Offense won't work unless 49ers fill Johnson void

The 49ers' impotent offense was desperate for the return of Eric Johnson. Now it won't get him back until 2006. In a significant blow to the team's entire offensive approach, the fifth-year tight end was placed on injured reserve Thursday after he aggravated the foot injury that's kept him out since the second week of training camp. "It hurts your offense," coach Mike Nolan said. "There's your production from a year ago gone. You just move on and try to make up for that in other ways." But how?

In two games so far this season, the 49ers have exactly one reception for three yards from their tight ends. Last year, San Francisco's tight ends produced 94 receptions, with Johnson becoming the first tight end to lead the team in receiving since Ted Kwalik in 1973.

Johnson led the 49ers with 82 catches and 825 receiving yards in 2004, and the void his injury left in the attack has been evident since the season began. Both the team and Johnson had been eagerly anticipating his return, because Johnson felt he was ready to come back two weeks ago but the team kept him out of the first two games as a precaution.

Johnson suffered a slight tear of the plantar fascia – the tight band of muscle running the length of the foot – during an Aug. 9 training camp practice. The injury originally was a day-to-day thing, but Johnson ended up missing the entire preseason as it was slow to heal and he continued to experience pain.

Johnson said he thought he could have returned for the Sept. 11 opener, but he went along with the extra healing time to be sure. Then, when he finally came out to practice Monday in preparation for Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson heard a "pop" in his injured foot as he attempted to cut while running a pass pattern. He suffered a severe tear that will take from 10 to 12 weeks to heal – and maybe longer.

The 49ers were left holding onto an offensive playbook that features several plays that may become obsolete now that Johnson won't be around to run them.

"We've had some offense that we have not done or shown because Eric has not been a part of it, but they've been working on it every now and then," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said Thursday when breaking the news that Johnson is out for the season.

"They'd throw the plays in there in case Eric comes back and then they've got them ready," Nolan continued. "Certainly, our most explosive player last year was Eric, so we've lost production out of the offense. It would have been nice for him to show up, but it's not going to happen. Now that he's out, we'll wait and see whether we can use those plays with another player in Trent (Smith) or something like that. Certainly, you need somebody to stretch the middle of the field, and our tight end position has been more in a blocking mode than anything else."

Smith, picked up from the waiver wire Sept. 4 after he was released by the Baltimore Ravens, led the nation's college tight ends in receptions as a junior at Oklahoma. He has the height and speed and receiving skills to provide the kind of dimension the San Francisco offense just loss with Johnson's injury.

"Trent is along the lines of Eric," Nolan said. "He's more of a pass-receiving tight end. We'll wait and see as far as that goes. We have (Billy) Bajema and (Steve) Bush both working at the position. For right now, those will be our two guys."

But the 49ers virtually ignored both Bajema and Bush in the passing game during the first two weeks. Though both have capability as a receiver, the 49ers used them mostly as blockers when each was in the game, seemingly saving plays that featured the tight end in the passing game for when Johnson returned.

He's not coming back now, so the Niners have to make adjustments immediately – in scheme, or personnel, or both – because a receiving tight end is a must to make San Francisco's latest version of the West Coast offense work.

"He was always open," quarterback Tim Rattay said of Johnson. "I can't sit here and lie and say that you can take him out and it's not going to affect our offense. He's such a good player. It's hard to replace a guy who had 82 catches. Other guys have to step up now. We have three guys working at tight end now and we have to use all those guys and get them involved and use the tight end position more than we have in the first couple of games."

That's for sure, or else the Niners are going to continue to put up ugly numbers on offense. San Francisco ranks 31st in the league in total offense, and the 49ers also rank 31st in third-down efficiency, having converted just four times on their 19 third downs so far this season.

Third downs were usually a time last year when Rattay could look for Johnson over the middle as a reliable option. But without him, the 49ers have produced just 20 first downs in two games – the lowest total in the NFL.

Rattay stayed late after practice Thursday, throwing passes to Smith, whom Nolan indicated might be activated for Sunday's game. It will take a while for Rattay to develop with Smith anything close to the rapport he had with Johnson, but it's a start, and the Niners have to try.

"He can run and he's tall," Rattay said of Smith. "Hopefully, he'll help us out."

If he can't, the 49ers need to find somebody else who can. Because with Eric Johnson down and out for the season, their offense definitely needs the help.

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