Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Seahawks, Part I

In Part I of an exclusive three-part series,'s Craig Massei and's Doug Farrar begin their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Doug to Craig. Is there a disconnect between coach Mike Singletary and the 49ers' new spread offense? How is RB Frank Gore doing in it? What do the Niners need to shore up as a franchise? These Q&As and more inside.

Doug Farrar, publisher, The general consensus on the newly-productive Alex Smith is that if he's given more of a spread offense to work with, he's got the chance to be a factor in the NFL – this obviously going back to his shotgun days at Utah. Do the 49ers have the kind of offensive schemes that would put such a quarterback in a position to succeed? It seems to me that there's a disconnect between the earthbound philosophy of Mike Singletary and what Smith could bring to the table.

Craig Massei, editor in chief, Isn't that the truth. The spread offense the 49ers have been running the past few weeks does not fit in with Singletary's philosophy or what he envisions for his offense in any way. That said, the fact the 49ers have adjusted their attack to best fit their personnel is another example that Singletary has what it takes to be a successful head coach. He's not so stubborn to insist on doing it his run-first-mentality way at the cost of preventing his team from having its best chance at victory. Singletary wants to win, and he realizes this is what gives his team the best chance to win as it is currently configured. So he got together with offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye – who has had a trying first season with the team – and told him to start winging it. And the results last week were impressive. It might have been Smith's best sustained effort over four quarters in his career. He definitely is an improved quarterback, and a spread system definitely fits his skills. The team's offensive line has been a big letdown this season, but the 49ers definitely have the receiving weapons to be successful with this kind of offense – and Smith finally is ready to get the ball to them on an efficient and consistent basis.

Doug Farrar: Last time Frank Gore faced the Seahawks, he carved them up like the proverbial Thanksgiving turkey. How has he done the rest of the season, and have injuries been an issue?

Craig Massei: After his big game against the Seahawks in September – at the end of which he sustained an ankle injury – Gore aggravated that injury on his first carry the next week against Minnesota and missed the rest of that game and the next two after that. Obviously, that hurt the 49ers and their offense and the momentum they established during their 3-1 start. Gore returned strong and has been the same productive back both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield, though he hasn't been getting the touches he needs – and the team needs him to have – because of the problems and transition going on with the offense. But he's still averaging five yards a carry and is second on the team in receptions, so he's having another fine season and still is the main man in the offense, though the change to a throwing attack appears to be diminishing his rushing opportunities.

Doug Farrar: Michael Crabtree has come around as a key man in this offense. How do you think he's done so far, and what are the things you think he still needs to work on?

Craig Massei: Crabtree has been almost phenomenal. To think that any rookie receiver – particularly one that would be a junior in college today if he had remained in school – could come in after missing the first 71 days from the start of training camp and make the immediate impact he has is almost unheard of. No matter how good a player is, it's rare for receivers to make such a dramatic impact as rookies. It's one of the most difficult positions to excel at immediately at the professional level. But Crabtree was an immediate starter in his NFL debut, even though his contract impasse prevented him from even joining the team until early October. And now he is clearly established as San Francisco's No. 1 receiver and go-to guy on the edge. He's strong, has great hands and runs precise routes. He's the full package, and all he needs to work on is finding consistency and continuing to learn the nuances of the NFL game. I was skeptical whether he'd make any impact as a rookie, but he's already one of the top playmakers on the team and is a legitimate threat in the passing game. To think that he is just getting started makes what he has done even more impressive. This is not to say Crabtree is the Second Coming or anything like that, but he definitely is on his way to being something and is helping the team get better on offense.

Doug Farrar: Unfortunately, the 49ers and Seahawks are two teams looking to the future. What are the aspects of the franchise that need shoring up going forward?

Craig Massei: Well, the 49ers still are in the now mode – they haven't given up hope of still making the playoffs this year. They currently are mired in a string of six consecutive losing seasons – the worst ever for the franchise – and aren't really eyeing the future at this moment. They need to get it done now. A winning season still is very attainable as their schedule turns soft down the stretch. Catching Arizona for the NFC West title isn't out of the question, though they'll need some help – plenty of help – for that to happen. Going forward, specifically, the team needs to get an edge pass rusher to complete a solid defense, shore up its offensive line, and finally decide if Alex Smith is the answer at quarterback, or whether it's time to turn the page and find the next franchise QB.

Doug Farrar: Mike Singletary seemed to come on board as more of a dynamic personality foil than a serious coach. That seems to have changed as he's gained more experience. How would you assess Singletacy's tenure, and is he the right man going forward?

Craig Massei: You probably heard this from me before and you'll hear it again: I can't say enough about Singletary. I just feel he is really something special as a leader, in particular, and a head coach, in general. He is always poised and in control, and for the most part, he is really pushing the right buttons on the sidelines during game days – something I have been particularly impressed with. To me, getting it done on game days is the most difficult thing for a NFL coach and really a defining measure of success. But Singletary really seems to know what he's doing on Sundays – and that is something I have been really impressed with and even somewhat surprised. Everything else he does during the week as far as running the team has been exemplary, and everybody still is buying into his message despite a tumultuous season that has presented a lot of change and the usual weekly challenges. Is he the right man moving forward? Singletary is simply The Man, period.

PART II: Check back on both and as Doug answers five questions from Craig.

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