A word of advice to new San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye: rent, don’t buy.
Coaching in professional sports is by nature a transitory profession, with the kind of employee turnover that one would find at their local Burger King. Assistant coaches in the NFL, however, take the “living out of a suitcase” axiom to a ridiculous extreme, constantly shuttling across the country, forever uprooting their families, and never finding security or fulfillment.
If they’re too good at what they do, the reward is a promotion to a better job somewhere else, hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away. Conversely, if they happen to fail, the punishment is a demotion to a worse job, somewhere else, hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away.
The real kicker, of course, is that how perfunctory these men actually are at their jobs is a complete mystery. All the game plans, schemes and pep talks in the world can’t make the right guard hold his block, or make the receiver focus on the football with a safety bearing down on him, or make the kicker shank-proof.
Or, to put it another way, “It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Johnny's and Joe's.”
Raye, at 63-years-old, has been there and done that. He began his coaching career in 1977 as the 49ers’ wide receivers coach. Now, 32 years and nine NFL organizations later, he’s back for his second tour of duty in San Francisco, this time as head coach Mike Singletary’s hand-picked offensive coordinator. His previous pit stop was as the running backs coach of the New York Jets between 2006 and 2008.
While Raye was specifically picked because his offensive philosophy (run on first down, run on second down, and if you can see the first down marker without the aid of a telescope, go ahead and run on third down as well) meshes with Singletary’s, the circumstances that led to the vacancy he filled were curious indeed.
He will be the team’s seventh offensive coordinator in as many seasons. From 2003 to 2007, the gentlemen in question either left for head coaching jobs (Mike McCarthy to the Green Bay Packers after 2005, Norv Turner to the San Diego Chargers after 2006) or were fired for their perceived shortcomings (Greg Knapp after 2003, Ted Tollner after 2004, and Jim Hostler after 2007).
The notorious Mike Martz filled the position last season, at the personal behest of the previous head coach, the offensively-challenged Mike Nolan. Martz was neither poor at his job nor sniffing around for something loftier elsewhere. By all accounts, he was perfectly happy where he was, and under his direction, the 49ers had their most competent passing game in years, even with journeyman quarterbacks and a pedestrian receiving crew.
Still, Singletary wanted a run-first guy, so Martz was sacked.
Ironically, the team’s personnel decisions this offseason seem to lean more toward Martz’s offensive philosophies than Singletary’s.
Isaac Bruce, their leading receiver last season, was re-signed, while Brandon Jones, another free agent wideout, was lured away from the Tennessee Titans. Finally, the team spent its first-round draft pick not on some road-grading lineman, but rather on Texas Tech receiver, Michael Crabtree. Add promising youngsters Jason Hill and Josh Morgan to that trio and the team has the makings of a formidable passing attack.
It remains to be seen whether Singletary will grasp this or if he will, as he has repeatedly threatened, stick to his plan of Frank Gore left, Frank Gore right, and Frank Gore up the middle. Alabama running back Glen Coffee was drafted in the third round and as far as the coach is concerned, the rookie giving Gore a breather every 10 carries or so is all the variety the offense needs.
In Singletary’s mind, quarterbacks and receivers are a necessary evil, only needed to convert the occasional 3rd-and-12, so he can put the game back into the hands of the running backs and the defense: the meat and potatoes of a team.
Unfortunately, both Singletary and Raye will come to realize, the hard way, that they need Shaun Hill and his receiving crew more than Hill and company need the coaches. With a meek pass-rush and a porous secondary, the Niners will be giving up points by the bushel. A smash-mouth running game without a similarly agitated defense to go with it doesn’t make much sense and is a frustrating way to get beat 27-10 week after week.
The offense figures to be in catch-up mode in many second halves this season, down by multiple scores and having to pass out of three and four-receiver sets. Will Raye craft these plays as well as Martz did? And even if he does, will Singletary notice or care?
The team’s only chance to make a run-heavy offense work will be to play much better than expected on defense. Under Nolan, they were soft and vanilla, rarely committing the majority of their men to the pursuit of the quarterback. The cliché is “bend but don’t break”, but more often than not, it played out as “break, then bend over.”
Under Singletary (and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky) the scheme will have to change.
The team will have to blitz with reckless abandon and get to the quarterback at all costs. Their current safeties, Mark Roman and Michael Lewis, are marginal at best and will be exposed if opposing passers have any time in the pocket. Since they’re of little use in coverage, they might as well be hovering around the line of scrimmage, creating pressure.
It won’t happen easily or overnight, but eventually the coaches will figure out the things that need to be done to turn this woebegone franchise into a winner. If they don’t, well there’s always next year, and with it, the promise of a new group of gentlemen champing at the bit for the opportunity to succeed where their predecessors failed.