After nearly a decade of failed quarterbacks, coordinators and systems, it’s clear the 49ers' offense needs to be blown up and rebuilt. To that end, new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh was hired with a mandate to do whatever it takes to breathe life into the team’s dormant offense.
The San Francisco defense, on the other hand, may only need a tune-up. San Francisco’s defense was solidly marginal last season: 16th in the NFL in points, 24th against the pass and sixth against the run.
Even though that performance doesn't mandate a change, it’s logical to think that if Harbaugh has the hood up all season tinkering with the offense, why not have new Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio overhaul the defense as well?
The most talked about change would be to move San Francisco’s base defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3. For those readers who are not the X’s and O’s type, or have never played Madden, those numbers refer to the alignment of the front seven defenders and whether you have three or four down lineman.
The pros of sticking with the 3-4 are: It’s the formation the players are familiar with, so it would lessen the learning curve with a new coordinator. It’s easier to disguise the team’s lack of a dominant pass rusher through zone rushes and blitzes.
It would also allow the team to retain emotional leader Takeo Spikes at middle linebacker.
The pros of switching to a 4-3: It might be a better fit for the team’s best defensive players (Justin Smith and Patrick Willis). It would allow the 49ers to let go of expensive veterans like Spikes and Aubrayo Franklin.
Spikes would have more time to focus on his true calling as host of TKO TV.
Furthering the 4-3 fodder is that North Carolina DE Robert Quinn, who Scout Inc’s Todd McShay called the perfect player for a team transitioning to a 4-3, may fall to the 49ers in the draft.
A four man line with Smith on one end and Quinn on the other, could provide the most formidable pass rush the team has mustered in years. At worst, it would keep opposing offenses from triple teaming Patrick Willis.
Before we get too deep into speculation, it’s important to note that Fangio is a long-time fan of the 3-4, having apprenticed under 3-4 guru Dom Capers for 16 seasons.
Therefore, asking Fangio to come in and install a 4-3 would be like hiring Don Nelson to coach defense.
Even though he’s on the other side of the ball, Fangio would be wise to learn from the mistakes of two veteran 49ers offensive coordinators who came to the team with predispositions towards a certain system.
Mike Martz's air-it-out approach worked great with Kurt Warner and Torry Holt, not as much with J.T O’Sullivan and Arnaz Battle. Martz was canned after only one season as 49ers Offensive Coordinator.
Martz’s successor Jimmy Raye tried to install a power run game behind an awful offensive line. After a full season of running Frank Gore into a brick wall, he was fired at the start of the 2010 campaign.
The takeaway for Fangio is a dogmatic approach to your system doesn’t work if you don’t have the right talent to pull it off.
The 49ers don’t have the luxury of doing a full-scale retooling on both sides of the ball. Thus, the 49ers' defensive driver will have to work with what he’s got.
Regardless of how he numbers his front seven, Fangio will need to be creative in his ability to exact the most out of the 49ers' defense if he hopes to stick around.