Go to the Spread. Prove You Can Coach.

Nov 25, 2009 at 4:54 PM

The best offenses are flexible and consistent. Sounds like a paradox, right? Consistent flexibility is the life of every coach in the NFL. Every coach has a philosophy and in a perfect world they have all of the pieces on their team to achieve their philosophy.

The National Football League, however, is not that kind. It is a cold, hard wasteland with the remnants of philosophies strewn between 100 yards. Each coach has a starting point, but the best coaches are the ones that are able to be flexible enough to change to the realities of the NFL.

The 49ers are familiar with Bill Walsh and the West Coast Offense he made famous in San Francisco. That offense, however, was borne out of need. Walsh lost his strong-armed quarterback and had to change his approach when his personnel changed.

We see this pattern repeated in the NFL. When a good coach sees a strength, they game plan to accentuate that strength. Ken Wisenhunt came from an offense that stressed the run. However in Arizona he knows that his team is built to pass - so pass he does. This season, Arizona is throwing the ball 64% of the time and they are off to a 7-3 start with the 10th best scoring offense in the NFL. During the Patriots' 16-0 campaign in 2008, Belichick relied mostly on the pass, a departure from the balanced attack he employed in 2007. What accounted for this difference? Randy Moss. In 2007, Reche Caldwell led the team with 61 receptions, and in 2008 the addition of a deep-threat like Moss allowed Belichick to open up the arial floodgates.

The 49ers have a quarterback (Alex Smith) who ran the spread offense out of the shotgun in college. They have a wide receiver (Michael Crabtree) who excelled in the spread offense at Texas Tech. They have arguably the best receiving tight-end in the league (Vernon Davis). They have a running back who has expressed enthusiasm at the running lanes the shotgun formation produces (Frank Gore). Even more, the team has success when they employ a spread attack. And yet, for an entire half of putrid offensive football in Green Bay, the 49ers continually tried to be something they weren't.

Sure, the 49ers struggle when trying to protect the quarterback. But Smith has been more comfortable in the shotgun and that means that he gets rid of the ball faster since he can make faster reads. Against Green Bay, Smith was sacked 3 times in the first half. In the second half, he was not sacked at all. As Matt Maiocco reported on his twitter feed, Alex Smith has attempted 92 passes in shotgun and been sacked 4 times. He's been sacked 9 times from under center on only 63 attempts.

Once a coach has set the direction, it's critical that there be some consistency in the scheme. Is is no coincidence that of the top 10 offenses based on Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, only Baltimore has been under the same head coach for less than 3 years.


Really, this underscores a fundamental problem with the 49ers underlying structure. In looking at the top offenses, 7 of the teams (IND, NO, PHI, BAL, MIN, GB, ARI) are led by offensive minded coaches. This is where consistency comes into play. When an offensive-minded coach takes over a team, coordinator turnover is not a huge concern. The coordinator mostly runs the scheme and system the head coach dictates. In many cases the coach calls the plays. As long as the head coach is there, the terminology and fundamental system stays consistent.

Therein lies the problem with hiring a motivator as a head coach. He is dependent on his offensive coordinator for an offensive system. With Martz. Mike Singletary had one system. With Raye, another. If Singletary decides that Raye is not the answer, he has to find yet another coordinator with a different system and different terminology.


The fact is, the NFL is moving towards an league that heavily favors offense. You can barely touch the quarterback without a fine. Defenders are routinely called for pass interference when they commit the same acts that offensive players do every play. Holding is legal, as long as it is within the shoulder pads. The NFL is structured to favor the pass for one simple reason: It is more exciting and draws more viewers. Fans don't want to see Trent Dilfer manage a game while the team runs the ball. Fans want to see Peyton Manning and Drew Brees air it out weekly while putting up 30 points a game.

League rules favor the pass, and teams that can take advantage of those rules rack up more wins. The leagues division leaders this season hold the top 7 of the top 8 spots in passing efficiency based on DVOA (http://www.footballoutsiders.com/stats/teamoff). The only team out of the top 8 is Dallas, and their 7-6 win over Washington displayed the problems they will have keeping the Eagles and Giants at bay over the course of the season.

Sure teams have to be able to run the ball, but it is not necessary. San Diego has the leagues 5th ranked offense, based on DVOA. However, they only have the 28th ranked rushing attack. And yet, they still lead the AFC West with a 7-3 record. Arizona's run game is ranked 22nd (again, based on DVOA), while Indy and Minnesota are 14th and 19th respectively. The NFL's elite teams have to be able to pass the ball, but they don't necessarily have to be able to run the ball.


So this takes us full circle, back to the 49ers. Singletary is not an X's and O's coach. The 49ers knew that when they hired him. WIll he be flexible enough to move towards the shotgun as the base offense? Can he make the call to take the offense towards the system that best fits it's personnel? Flexible and consistent - the mark of great coaches. Make the move, Sing. Then develop it. Then, keep the system and grow your players within it. Your quarterback, and fans, will love you for it. But more importantly, it will earn you wins. I mean, you don't have much to lose at this point. Might as well air it all out.
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.


  • Sean
    Great article. I totally agree with everything you said. You have to adjust your scheme to your players; you can't adjust your players to your scheme. Look at the college game with Rich Rodriguez. At West Virginia when he had Pat White and Steve Slaton, his spread option offense was amazing. Then last year when he had Steven Threet running the offense, they were terrible. I think that once Tate Forcier gets used to the offense that he and Denard Robinson could help Michigan back into a national powerhouse. Back to the Niners, if Sing did what you say in your article, they could be in the playoffs regularly I think. P.S. So is the DVOA the equivalent to baseball's sabermetrics?
    Nov 26, 2009 at 6:27 PM
    Response: I'm not sure what sabermetrics are, but I explain a little about what DVOA is in a comment below. Check it out and let me know what you think.
  • Noe Longoria
    Excellent article Oscar. You clearly resonate what all of us in Ninerland are feeling. I like Coach Sing.. I think he is a good person and clearly wants to win. But he is going about it the wrong way. He is mostly a motivational speaker and I think young Jed York could have hired Zig Ziggler for a lot cheaper. And it kills me to see Coach Sing continue to push his Run First agenda. I think what really concerns me is that they drafted a Spread Offense QB and now want to convert him into something he is not. Hopefully Coach stops being so Pig Headed and lets his offense play to their collective strengths.
    Nov 26, 2009 at 12:50 PM
  • ninerbob
    Thanks for the nice article, Oscar. Singletary has shown that he is capable of making personnel adjustments: putting in Shaun Hill at QB and Rachal at OG last year and Crabtree at WR this year. But it seems he has been less flexible in adjusting his idea of "smashmouth" football when he does not have the personnel to fulfill that philosophy. I recall how when he was a hot commodity to take on a head coaching position, when he was asked whether he had coordinators in mind for his offense, he answered he had not. When he decided he wanted to replace Martz, look how long it took him to find Raye. Maybe, Singletary is still not "ready" to be a head coach.
    Nov 26, 2009 at 10:12 AM
    Response: I think the 49ers' problems are maginifid by Sing's lack of a firm X's and O's background. I think he can be a really effective head coach. He just needs the supporting cast and right now, Raye is not as strong as Sing need shim to be.
  • Dan
    My opinion. The organization is protecting Alex Smith a little bit here! They know he is a spread QB. They wanted to try and make him a "pro style" QB in 2005. It has not worked as of yet! By reverting back to a spread, pigeon holes Alex. If success does not come quickly in a spread like lightening in a bottle, it all but cements Alex as a pro failure. I think this is why we have seen apprehension this week in the vocals of Alex and Sing to just flip to make a switch. Alex is a little scared of what could happen and Sing is trying to build his confidence by keeping him on a very short leash. If the 49ers are not Alex's future then he has to be concerned about his reputation as a QB in the league. He is young and has lots of football left. I think we will see more 2TE/1RB split sets and 3WR/4WR this week, but it will not all be from shotgun! They will mutate there base offense to try and get defenses spread out before we ever see a true spread offense. LET'S GET THAT O-LINE TO BLOCK ALSO!
    Nov 26, 2009 at 7:12 AM
    Response: If the 49ers had an offensive line, we would not be having this discussion and the 49ers would be in the upper echelon of the NFC after beating both Minny and Indy.
  • Martin Jacobs
    Oscar, you are right about a lot of things, but Smith even with protection is and never will be the answer for the 49ers. Everyone keeps trying to make excuses for him. Has he ever played 4 good quarters for the 49ers? He's missing the "it" factor. Some guys have it, Smith doesn't. Just to many mental errors plus hus tunnel vision has not gotten any better.
    Nov 25, 2009 at 7:30 PM
    Response: I think that 49er fan have been spoiled by having 2 hall of fame quarterbacks. Smith doesn't need to be Steve Young reincarnite and throw up 101.5 quarterback ratings every Sunday to be successful. I think that we need to accept that he was a reach as the #1 overall pick and adjust our expectations. He may not be the "answer" at QB for 10 years but the team can help him perform better at the position until we find our version of Peyton Manning.
  • longtime49erfan
    What is DVOA? Please don't use abbreviations in your stories unless you first identify what they mean, even if you think the readers ought to know.
    Nov 25, 2009 at 5:35 PM
    Response: My bad man. I've been including it in my last couple columns and it just slipped to explain it again. DVOA stands for Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average. You can find out more here: http://www.footballoutsiders.com/info/methods#dvoa It was pioneered by a site called "Football Outsiders" and in short, "DVOA breaks down every single play of the NFL season to see how much success offensive players achieved in each specific situation compared to the league average in that situation, adjusted for the strength of the opponent." In other words, it is a more accurate statistical method of comparison etc. than the standard NFL yardage rankings.

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