The quick slant. The screen pass. The dink, the dunk, and the draw play on 3rd-and-medium. Scripting the first 15 plays of the game. Letting receivers run after the catch. Using the pass to set up the run.
All these traits, effortlessly blended together in the mind of one of the greatest offensive schemers in the history of football, Bill Walsh, transformed the 49ers' franchise from the laughing stock of the 1970s into the team of the decade in the 1980s.
Using principles that he had learned under Paul Brown and perfected on his own, Walsh evolved the way the NFL offense would be run for the next 30 years. Since the last of the "West Coast" minded coaches left San Francisco—Steve Mariucci in 2002—the 49ers are a miserable 33-54. Coach Mike Singletary is hoping to bring a change in results with an unfortunately similar method.
Like his predecessor Mike Nolan, Singletary holds a mundane offensive philosophy, one fitting of a Mike Ditka-era middle linebacker. Run the ball 35-45 times a game and throw on 3rd-and-medium and long.
There's been a long held myth in the NFL that teams win with defense and ball control, especially in the playoffs. Unfortunately for people of that camp, like Singletary, the numbers don't add up.
Take last year's Super Bowl participants, the Steelers and the Cardinals, for example. The Cardinals finished second in the NFL in passing offense behind the Saints. They finished 32nd, dead last, in team rushing yards. What many might not realize is that the Steelers finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing, and their leading rusher, Willie Parker, finished the regular season with less than 800 yards on the ground.
During the playoffs, the top three rushing teams were the Vikings, Giants, and Titans; all exited in the first round. The Steelers and the Cardinals both averaged below 95 yards rushing per game in the playoffs and ended up in the Super Bowl.
This isn't an isolated incident but a recurring theme. Looking at the Super Bowl winners of the last decade, there hasn't been a team since the Ravens in 2000 that didn't throw the ball with extreme proficiency and use the run game as a complementary resource.
The brain trust behind San Francisco's offensive attack seemingly choose to ignore recent history. Just this weekend, 49ers' offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was quoted as saying that the quarterback would play a supporting role, at best, to feature back Frank Gore.
“This deal is 21,” Raye said. ”This ball park is going to be run by No. 21. The guy that’s running this ship at the quarterback position, and for both of them, that is why the competition was what it was. It was never going to be that the lead dog in this race was going to be the quarterback. The bell cow in this operation will be No. 21. The quarterback’s job is to make sure we get that done and play within himself and make the plays available to him. It wasn’t from the beginning to tailor it to so we would see the quarterback and do what his strengths were as our lead. That wasn’t the way it was."
As 'Niners fans grow increasingly disillusioned with the team's quarterback play this season, they may want to turn their frustrations toward the coaching staff and not the players.
With marquee quarterbacks like Matt Cassel and Jay Cutler on the market during the offseason, 49ers' brass decided they were content entering camp with Alex Smith, holder of a career 63.5 pass rating, and journeyman Shaun Hill, holder of 10 career starts.
For a front office that signed DE Justin Smith to a six-year $45 million deal and CB Nate Clements to an eight-year $80 million deal, it seems peculiar that the 'Niners didn't make a move for at least a mid-level free agent signal caller like Byron Leftwich or Jeff Garcia.
The simple answer lies in the fact that Singletary and Raye don't have to explain their archaic offensive philosophy to the fanbase or local media because it's the only option the team has.
Shaun Hill can't carry the team to victory on his own and certainly won't be asked to. The team will live and die with Frank Gore (he of three knee surgeries) and hope that their lack of a vertical passing game won't be exposed too early in the season.
One Walsh disciple, Mike Holmgren, will be watching the 49ers closely. Hopefully the 49ers' ownership group has him on speed dial.