game manager and is 7-3 during his starts for the 49ers. Decently mobile and will fight for yardage when scrambling.

Weaknesses: Suspect arm strength and funky throwing motion.

Best Fit: WCO

No. 11 Alex Smith

Strengths: The 2005 No. 1 pick has all the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. Highly intelligent, extremely mobile and has good arm strength. Youth is on his side. He is only 24 years old.

Weaknesses: His confidence looks shot after two injury plagued seasons. Accuracy is suspect on longer throws. Looks jittery when the pocket starts to collapse.

Best Fit: WCO (however Smith did have his best season under Turner's version of the Air Coryell offense)

No. 14 Damon Huard

Strengths: Experience. 15-12 overall record as a starter during his career with Kansas City, New England and Miami. In nine of his starts, Huard recorded a passer rating of 100.0 or higher. Hasn't lost much zip on his throws at this advanced age.

Weaknesses: Lack of mobility. Looks like a statue in the pocket.

Best Fit: Air Coryell

No. 7 Nate Davis

Strengths: Excellent arm strength, decent mobility and a strong will. Davis has battled dyslexia and overcame this to become a starter at Ball State. Could be a Drew Brees type of quarterback if he develops.

Weaknesses: Funky throwing motion and relatively short at 6'1" for a modern day quarterback.

Best Fit: Air Coryell

RUNNING BACKS

No. 21 Frank Gore

Strengths: Great vision and hits the hole with authority. Despite numerous knee surgeries, Gore has excellent cut back abilities and is always moving downhill. Has the power to run inside and quickness to run outside. Has good hands and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield.

Weaknesses: Durability and lack of breakaway speed. Has had a tendency to fumble in the past.

Best Fit: WCO or Power Run

No. 29 Glen Coffee

Strengths: Has a quick burst at the point of attack and drives his feet on contact. Runs through defenders and displays strength as a blocker. Solid receiver out of the backfield with decent hands. Displays toughness in his all around game.

Weaknesses: Lacks the speed to get outside and the physical tools to be a feature back in the NFL.

Best Fit: Power Run

No. 24 Michael Robinson

Strengths: One of the most athletic and versatile players on the team and runs with good power. Was a college quarterback and can play in the Wildcat formation. Fights for yardage when he's going down. A stalwart on special teams.

Weaknesses: Lacks the natural vision of a pure runner like a Frank Gore.

Best Fit: Power Run

No. 33 Thomas Clayton

Strengths: Big, physical back who was the NFL's leading rusher in the 2007 pre-season, finishing with 45 carries for 200 yards, one touchdown, and two receptions for 14 yards.

Weaknesses: Needs to hold on to the ball better. Lacks top flight speed.

Best Fit: Power Run

No. 30 Kory Sheets

Strengths: Speed.

Weaknesses: Purdue coaches did not endorse him and went undrafted. Major red flag.

Best Fit: WCO

No. 44 Moran Norris

Strengths: Big, strong physical back with excellent blocking abilities. Norris helped Frank Gore rush for over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Gore led the NFC in rushing in 2006 with 1,695 yards, which was followed by 1,102 yards on the ground in 2007.

Weaknesses: Lacks good speed for his size.

Best Fit: Power Run

No. 45 Zak Keasey

Strengths: Versatile playmaker who excelled as a key contributor on the 49ers special teams unit.

Weaknesses: Blocking skills are suspect.

Best Fit: WCO

WIDE RECEIVERS

No. 15 Michael Crabtree

Strengths: Former quarterback was college football's most dominant receiver over the past two seasons. Big, strong target who plays a physical brand of football like a Terrell Owens or a Larry Fitzgerald. Can make the difficult catch in a crowd with defenders surrounding him.

Displays outstanding concentration and possesses an uncanny sense of timing. Plays with good balance and effortlessly makes the reception in various body positions while running at full speed. Decent downfield blocker.

Weaknesses: Lacks blazing speed. Labeled a "diva" by Browns' coach Eric Mangini.

Best Fit: WCO

No. 88 Isaac Bruce

Strengths: The former Ram still has excellent hands, good quickness and decent speed. His route running is perfect and is an influential veteran presence in the locker room. Can still make the catch in the traffic.

Weaknesses: Has lost a step in the speed department.

Best Fit: WCO

No. 84 Josh Morgan

Strengths: Extremely athletic receiver with the hands to match. Can run after the catch and make things happen. Looks like John Taylor when he has the ball.

Weaknesses: Lacks the speed to vertically stretch the field. Needs to learn to run better routes.

Best Fit: WCO

No. 89 Jason Hill

Strengths: Local product is a speedy, young wide receiver with incredible potential. Soft hands and run after catch ability complete the package. Could develop into a Steve Smith kind of player.

Weaknesses: Like most young receivers, his route running can be improved. Needs to get better at beating bumps by cornerbacks.

Best Fit: Air Coryell

No. 83 Arnaz Battle

Strengths: Veteran receiver has shown consistency throughout the years. Has good athleticism and was a former college quarterback.

Weaknesses: Does not have the top flight speed to be an All-Pro at the professional level.

Best Fit: WCO

No. 81 Brandon Jones

Strengths: Physical receiver that can beat bump and run coverage. Decently fast for his size.

Weaknesses: Inconsistent hands and seems shy to come over the middle.

Best Fit: WCO

TIGHT ENDS

No. 85 Vernon Davis

Strengths: An absolute physical freak of a football player with explosive speed, raw power and top notch blocking abilities.

Weaknesses: A little cocky at times. Hands have been inconsistent and durability is a concern. Has not lived up to his draft hype.

Best Fit: WCO or Air Coryell

No. 46 Delanie Walker

Strengths: Former wide receiver has good speed and hands. Can make the grab in traffic and has above average run after catch skills.

Weaknesses: Blocking needs to be improved.

Best Fit: WCO

No. 48 Bear Pascoe

Strengths: Solid pass catching tight end with good athleticism. Can come away with the difficult reception in a crowd. Toughness is not a concern as he can take a big hit and hold on to the ball.

Flashes the ability to get into the secondary and create mismatches. Runs well laterally is able to adjusts to an errant throw and still make the reception in stride.

Weaknesses: Struggles as a blocker and lacks necessary strength and balance.

Best Fit: WCO
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.


1 Comment

  • charlesm.
    if the niners can get back to the'norv turner' offense -we should be a better; and balanced team.they need to utilize their money players more...gore..vernon ..crabtree etc.
    Jul 17, 2009 at 3:10 PM
    0


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