San Francisco 49ers Evolution: From Spread Offense To Spreading Stats
It is rather incredible how different the 2010 San Francisco 49ers offense stands to look as compared to the one fans saw just months ago in 2009.
Ironically, the key difference may be similarity between players up and down the depth chart at each position.
Shaun Hill has given way to David Carr, a mobile, strong-armed, crafty quarterback whose style of play bears striking resemblance to that of incumbent starter Alex Smith.
The patchwork of guard and tackle combinations of a year ago has been fortified with the additions of Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati and the healthy return of Joe Staley. The starting offensive line stands to be a stalwart front, with backups ready to spell them as needed.
Michael Crabtree leads a group comprised nearly exclusively of young, fast, developing wide receivers after the departure of Arnaz Battle and Isaac Bruce.
While few can aspire to match the on-field production Vernon Davis enjoyed at tight end in 2009 (Davis not excepted), Delanie Walker and Nate Byham boast speed, soft hands, and solid blocking ability to complement the skill set Davis brings.
Perhaps the most diversity can be found among the running backs, with Anthony Dixon standing to provide a more physical alternative to Frank Gore and Glen Coffee, if not a true change of pace. However, even here all three are one-cut, north-south, downhill runners who rely on patience and reads more than moves or speed.
This continuity suggests that the 49ers are pursuing a defined, determined offensive scheme, with a variety of interchangeable options ready to swap in at any point in a drive. Such an approach offers great insurance against the possibility of injuries and is also in keeping with the Mike Singletary culture, where no one player is above the team.
However, such an offensive approach is sure to limit the team's ability to change pace and keep defenses guessing, thus limiting their offensive efficacy, right?
Consider just one offensive personnel package: the Pro Set formation, with the quarterback under center or in the shotgun and backs flanking him on either side, two wide receivers, and a tight end flanking the line.
Suppose instead of using a halfback and a fullback most of the time, the 49ers go with two halfbacks from this set: Dixon and either Gore or Coffee.
Dixon's apparent physicality suggests that he will make most of his money running between the tackles. He could develop into a great asset in moving the pile in third and fourth and short situations, where the 49ers have struggled of late. He should also be tougher to bring down than Gore or Coffee, meaning that opposing defenses will likely bring reinforcements up the middle to counter an offensive set featuring Dixon.
Gore's versatility, however, combined with his ability to catch a pass out the backfield, makes him more of a threat off tackle or toward the sidelines. So what is an opposing defense to do?
Stuff the middle? Great! Pitch it wide to Gore or Coffee. With the tackles pulling and a tight end sealing the edge, either back will be able to turn the corner most of the time.
Spread the defense? Great! Pound it up the middle with Dixon.
Stack the box to stop the run? Great! Play-fake it to a back and go over the top to Davis or Crabtree.
Try a blitz? Great! Pull the tight end back with the backs in mass protect and hit a receiver on a seam route.
Need more options? Try a bubble screen or a delayed flat route off a block from a running back, wide receiver, or tight end.
Still worried about versatility? And that is out of just one offensive set!
Of course, for this to work, a lot still needs to happen. Dixon needs to develop into the punishing physical runner he seems to have to potential to become. The offensive line needs to gel the way everyone assumes they will, and a relatively young core of guards needs to be able to create holes for the backs without help from a lead-blocking fullback. Crabtree and Davis need to continue to emerge as elite receiving threats.
Early indications are good, though.
The makeup of the current offense should serve the 49ers well. They will not be reliant on any one player to make the offense go, but rather each player will be an interchangeable cog in an offensive machine. With proper coaching, development, and execution, that machine could become a punishing and unrelenting force.
Continuity in the offensive scheme, regardless of which player happens to be manning each position, should simplify the execution, accelerating the learning curve for a fairly young group, while cutting down on mistakes and penalties without sacrificing versatility. The approach may not be as elegant or sexy as the offenses of Bill Walsh, but the approach may prove to be nearly as brilliant.
Will this be the birth of "The Big Red and Gold Machine"? We shall see.
Keep the Faith!
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