With the 2009 season fast approaching, the weight of the franchise is riding on Mike Singletary’s shoulders, as the organization and fans alike look for “Coach Sing” to recreate a winning culture in San Francisco.
Teams fire old coaches and hire new ones because they want to create change. Unlike most new head coaches, Singletary is not really new at all. He’s been with the 49ers since 2005.
In fact, the 2009 49er coaching staff boasts 14 holdovers from the “Nolan Era”, which the organization voiced their displeasure with when they fired the former head coach seven weeks into the 2008 campaign. Coach Singletary was handed the reins, and he led the 49ers for the final nine games of the season.
And so the question is presented: How will Coach Singletary create the change this organization seeks, when he and 13 of his assistant coaches have already been working with players and influencing the team?
The answer is simple. Coach Singletary must create change by hiring new coaches who will change the team in areas that need fixing.
According to almost unanimous consensus, those areas are offensive production, quarterback play and defensive pass rush.
One look at Singletary’s new coaching hires for 2009 shows he agrees with that diagnosis, as his 7 new hires include a new offensive coordinator, new quarterbacks coach, new running backs coach, and a new “pass rush specialist”.
Because Singletary’s new hires must create the winds of change a new head coach would normally provide, a lot is riding on his selections. Will these new coaches provide the breath of fresh air that the organization needs, or will they flounder and sink, bringing their new captain down with them?
Lets meet the new coaches:
1. Jimmy Raye- Offensive Coordinator
Jimmy Raye comes to us from New York, where he last served as the running backs coach for the Jets under Eric Mangini.
His coaching career has spanned 30 years, and has included service as a running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends coach, as well as offensive coordinator, assistant head coach, and sr. offensive assistant.
Raye has called the offense for his team in 14 of his seasons in the NFL. Known for his fundamental approach to the game, Raye has a reputation for running a “smash-mouth” style offense.
Coach Singletary has charged Raye with the task of transforming the 49ers into a run-first, power offense that wins the battle at the line of scrimmage. Raye’s job is to bring the 49er offense “back to the old skool”, and allow Frank Gore to star in the new 49er offensive attack. He replaces Mike Martz.
2. Mike Johnson- Quarterbacks Coach
Mike Johnson last worked as the wide receivers coach in Baltimore under Brian Billick in 2007. His tenure in the NFL has covered eight seasons; five as a quarterbacks coach and three working with wide receivers.
He’s tutored notable NFL quarterbacks Doug Flutie and Micheal Vick. Before his coaching days, Johnson was a college and professional quarterback. He played at ASU and University of Akron, and went on to play in both the World League and the CFL.
Mike Johnson is most highly regarded for his work with now-notorious Falcons’ quarterback Mike Vick. Johnson is credited with helping Vick develop into a proficient pocket passer, despite his reputation as a run-first signal caller.
With the 49ers, Johnson inherits an unsettled quarterback situation. He will play a significant role in selecting the team’s 2009 starter, with 2005 No. 1 pick Alex Smith challenging undrafted journeyman Shaun Hill for the starting job.
Singletary will look for Johnson to bring out the best in both men, and help establish some consistency at a position that has been anything but for the past several seasons. Johnson replaces Ted Tollner.
3. Tom Rathman - Running Backs Coach
This man needs no introduction here in the Bay Area. While many remember Tom Rathman as the hard-nosed fullback who opened holes for Roger Craig and picked up blitzes for Joe Montana and Steve Young, the old No. 44 has put together a pretty impressive coaching resume since he called it quits as a player in 1994.
Rathman was the running backs coach with the 49ers from 1997 to 2002 under Steve Mariucci. When Mouch left for Detroit in 2003, Rathman accompanied him to the Motor City. Rathman’s last coaching gig was in Oakland, where he coached the running backs from 2006 to 2008.
Coach Singletary has brought Rathman back to reestablish a dominant rushing attack in San Francisco.
What better way to achieve this than to hire a coach that was the poster child for hard-nosed football during his career as a fullback here in the Bay Area? He takes over for Tony Nathan.
4. Vantz Singletary- Inside Linebackers Coach
An interesting selection for this 2009 49ers coaching staff is that of Vantz Singletary, nephew to Uncle Mike Singletary. Vantz has made a name for himself as a college coach, most recently working with defensive tackles at the University of Buffalo in 2008.
Other coaching stops include Trinity International University, Southern University, University of Hawaii, and Tennessee at Chattanooga. Vantz served at Hawaii during the playing days of current 49ers Jeff Ulbrich and Isaac Sapoaga.
He fills the coaching void created by his uncle’s promotion to Head Coach during the 2008 season, and allows coach Jason Tarver to refocus on outside linebackers.
5. Jason Micheal- Offensive Assistant
Pretty green at just 30 years old, Micheal has worked at both the college and professional levels. He began his career in Oakland under Norv Turner as a quality control coach in 2005.
His next stop was New York, where he served as both quality control and assistant tight ends coach under Eric Mangini during the 2006-2007 seasons. His most recent post was at the University of Tennessee, where he coached the tight ends for coach Phillip Fullmer.
Micheal will likely assist 30 year coaching veteran Pete Hoener, who handles the tight ends for coach Singletary. Micheal will be asked to help tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker realize their potential, and to help break in newly drafted blocking tight end Bear Pascoe.
6. Bill Nayes- Special Assistant to Head Coach
Bill Nayes is another young new addition to the 49ers coaching staff. He began his career as an intern with the Green Bay Packers in 1997. He was later hired by Mike Holmgren as the Administrative Assistant of Football Operations.
Nayes handled all travel arrangements for the team, organized team mini-camps and training activities, and created / managed team operational schedules. He followed Holmgren to Seattle in 1999, where he served in the same capacity. He was hired as Assistant Athletic Director at the University of Wisconsin (his alma mater) in 2006.
As a special assistant to Coach Singletary, Nayes will likely perform duties similar to those he assumed in Green Bay and Seattle.
7. Al Harris- Pass Rush Specialist
Perhaps the most intriguing addition to this year’s coaching staff is Al Harris, a former teammate of Mike Singletary’s with the Chicago Bears. Harris played as a defensive end and outside linebacker for the Bears from 1979 to 1988.
He finished his career as a Philadelphia Eagle in 1991. Although quarterback sacks were not an officially kept stat in the NFL until the 1982 season, Harris is credited with 20.5 career sacks over 8 seasons.
Harris has no prior coaching experience. However Singletary says his greatest attribute is his ability to teach the techniques and mental approach for rushing the passer in the NFL.
After looking into each coach’s background for clues about their possible impact on the 49ers, I feel great about one, and have some concerns about three others. Of course only time will tell whether each coach is successful, and all deserve a fair chance to work with the team before he’s judged.
But sometimes, identifying patterns of the past can help us form expectations for the future. So what might we expect from these new coaches?
Of all the coaches Singletary has brought on this year, Tom Rathman appears to be the surest bet. Sure, I'm rooting for him as a former 49er. But confidence in Rathman doesn't require blind faith or an appeal to my affection for an esteemed alumni of the organization. His track record speaks loud and clear about his potential for success with 49er running backs in 2009.
During Rathman's first stint as 49ers' running backs coach from 1997 to 2002, San Francisco led the NFL in rushing twice, ranked second another year, and averaged a sixth place ranking among NFL teams during his initial term.
Although his first year in Detroit was uncessessful (his Lions ranked 32nd in rush yards for 2003), his team improved to rank 19th the following year. Rathman led Raiders' running backs to rankings of sixth and tenth in total rushing yards during his final two years in Oakland.
Rathman will likely benefit from Coach Singletary’s desire to be a run-first offense. Plus, he inherits an apt pupil in Frank Gore.
Factor in the arrival of rookies Glen Coffee and Kory Sheets, and it becomes clear that Rathman will have plenty of opportunities to succeed in improving the run game here in San Francisco.
While Tom Rathman’s track record inspires confident optimism, new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye’s does not.
There is something to be said for the experience a 30 year coaching veteran brings to the table. However, Raye’s statistical resume can be regarded as mediocre at best. In 14 seasons of calling his team’s offense, Raye’s teams have never ranked higher than eighth in total offense.
Over the 14 seasons he’s called plays, his teams have averaged 19th in total offense. Those numbers are hardly inspiring.
There have been a few bright spots for Raye, who coached the Los Angeles Rams offense in 1984 when Eric Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards, setting the NFL record. The Rams ranked second among NFL teams in rushing yards that year.
In 1999, Raye led the Kansas City Chiefs to a fourth place ranking for total rushing yards. This was particularly impressive since the Chiefs’ leading rusher that season was Donnell Bennet with 627 yards. The Chiefs used six running backs to amass 2,082 yards on the ground that season.
Can Raye put together an offense that rivals that of the ‘84 Rams or the ’99 Chiefs? Or will he lead the 49ers toward the bottom half of the pack, as he has done more often than not in his career?
Lets hope he’s got one or two great seasons left in him; the 49ers have been offensively challenged for too long. However if Raye does what he has typically done, the 49ers will continue to struggle on offense.
Another wildcard on the 2009 staff is new quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson, who is commonly credited with improving the play of Michael Vick in Atlanta. However upon closer inspection, the statistics reveal that Vick actually digressed during coach Johnson’s tenure.
Statistically speaking, Vick played his best season in 2002, the year prior to Johnson’s tutelage. In fact, Vick had his highest qb rating in 2002 (81.6), and achieved his career high in passing yards (2,936).
He set his career high for touchdown passes (20) in 2006, the year after Johnson was let go.
Although Vick was deemed to have improved under Johnson during the 2003 and 2004 seasons, Atlanta’s head coach Jim Mora felt that Vick regressed in 2005, and the decision was made not to bring Johnson back.
Mora cited Johnson’s personal relationship with Vick as his “main attribute” as quarterbacks coach.
Perhaps Coach Singletary is looking for Johnson to develop a similar rapport with 2009 draft pick Nate Davis.
It has been reported that Johnson interacted extensively with Davis prior to the draft, and conducted Davis’ pre-draft workout when the quarterback came to Santa Clara. I’m sure coach Johnson had more than a little to do with the 49ers’ decision to select Davis with their fifth round pick.
We may have to wait to see how Davis develops before we can arrive at any conclusions about Johnson’s effectiveness as a coach. However 49er fans must hope that the success of their offense doesn’t hinge on Davis’ development; even Coach Singletary considers him to be a long-term project.
This season, Coach Johnson needs to focus on Alex Smith and Shaun Hill, as their improvement will directly affect the team’s prospects in 2009.
My final concern with coach Singletary’s 2009 coaching staff is his decision to hire two relatively inexperienced coaches, Vantz Singletary and Al Harris. While Vantz has significant experience as a college coach, he’s never been hired at the NFL level.
Also, he has worked almost exclusively with defensive lineman throughout his career. Having played defensive line in college, I am curious to know what expertise Vantz will draw upon while instructing inside linebackers at the professional level.
Al Harris poses even greater questions. His resume is completely blank; he’s never worked as a professional coach at any level.
Perhaps Coach Singletary likes the idea of former players teaching current ones.
However Al Harris never stood out to me as a sack artist, and his career average of 2.5 sacks per season is rather modest for a “pass rush specialist”.
Several head coaches hire members of their inner circle as assistant coaches. Lets just hope that Singletary’s desire to keep it in the family doesn’t cause the 49ers to fail in addressing a major area of need.
Only time will tell if Al Harris will succeed in motivating Manny Lawson and helping the 49ers improve their pass rush, which ranked 16th in 2008. However, if the 49ers are willing to hire former players with little to no experience, its tempting to wonder what Charles Haley is up to these days.
As the 49ers move through their off-season workout schedule and into the 2009 season, many questions about Coach Singletary's new staff will be answered. Everyone who loves 49er football will be united in hoping that each of the new assistants succeeds in creating the changes the organization sought when they hired Mike Singletary as their head football coach.
The fortunes of many football players, and perhaps even their head coach, are hanging in the balance.