San Francisco 49ers: 6 Top Offseason Offensive Priorities
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If it wasn’t for the Dallas Cowboys, it is safe to say that the San Francisco 49ers would have earned the distinction as the NFL’s most underachieving team in 2010. They came into the season expecting great things. By season’s end, with just six wins, the wreckage was all over the place:
• Three players either quit or were shipped out directly as a result of their relationships with the coaching staff.
• The offensive coordinator was sacked midseason.
• By the end of the season, the head coach went out the door, too, and he had been anointed as a savior just two seasons prior 2008.
The reasons for the excitement were plentiful. Defenses had to consider the very difficult-to-defend Vernon Davis, perhaps the league’s best tight end. They had to worry about Frank Gore, the NFL’s most persistent runner. There was Michael Crabtree, who in 11 games in 2009 turned heads with his sure hands and his ability to find the seams in the zones.
The 49er defense, anchored by Patrick Willis, who many think is the best inside 'backer in the game, proved to be tough against the run. The defensive line was decently deep, and safety Rashon Goldson appeared capable of making big hits.
That’s why at the start of the season they were the overall favorite but not the predominate favorite, and rightly so. They had questions about their secondary that proved to be critical. They had questions about the quarterback, which proved to be unsettling (and ultimately personifying the disconnect between the players and the head coach).
They had two rookies on the offensive line, which is never a good thing for a team built around the simple belief that they wanted to run on anyone at anytime. Their quarterback has issues. The defense couldn’t get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
By and large, though, through the clues and cracks that came out of the locker room, 2010 was a season where it seemed that former coach Mike Singletary lost the team. They knew his philosophy and came to the realization that it wouldn’t work.
Now that the 2011 season may or may not be upon us, pending issues with the lockout, 49er fans wonder if the reset button has been pushed and the entire culture has been rebooted. And perhaps, that’s the best thing that new coach Jim Harbaugh needs to do: instill some confidence, and it starts with offense.
With that, here are the six top offseason priorities coming into 2011.
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First and foremost, the 49ers are different than anything in Northern California. They were the first pro team here. What’s more, they were exciting. First coach Buck Shaw was an offensive innovator and he had a good quarterback in Frankie Albert.
A trend was set: innovative coaches, playmakers with the ball. The names are not just special, they’re in the Hall of Fame—Albert, Y.A. Tittle, Montana and Young. There’s a case for John Brodie being in the Hall.
That doesn’t even count the other great offensive stars over the last 55 years—R.C. Owens, Hugh McElhenney, Joe Perry, Bernie Casey, Ken Willard, Gene Washington, Vic Washington, Ted Kwalick…and then there are all the great names that came in the Bill Walsh era.
You get the point: The Niners were special, and they were exciting—except not so much since 2002. Defense first, run first, score little, not score enough. Since 2002, the team’s record is 46-82. Their best was 8-8 in ’09, the genesis of the Niners-winning-the-division talk prior to 2010.
It falls on Harbaugh’s shoulders to invigorate the 49ers into their traditional selves—a fun-to-watch, offensive-oriented, take-charge football team that gets fans excited coming to the games. It takes creativity and patience, but it also takes trust. The coaching staff has to fit the scheme to the best abilities of the players; and the players have to believe in it.
Put another way, with the offensive talent in San Francisco, it’s embarrassing to lose a division title to team that finished 7-9. From an even higher level, though, is the consideration that this is a franchise with an undying fanbase that is slowing dying.
The days of automatic sellouts are gone; long lines for season tickets are no longer the norm. Putting out some excitement, some old-fashioned Niner ball, might help sell more tickets.
Alex Smith and Leadership
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One thing about quarterbacks: They can say all the right things at the right time. They can sound good in meetings and sound even better in the huddle. But when the play’s there, they have to make it. If they don’t, the whole team is a failure.
It’s the nature of the position. It’s unfair, but at the same time, if the quarterback performs he earns undying loyalty. Players fall in line; it’s what makes them believe.
Right now, it’s unclear whether Alex Smith has the team behind him. Personally, I think he’s a decent talent that could get better, but he’s looked bad because he’s been in schemes that don’t favor his talents. His coaches—first Mike Nolan and then Mike Singletary—were defense guys, and let us not forget that he’s had seven offensive coordinators.
Nonetheless, when given the chance, this year Smith has to make plays. Maybe it becomes Harbaugh’s job to get him to relax and play like there’s nothing on the line. But there’s no doubt that he can make plays, as seen in his leading a comeback against the Saints last year.
What’s so compelling is that if Smith doesn’t do the job, fans might feel the front office is even more out of touch and thus lose interest. No pressure there, No. 11.
More Vernon Davis TDs
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He’s only one of the most imposing physical specimens in the game. But even he can’t get open if all he runs are seam routes up the middle when everyone is looking for seam routes up the middle.
There are few experiences quite as difficult like trying to catch a football in the middle of a crowded train station as all the other waiting passengers all looking to hit you as soon as the ball arrives.
He’s at the peak of his career but if you look at his numbers, he has 232 receptions in 72 games—barely three touches a game. In 2009, when he set the record for tight-end TD receptions with 13, he had 78 catches in 16 games—nearly five a game.
Harbaugh has to find a way to get Davis to catch the ball at least five times a game, even if it means bringing down his yards-per-reception of 12.7. By doing so, defenses would have to think middle first, freeing up outside running and throwing lanes.
Net Yards Per Pass Attempt
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The real fan thinks he knows things like quarterback ratings and red zone trends, but coaches look a little deeper in measuring a team’s effectiveness.
One of the most telling is net yards per pass attempt. This is different than what the NFL puts out and is cited in newspapers and on broadcasts. It’s a barometer of what happens every time a QB attempts a pass or is sacked in the process.
For example, if a quarterback completes 20 of 30 passes for 300 yards, his yard-per-attempt average is 10.0, which is excellent. But the postgame stats may show that the QB was sacked three times for a loss of 30 yards.
The NFL says that the quarterback had a great day as seen by his 10.0 yards-per-attempt. Coaches know that the team attempted 33 passes and netted 270 yards, so the net yards per-attempt comes out to 6.6, or about 34 percent less efficient.
Alex Smith averaged 3.6 net yards per attempt, one of the lowest in the league. Philip Rivers of the Chargers has led the league in that stat at over 7.8 net yards per attempt. In short, he’s more than twice as effective as Smith.
But that’s not to say Rivers is twice as good as Smith. It means the Chargers overall were, from the offensive line offering protection to receivers hanging on to passes and then getting more yards after the catch. To illustrate that, consider the 2000 St. Louis Rams. Kurt Warner’s net yards per attempt was 9.0, the highest since the records have been kept, starting in 1969.
The 49ers appear to have the talent to be one of the most effective in this department. Improving on the 3.6 figure will go a long ways to getting more wins. It starts by keeping Smith upright, and he has to make sure his throws hit the mark, and the receivers hang on and then do something.
In short, it reflects an overall team effort.
3rd Down Efficiency
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The Niners converted on 32 percent of their third downs, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t all that great, either. What I couldn’t find was the average third down distance they had to convert. I bet it was over five yards per attempt.
It’s one thing to blame the quarterback, but football is a game of either-or decisions. Since the average pass play in the NFL goes for about 4.4 yards, then when defenses get in 2nd-and-6-plus yards and 3rd-and-3 plus yards, then they’re going to play pass.
Most often, the offense is going to pass, and when an offense is going against a defense expecting pass, it is less likely to be successful. But third downs tend to be a product of what happens on first and second down.
If the Niners were to get their average cover distance down from five-plus to three-plus this season, expect greater conversion due to the simple fact that the defense will most likely not as set on what kind of play the Niners will run.
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It’s not a stat. It’s not a new concession item.
It’s a feeling. A sense of the unexpected. Anticipation spiced with excitement.
The Niners always had that. They always could move the ball. From Frankie Albert to Jeff Garcia, the good Niner teams were good offensive teams.
And there’s no doubt that the NFL is a defense-first league. Naturally so. The length of the schedule, the parity of the competition and talent among all teams make coaches and general managers devise ways to minimize mistakes and exaggerate possibilities.
Former Niner coaches Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary bought into that philosophy. They felt that defense had to own the day, and the offense had to do a minimum—17 points a game and that would be 10 wins.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The good teams over the last five years—Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, San Diego, Baltimore, New York Jets, Pittsburgh, Green Bay—are pretty balanced. But with the exception of Baltimore and the Jets, they all have or have had first-rate quarterbacks to go along with a score-early, score-often approach.
And the reason why is clear. Like net yards per attempt, the NFL is actually pretty easy to understand. The better prepared teams, the ones that devise schemes that maximize opportunities for their players to succeed against the opposition and then execute those opportunities, tend to get ahead and stay ahead.
Just as noted above, with the parity of talent so pervasive, it makes it so much easier to play defense if you can forget about the run and just focus on pressuring the passer.