Although well-versed in the scientific intricacies of a passing offense, mad scientist Mike Martz will be getting a biology lesson come September. Much like the great Charles Darwin, Martz and fellow 49er fans will watch in wonder as their offensive worlds evolve.
Upon being fired following his 2008 coaching debut in San Francisco, analysts and fans alike were dumbfounded with the departure of an offensive genius. After all, under Martz’s direction the 49er offense was infused with excitement, competitiveness, and even productivity.
In 2008, the Martz-lead 49er offense managed an average of 21.2 points per game, ranking 22nd in the NFL. This was a noticeable upgrade over San Francisco’s 2007 offense, which sputtered a meager 13.7 points per game under the directionless Jim Hostler.
Given that Martz turned the 49er offense around in-house, without the need of high-priced free agents, the offensive mastermind deserves a key to the city (or at least a key to the Santa Clara practice facility).
Even the winning percentage reflected such improvement, progressing from 5-11 in 2007 to 7-9 (one Arizona victory away from a playoff birth) in 2008.
Although highly effective, Martz’s offense was exactly that, Martz’s offense.
Offensive players didn’t have names, or unique skill sets, they were just X’s.
Despite being highly effective with subpar talent (see 1,000 yard receivers: Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey), Martz never seemed to fully utilize the 49ers’ biggest and best X’s, running back Frank Gore and tight end Vernon Davis.
While being penciled into Martz’s scheme, the pencil must have broken.
Yes, Martz can turn journeymen wide receivers into 1,000 yard pass catchers, and good wide receivers into All-Pro’s. However, in the process of turning these mediocre role players into offensive gold, Martz limits the production of tight ends and running backs who are generally called in to block while the receivers go downfield and play.
In the process of taking the five and seven step drops necessary to run a deep, yardage accumulating, downfield route, the quarterback requires protection and precision timing.
This was a problem for the hesitant JT O’Sullivan who has a Folex of an internal clock.
To make matters worse, the 49ers’ offensive line was struggling through injury and youth infusion. With Jonas Jennings doing what Jonas Jennings does best (being injured), backup Barry Sims was more resembling of a bookmark than a bookend.
In addition, with second year player Joe Staley playing his first NFL season at left tackle, and rookie Chilo Rachal making his NFL debut at right guard, the 49er line experienced justifiable growing pains.
Rather than turning to the previously All-Pro ground game, or high potential tight end, Martz stubbornly refused his offensive help by miscasting such playmakers as blockers.
Davis was used in tandem with the offensive tackle to help chip the outside rushers, and impede their path to the quarterback. In doing this, outside speed rushers, such as Miami's Joey Porter, were prevented from running around 49er offensive tackles.
Meanwhile, Gore (or third down back, Deshaun Foster) was kept in to pick up any blitzing players which leaked their way through the 49er offensive line.
In the case that blitzers did not come free, Gore was permitted to leave the backfield and provide a safety dump-off valve to the 49er quarterback. Although the short pass was effective with Shaun Hill under center, it was not an effective use of Gore’s strengths as a ball carrier.
Unlike Marshall Faulk who was a speedy, outside-the-tackles type of back, Gore possesses the ability to effectively run between the tackles, eliminating the necessity of limiting his opportunities to receiving or “running in space” situations.
Although Jimmy Raye may be equally set in his offensive ways, the pieces for Raye’s offense are preexisting, providing a natural adaptation for the new 49er offensive coordinator.
Throughout his career, Raye has utilized his derivation of the Air Coryell offense to produce All Pro tight ends and running backs. This offense involves the coexistence of two contrasting yet complimentary philosophies.
The first and foremost weapon of choice is the power running attack. The power running game is a necessity to the offense, as the success of all offensive plays depends on the ability to establish the run.
This between the tackles, smash mouth strategy should be a perfect match for the tough-nosed, leg-driving running styles of Frank Gore and Glenn Coffee.
In establishing the rushing attack, defenses are forced to stack the box by bringing down the strong safety, creating an eight man (as opposed to seven man) defensive front “seven.”
By deploying their defensive backfield in run support, opposing defenses become susceptible to the second offensive philosophy of the Coryell system: the vertical passing attack.
This long-range passing attack involves wide receivers running intermediate to long routes down the field. In doing so, the offense is able to stretch the field and capitalize on the run-oriented defensive front.
This presents the defense with a pick-your-poison type of decision, where they must decide between crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run or dropping back into coverage in order to prevent the home-run pass.
In a desperate attempt to cover both the deep pass and rushing attack, defenders will often play overly-reactionary. This involves safeties and linebackers biting on the “run” decoy in cases of play action or a flea flicker, leaving the offense exposed to the intermediate to deep pass.
It also includes defenders mistakenly dropping into coverage or over-pursuing in pass rush when presented with a “pass" decoy, leaving the defense vulnerable to a delayed draw or screen pass.
Although the Coryell deep passing attack requires a five or seven step quarterback drop, the necessary blocking scheme does not prevent the tight end from becoming a receiving threat. After all, it is generally the running back or second tight end that is charged with blocking responsibilities.
In using the running back as a blocker, the offense achieves two primary objectives. First of all, it allows the tight end to move downfield and provide a short to intermediate safety valve to the quarterback. Secondly, it presents the running back as a credible pass blocker, setting up the highly effective and deceptive screen pass.
If Raye wants a tight end to stay in and block, it won’t be the blazing Vernon Davis, who is already 30 yards downfield on hike. It’ll be the bruising Bear Pascoe.
When asked about his increased role in Raye’s tight end friendly offense Vernon Davis responded, “Raye told me the tight end is the focal point. I am looking forward to it. He said he wants to get his playmakers involved."
Although Vernon Davis is a Pro Bowl caliber blocking tight end (hence his 2008 Pro Bowl alternate selection despite disappointing receiving statistics), it’s his remarkable speed (4.38 in the 40) and ability to break tackles that made him a college superstar and number six overall pick.
Davis’ true belonging is down the field, a place where linebackers can’t run with him and defensive backs can’t outmuscle him.
Raye is no stranger to high-potential tight end talent. As the tight ends coach and offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs from 1992 until 2000, Raye developed the perennial All Pro and Hall of Fame-destined tight end, Tony Gonzalez.
Although less sure-handed and refined than Gonzalez, Davis possesses the sheer speed, strength, and overall athleticism to revolutionize the tight end position. Much like Gonzalez, who consistently out-received his teams’ wide receivers, Raye’s offensive system should help Davis reach his stat-producing, fantasy football potential.
With a Pro Bowl running back and Pro Bowl-caliber tight end already in place, the 49er offense seems destined for Raye-ness (think greatness in the offensive world of Jimmy Raye).
As Mike Martz sits on his couch, located in the back of the unemployment line, he’ll likely be tuning in to witness the foreign art of system-player adaption on display in San Francisco this September.