Late last season, when the 49ers were discovering a revitalized Alex Smith and a new identity, I wrote several articles about the benefits of the spread offense.
The 49ers had demonstrated that year that they started games abysmally poor, only to later catch up by switching to a shotgun spread offense exclusively.
Fans wondered, “Why don't they use this offense all the time, instead of waiting until they are down by several touchdowns?”
It was a good question to ask; and you know what? Sadly. It still is.
Why did the 49ers abandon the spread offense when it had proven to work time and again? Why did they kill the goose that laid the golden egg? The answer remains just as baffling today as it was last season.
The Myth of Ball Control
Last week against the Saints, the 49ers demonstrated that they can run a balanced offensive attack effectively. Of course, that balanced attack, was against a Saints defense that is not well known for being able to stop the run effectively.
With the energy of their home field behind them, the 49ers were able to rush Frank Gore for over 100 yards. The Saints knew it was coming, but they couldn't stop it. Because of this advantage, the 49ers were able to control the field of play like they never have before. But one thing from this perfect scenario was missing: points.
The 49ers failed to score points within their utopia of ball control and smash-mouth scheme.
Because they turned the ball over four times, and were lucky they didn't do it more.
One would have to assume that the strength of a balanced, ball-control offense, lies in the fact that it avoids turnovers. Unfortunately, this is a complete myth.
There is no reason to assume that a ball-control offense is the safer offense, which causes fewer costly turnovers. In fact, the evidence plainly demonstrates the exact opposite.
Singletary's excruciating dedication to run the ball and control the clock with a short passing game, has only proven to be a hideous display of inept coaching and clock grinding excrement.
Catch-Up and Mustard
It gets tiring having to repeat and retread on the same observations from last year, but what other choice is there? So here we go again...
Last season, the 49ers spent a great deal of time playing catch-up.
They started games very slowly, only to show a sense of urgency in the second half of a football game, along with their brilliant realization that the team actually had to put points on the board in order to win a football contest.
Another realization the 49ers had for a brief time involved the fact that Alex Smith came from a college program where he threw the ball out of the shotgun with plenty of targets downfield to choose from.
Hence, when Alex Smith had the opportunity last season to play catch-up, he demonstrated his true mustard. Alex Smith looked fantastic in the spread shotgun, “catch-up" formation the 49ers deployed against the Texans and Packers last season.
The team could move the ball and score touchdowns. Smith looked like he was at home, and even when he scrambled he looked comfortable doing it.
Fans wondered why on earth this style of offense was not employed from the beginning of a contest. Why not score points in the first half as well as the second half of a football game?
After the Packers game, I wrote an article foreshadowing the obvious, ending with a poem:
“What happens to a dream deferred?”
“Does it dry up, like a season in the sun?”
“Or fester, like smash mouth, and run?”
“Does it stink like a rotten defeat?”
“Or crust and scab over, like a scabbed knee?”
“Maybe it just sags, like a heavy load.”
“Or will the offense explode?”
The breakthrough amongst the coaching staff was finally achieved the next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Not only was it the most complete game the 49ers had played in many years, but it left the other team looking completely blindsided.
The Jaguars were seemingly mystified by what they were facing. They were expecting a team that would hand the ball off to Frank Gore, with an uncomfortable quarterback who would only hope to manage a game and avoid mistakes.
What they ran into was a gun slinging, shotgun-toting maverick, who could not only sling the ball like an outlaw, but also looked good doing it.
The 49ers moved the ball so effectively, that the defense experienced something they had rarely ever experienced on Sunday afternoons: oxygen.
To actually get a breath of oxygen for a few minutes before the offense punted the ball away, or even better yet, put the ball in the end zone. Wow, what a feeling that must have been.
The defense looked energized the whole game because they also experienced something called “morale.” When they made a stop, the offense would turn it into better field position. When they caused a turnover, the offense would turn it into a touchdown.
Actually playing with a lead in the first half of a game was surely like walking for the first time into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Awe inspiring, yet bewildering.
The 49ers won the game 20-3, headache free.
Alex Smith was 27-of-41 for 232 yards with two touchdown passes and no interceptions. I'll say it again, “zero interceptions.” Funny how such a wild, “gun-slinging” maverick could have thrown so few turnovers in such a “risky” offense, wasn't it?
The 49ers attempted 43 passes and only 17 rushes. And many of those rushes came in the fourth quarter. In the first three quarters of play, which decided the game, 31 of the 47 offensive plays were out of the shotgun formation.
Against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers tried to have a repeat performance. And as far as the offense was concerned, they pretty much did.
There are a couple of points that must be made clear however.
First, the 49ers were playing in Seattle. A place where offense had previously been known as a four-letter word for them. Up to that point, the 49ers had demonstrated some of the most utterly pathetic displays of offensive futility ever to be witnessed on a football field. Except for a few faint and fleeting exceptions, including when Mike Martz was coordinator, the 49ers had done next to nothing on this field in recent history.
Second, there were more than a couple game-changing moments that were entirely the result of special teams blunders. Those blunders not only swung momentum, but they provided Seattle with a short field to score points.
The game came down to the wire, but the costly turnovers and special teams disasters proved too much to overcome, and the 49ers lost by a field goal in the last seconds, 17-20.
Alex Smith was 27-of-45 with 310 yards passing, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Again, I would like to take the time to say it again, “Alex Smith had zero interceptions.”
Alex Smith had two games in a row where he looked like the one player on the field where no finger pointing was justified. For the second week in a row, he actually looked comfortable. Comfortable in one of the most hostile environments in the NFL.
The 49ers attempted 45 passes and only 11 rushes, which is over a 4-to-1 ratio. A lot higher, than the previous week.
39 of 57 plays were out of the shotgun formation.
Again, the Seahawks were caught off guard. They did not expect this quarterback to move the ball on them and throw touchdown passes while silencing their crowd. It was abnormal.
Unfortunately, the defense did not have as much rest as it had the previous week due to fumbles and special teams blunders. But it certainly was not exhausted the whole game, like in most other games.
The 49ers came away feeling that they gave the game away on special teams.
But at least they could keep their chin up, knowing that they had an offense that could move the ball and did not have to rely on the defense to win the game. Their offensive identity was surely set in stone by this point. It had proven its effectiveness for the second full game in a row.
I once saw a somewhat unsettling movie called “The Forgotten.” Without getting into the movie too much, the main plot revolved around the idea of lost memory, where everyone else had lost their memory of something important.
I wondered what that would be like. To be in a world where everyone else had forgotten something rather important, and to be the only one to have a memory of the subject. Now, I know what that feels like.
You see, because after losing the to Seahawks, the 49ers, for some reason, decided to abandon the spread attack that Alex Smith excelled within as if it was simply “forgotten.”
The cement for this forgotten memory, solidified the next week against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football. The team went back to punting the ball away rather than scoring points and Smith reverted back to the weary, uncomfortable “game manager” he had been before.
“But wouldn't everyone notice all the failings of the offense, in contrast to the week before?”
Because the 49ers defense caused a near record amount of turnovers and utterly devastated the Arizona Cardinals, the likes of which the NFL had rarely seen before. The defense caused fumble after fumble, interception after interception. Over and over again.
The Cardinals had no chance.
The 49ers offense, of course, had chance after chance to do something. But they did relatively little. Surprise surprise. Alex Smith's second touchdown pass of the game, came on a drive featuring eight shotgun passes in a row.
His first touchdown pass happened because the defense caused a turnover inside the Cardinals own 10-yard line. Those two and only touchdown passes came in the first half.
The second half of the football game is where the 49ers coaches truly solidified the “forget cement,” by starting off the half with their good old, tried and true tactic: Run, run, 3rd-and-long, punt. From there on out they reverted back to their old ways for the rest of the game.
Alex Smith threw two touchdown passes, but he also threw two interceptions and looked less then awe inspiring. But they won the game handily, and protestations of any sort were muffled out by the victory cheers.
Like in a reverse quote of Admiral Yamamoto, we had, “Put to sleep an awakened giant, and filled him with a docile, mellow disposition.”
The 49ers felt this meek beast would take them to the promised land, et they felt he needed some improvement. So the 49ers made him bigger and stronger.
They drafted two offensive linemen to force the issue of their new-found sleepy, lethargic giant. Don't get me wrong, the 49ers definitely needed some O-line help, but they needed it for a different purpose.
They needed to take Alex Smith up the beanstalk, not down.
The Saints game proved only one thing; that Alex Smith and the offense can move the ball successfully when the O-line plays flawlessly. The key word being “flawlessly.” But relying, week after week, on flawless O-line play in the NFL, is like relying on Jack-the-Ripper to date your daughter and bring her back home safely before 10pm.
It is a luxury that only the Dallas Cowboys of the '90s could enjoy. It is an absurd notion in the modern NFL, which depends upon play-making. Alex Smith makes plays in the shotgun spread offense attack, but struggles in any other kind of scheme.
The Chiefs disaster has demonstrated this point once again. Can anyone remember what happened at the end of the game? Correct. Alex Smith threw a touchdown pass while in the aggressive-minded two-minute spread offense.
It served almost like an elbow to the stomach of a forgotten memory. “Oh that's right, he's pretty good in a spread offense isn't he?” Oomph...Duh.
The only hope the 49ers now have, is that Singletary has taken notice.
Will the 49ers continue to blindly seek “balance," or will they finally do what has already been proven to work? Time will tell.
Hopefully, they now recognize the absurdity of relying on a flawless game from every player but the quarterback. It's time to put the game back on Alex Smith's shoulders, for the second time.
Let's see if this sleeping giant can come back to life, once more, and climb back up the beanstalk from whence it came.
Why the 49ers killed the goose that laid the golden egg in the first place, will forever remain a mystery.