The 49ers 2010 aerial assault is taking shape, and it could be good. Real good.
It could be atrocious—make no mistake—but it's likely that their passing game could end up being one of the leagues most efficient attacks.
From offensive coordinator, to quarterback, to stars, and supporting cast; lets take a tour through the new over-the-top offense.
Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback
Starting from the summit of planning for any lofty ball movement, coaching must be considered. Mike Singletary has stated from the beginning that running will be paramount, and fundamental to San Francisco's offensive ball movement. Make no mistake—this is a run-first offense.
That said, there are no one-dimensional offenses in the NFL. Running to set up the pass is as imperative as passing to set up the run. Singletary's words are often misconstrued to see like he means run only. The running game is the main focus; passing is the other focus.
SF Bay Area sports cliché of the year: This isn't your dad's 49ers. In other words, it's not the high-wire, beat-you-to-the-punch act many of us grew up watching. That said, there will be plenty of passing opportunities for Alex Smith and company as defenses should focus on the run.
A 4,000 yard season isn't very likely, but Smith's number from last year (2,350 yards in 10 games) translates to 3,760 over a full 16 game season. By the same rational, one might forecast Smith to deliver 28 touchdowns and 19 picks in the wake of this. But that's just novice number crunching. The reality, however, is that Jimmy Raye's offense is now sinking in for Smith, and this ratio should be closer to three touchdowns per interception.
I dug up Raye talking about the pass in an interview from ninersnation in January 2009:
RE: What is your view on the passing game? I mean there has been so much talk about (Singletary's) conception of the emphasis on running? What is your view on flinging the ball and the forward pass?
Raye “Well, I think this is the new millennium, this is 2009 and there is a Wildcat thing going on and there is a down the field thing going on. I don’t think you can play one dimensional, never have. I mean we were really good in Kansas City, an outstanding run action, play action off of our running game there and got the ball very successfully to Tony Gonzalez when we were there. We threw it to the wide receivers Andre Rison and Derrick Alexander. I don’t think…I have no objection to throwing the football. I think if people are going to try to load up the box against you in the running game, depending on your personnel groups and location and the passes available to you, we will play, we will throw the ball, we will play offense and our offense will be able to take care of the contingencies of what the defense presents.”
So, the power run should open things up for Smith and company, but they'll need to execute efficiently when it does. Passing situations are something to try to hold to a minimum, so cumulative numbers are going to be misleading. It's the percentages, averages, and ratios that will tell the real story.
This leads us to third-down efficiency.
Opposing defenses caught on to the stubborn run attack last year, and the 49ers often found themselves in third and long. Although those instances should be fewer this year, the team must get away from the dreadful 65/218 they posted last year.
One thing that should help is not getting into third and long, but it happens. When it does happen, the 49ers have given Smith a couple new toys.
The team picked up some new receivers with different skill sets this off season. Ted Ginn Jr. was acquired by way of trade from Miami. The cost translates to a fifth-round pick for a 25-year old former first-rounder. He brings a speedy threat to run right past a defense, but will probably do more damage on special teams; he's a bit of a stone-hands.
The 49ers may have also scored big in the 6th round as well with Sun Devil receiver Kyle Williams. Williams is one excited puppy to be on the 49ers. Born in San Jose, Williams has already signed his rookie tender
Son to White Sox GM Ken Williams, Kyle also played center field, and was actually drafted by Chicago in the 47th round of the 2006 MLB Draft. In fact, one of Kyle's brothers, Dedrick, is a scout for the White Sox, and another brother, Kenny Jr. plays for a White Sox affiliate in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Williams strongly considered baseball as well, but it was former 49er and current Sun Devil coach Dennis Erickson who made Williams focus on Football.
"I'm kind of the oddball of the family because everybody did baseball," Williams said. "I kind of ventured my own way, but it's one of those things where people said that I couldn't do it. I wasn't good enough to do it. I had to prove them otherwise. I'm one of those guys when somebody tells me I can't do something, I'm going to start to do it just to prove them wrong."
For even more on Williams' baseball family ties, see this link to the Sacramento Bee.
At 5'10" and 185lb. Williams isn't huge, and that's fine. His grandmother Ethel says Kyle inherited world class speed from his grandfather Jerry, a track star from the 1960's. As Vice President of Player Personnel Trent Baalke put it "There's nobody on this football team that has the quickness he has in the slot."
Williams says he's comfortable with that roll. "When I was out wide the past couple of days, it was really learning a whole new route for me. It was like I was a freshman all over again, trying to learn how to do it. But when I got in the slot today, I mean, I've been running those exact routes for years. So it was like coming home a little bit. ... Real comfortable in there, and I was able to just play football. At that point you let all the other stuff go out the window, the fact that you're lining up across from whoever, and whoever's throwing you the ball. It's just football at that point."
And slot receiver was a crucially missing piece in last year's third-down conundrum; and although I had strongly advocated Texas' Jordan Shipley in the second or third, Williams in the sixth could possibly be even better.
Like Shipley, Williams also sports an impressive college highlight reel.
Soft-handed hard-blocking tight end Nate Byham also joins the young receiving corps, but his function figures to be as a run blocker as he has nothing remotely near the receiving capabilities of old toys Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
We all remember how Davis led the team with a tight-end-record 13 touchdowns on 78 catches for 965 yards—from two separate quarterbacks no less. This year could really put him over the top.
But Delanie Walker is the other explosive receiver out of the TE position. Walker took in 21 receptions for 233 yards and had three rushes for 34 yards.
And of course there's the wide-outs.
Michael Crabtree will lead the pack this year. No hold outs this year for him, he's going to be slotted to start game one. Crabtree, like Smith, had an incomplete (but respectable) season. If his last year's an indication of what his 2010 pace will be, his 48 catches for 625 yards in 2009 mean around 70 catches for 910 yards.
Large target receiver Josh Morgan came up with 52 receptions for 527 yards and rushed five times for another 61 yards. Morgan could find himself in a break-out year if he continues to improve at this pace.
Seldom used Jason Hill had only nine catches for 90 yards in eleven games with no starts in 2009. He will want to better that if he plans on keeping a roster spot.
Swings and Screens
Of course, there's more than one way pass. Running back Frank Gore himself caught 52 passes for 406 yards and two touchdowns, as San Francisco tried to play to Smith's strength in the shotgun while keeping the teams prized running back involved.
Second-year runner Glenn Coffee also made eleven receptions for 76 yards in a limited back-up roll.
I'm not sure what to expect from rookie arrival Anthony Dixon. His large frame (6'1" 233lb.) and bruising style of play leave me expecting little more than a couple catches for a few yards. Fans probably shouldn't expect soft and gentle hands from this bulldozer.
Whether it was Shaun Hill or Alex Smith last year, 49ers quarterbacks were limited in their pass-play-making abilities by opponents pass rushes. The 49ers addressed this with two first-round offensive-line draftpicks in April. Although they may or may not start from week one, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati add both beef and skill to the 49ers' passing and running games.
The factors making the 49ers' passing attack significantly better this year range from quarterback, to offensive coordinator, to pass-catching weapons; but they are all interrelated in the long run. The pass sets up the run, and vice-versa.
The offensive coordinator and quarterback have made the most out of much needed time to develop understandings of each other. And new weapons meshed with old threats litter the lineup in what figures to be a fierce competition spots on the 53-man roster.
Although—with the exception of Frank Gore—they probably won't be top-ten cumulative producers at their respective positions (so much for your fantasy team), the major players in the San Francisco passing game could be an efficient force to contend with.
As for Smith in his second year with Jimmy Raye's offense, as Roger Craig told me before the draft, "Watch Alex do some damage this year."
They're not your dad's 49ers, but they're not the 85 Bears either. They're our 2010 blood-red and gold squad—and they're here to play.