There were a ton of different factors that led the San Francisco 49ers to run a watered down and conservative offense last season. They were unable to get the players comfortable with the scheme prior to the start of the preseason due to the extended labor strife between the league and Players Association.
San Francisco didn't have the players on the outside to air the ball out and wanted Alex Smith to gain confidence early in the season in yet another new system. Once this strategy seemed to work, there really wasn't a reason for Jim Harbaugh and Co. to change it.
Why alter something in mid-stream when you are rolling opponents on a weekly basis?
In short, the powers to be in San Francisco knew exactly what they had and how to utilize that talent on the offensive side of the ball.
It worked out—for the most part.
The 49ers' general manager Trent Baalke set out to fix a perceived and real lack of talent on the offensive side of the ball. He went out there to acquire two impact free agents at wide receiver in the form of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss.
Despite limitations, both are definitely upgrades over what San Francisco had last season. They also selected A.J. Jenkins in the initial round of April's draft.
In the process, San Francisco was able to give Smith weapons of a more consistent variety. Additions of both Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James at running back are also going to help a great deal. You will not see the 49ers struggle a lot on third-and-short.
Instead, they're going to be able to sustain longer drives and have more success inside the opponents' 20.
Another shortcoming that might not have been taken into account by experts was the 49ers inability to protect Smith at times last season. The veteran quarterback was sacked a total of 44 times, including 31 times on the road. The combination of a somewhat young line and an inability to create cohesiveness along the offensive line in the offseason led to the stunning differential in pass-protection at home compared to on the road.
This shouldn't be an issue in 2012, considering Alex Boone seems to be a tremendous upgrade over what the 49ers had at right guard last season.
In Alex we Trust?
All reports out of 49ers' camp is that Smith is looking the best he has since being selected No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL draft.
Smith looks to be better at every aspect of his game. Obviously, with a year of experience working with Jim Harbaugh, Greg Roman and Geep Chryst, his knowledge of the system is better than ever.
Examining him with the naked eye -- usually from a hundred yards away, where the media is stationed during practices -- it's impossible to pinpoint any dramatic mechanical differences. But the Alex Smith I've seen through 14 practices has been noticeably more accurate with his short, intermediate and deep passes. He also appears to be quicker with his decision-making.
If reporters and armchair experts have an understanding that Smith has improved a great deal during the offseason, it obviously hasn't gone over the heads of the coaching staff.
It now appears that Jim Harbaugh and Co. are REALLY ready to give Smith the keys to the offense and run with it. Quicker decision making, in addition to better accuracy, leads to much improved performances.
We don't need to be "experts" to understand that.
An Arsenal of Weapons
San Francisco probably has its best group of wide receivers since Steve Yong was slinging the ball around Candlestick Park in the 1990s. The passing game isn't going to be limited because of a lack of consistent play on the outside. Instead, Smith is going to be able to rely on the likes of Moss, Manningham, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree to get open and make plays down the field.
You are not going to see receivers struggle breaking the line against press or have issues finding a seam against two-deep coverage. Smith, with his improved accuracy, should be able to find these seams and hit the receivers on target.
I don't want to see draws or sweeps on third down and long in 2012. Greg Roman drew those plays up for a myriad of different reasons last year, but he wont be forced to go in that direction starting in September.
He is, and should, put the trust in Smith and Co. to gain that first down through the air.
What Does it Mean?
San Francisco is still going to be a run-first offense, and that shouldn't change. However, there is absolutely no reason for them to go vanilla with the lead or fail to open up the offense in close games. The results might be more interceptions on the part of Smith, but that is the risk you take when putting the ball in the air more.
I don't think anyone would complain about Smith throwing 10-to-12 interceptions if he is able to put up 25 touchdowns and over 3,700 yards passing.
Sustained drives coupled with the occasional quick strike offense will only going to help the defense maintain its level of excellency. In short, an improved offense will make one of the best defenses in the entire National Football League that much better.
In the process, San Francisco will be the odds-on favorites to capture their sixth Lombardi Trophy. If I notice this from my office in Sonoma County, it makes sense that Harbaugh and Co. fully understood this months ago.
Let's hope they continue to show confidence in Smith and help him lead this team to New Orleans in February. After all, if we have learned one thing in the last year, it makes absolutely no sense to question the 49ers' coaching staff.
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