The numbers certainly weren't pretty this past season. The Niners finished 27th in the league in total offense (290.8 yards per game), 22nd in passing (190.8 yards per game) and 25th in rushing (an even 100.0 yards per game), which, oddly enough was exactly one notch below the lowly Detroit Lions in all three categories. The club did fare better in terms of scoring, where they averaged 20.6 per game, good for 18th in the NFL, and attributed mainly to the defense's ability to force turnovers and the offense's success in the red zone (where tight end Vernon Davis in particular was a monster last year).
Still, overall they certainly weren't world-beaters out there, and the offense, along with last season's pitiful returners, were the main culprits as to why the 49ers didn't win the NFC West last season. The running game was bottled up far too often, despite the individual brilliance of Frank Gore, because teams would repeatedly put eight or even nine men in the box in order to stop him. More often than not, the offensive line wasn't up to the challenge. Meanwhile, the passing game was even more inconsistent. Shaun Hill started the season pretty well, but once opponents figured out his limitations by Week 5, he was cooked. Alex Smith took over the reins at quarterback midway through the sixth game at Houston and led an inspired comeback that fell just short, and he held the job the rest of the way. That game established an unfortunate pattern where most of Smith's better individual efforts came in losses where the Niners were down big early and had to throw often in the second half, while his quieter games were in victories that the defense dominated.
So why should we expect things to be any different in 2010 when largely the same cast of characters who disappointed last year are going to be counted on to make plays? Well, to hear Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye tell it, the fact that players and coaches in minicamp don't have to introduce themselves to one another is a positive. Not only are the entire starting eleven, as well as several key reserves, still on the roster, but for the first time in Smith's career, he'll have the same coordinator and won't have to learn a new playbook.
"I think the fact he is doing something he's familiar with eliminates some of the anxiety and some of the apprehension that he has, so he plays faster," Raye said of Smith. "That's what you try to get. You try to get them to the point where they can play fast and the rudiments of what they're doing become part of it. When you change constantly, you having to think about the calls, the alignment, the play and all of the things that go into that, so, you can't play as fast."
Head coach Mike Singletary echoed the point, but was even more emphatic, as is his wont.
"The most amazing thing to me about that whole deal with Alex is you take a guy like [Colts QB] Peyton Manning, who's had the same offensive coordinator for 10 years," Singletary began. "Alex never had that. The only question to ask is, ‘what if?' You have a ‘what if' there. To me, going forward, that ‘what if,' will begin to answer itself."
Now I certainly don't think that Singletary was trying to compare Smith's ability to a future Hall-of-Famer like Manning, but they do have similar pedigrees as former number one overall draft picks. Urban Meyer, Smith's coach at the University of Utah, told the previous 49ers coaching regime that Smith would never be more than an average player until he understood the entirety of an offensive scheme, but that once he did, that he'd be a star. Obviously it's impossible for any player to completely understand the ins-and-outs of a new offense in one offseason and the constant change has been reason for Smith's struggles so far, along with the two years lost to a separated shoulder.
We won't know for a while if Smith can ever play like the Colts superstar, but he's definitely been acting a lot like him so far in OTAs, barking out instructions to his linemen and receivers in team drills, telling guys where to line up, what sight adjustments to make, what blitzes to look for and the like. He's literally a coach on the field and this level of confidence and vocal leadership from Smith, well no one who's been covering this team during his career has seen anything like this before.
"That's something that we talked about a number of times last year, being able to take control of the offense and being able to have a command of the huddle," explained Singletary. "I remember a conversation I had with him last year and he said, ‘Coach, in all honesty, everything that you want, I can give you. I know that I can do it,' but he said, ‘I just need a little continuity and I'm still trying to learn some of the things that we are doing. Once I get it, I promise you I will show you that I can take command of the offense. I will do all the things that you are looking for,' and I left it at that. We did have some continuity this offseason and it was very nice to see him step up and do exactly what he said he was going to do."
Smith has indeed stepped up, to the point where even the defensive coaches have taken notice and nudged Singletary that they might really have something here this year. Smith has been firing one laser after another all camp, torching defensive backs in drills and making every kind of throw a quarterback can make. He looks in complete control at all times, never rattled, never unsure of himself. Of course, it's easy to be that way when everyone's in shorts and you know you're not going to get hit, right?
"We are just so much further ahead of the game compared to last year with everything – all the details of everything and the adjustments on the field, the speed of play. We really have the foundation set and we are able to build on it now," Smith said, while sheepishly admitting that he's become knowledgeable enough in Raye's offense where he could teach it others now if he had to.
"I might be hazy on some of the details of the run game, but as a whole, I feel really good about it," he added.
The guys whose jobs are to have the details of the run game down of course will be Gore, his backup Glen Coffee who was a rookie last year, and this season's sixth round pick out of Mississippi State, Anthony Dixon.
Gore we know about. A tough between-the-tackles runner, he's a workhorse and one of the best in the business at cutting back. Not only can he hammer it in there, but he's also a fabulous blocker and a dangerous receiver. In fact, his only weakness as a player may be that he never wants to come out of a game. Coffee struggled mightily last season when called into duty. While his running style is similar to Gore's, he doesn't have that all-world quickness to make anyone miss. The solution the coaches have come up is to have him run over people instead of trying to go around them, so Coffee's added 15 pounds of muscle and bulked up to 220. He insists he hasn't sacrificed any speed despite the added weight and it's hard to argue with him from what I've seen. Dixon, meanwhile, is naturally a bigger back who the coaches are trying to wean away from playing like a small, fast guy. They want him to lean forward, make one cut and go. Running Backs Coach Tom Rathman has been on him from day one about not taking false steps, but he definitely sees the potential in the rookie. Ultimately which of the two wins the backup job may come down to whom the coaches trust more in blitz pickup.
As far as the receivers go, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan have been sensational during these OTAs. It's really impossible to describe how improved Crabtree in particular has been. He never got to practice in minicaps or training camps last year, so this is his first time opportunity to work on the fundamentals and learn the finer points of the offense. No one's been able to cover him out here. Morgan has shown fabulous hands all month and is working on running deeper routes, being more of a downfield threat. Rookie Kyle Williams, out of Arizona State, is sharing slot reps with Jason Hill and the two of them seem like twins, forever engaged in a battle of "anything you can do, I can do better." The youngster looks quicker, while the veteran's had fewer drops. Ted Ginn, whom the team acquired from the Miami Dolphins, is still trying to learn the offense, but he's been better of late, ever since Davis advised him to work after every practice on the Juggs machine to improve his catching. He could add a wrinkle or two to the receiver corps.
The tight end group is as deep as ever. Davis, as you well know, was phenomenal last year, with 78 receptions for 965 yards and an NFL record-tying 13 touchdowns. He's been a beast as always in practice and seems extremely enthused about Smith's emergence and their burgeoning chemistry. Enterprising as ever, he's been trying to market "11-to-85" logos. Backup Delanie Walker had an off-year in 2009 considering the amount of playing time he got in the two tight end sets, but he looks more sure of his routes so far in camp, and more willing to block too. He knows he's got competition now in rookie Nate Byham out of Pitt, who's a blocking specialist. Two other challengers for the third job in Tony Curtis and J.J. Finley have both been camp standouts as well.
Finally there are the linemen. It was the team's dirty secret last year that the reason they played so conservatively on offense was because they didn't trust the line to protect their quarterbacks, pure and simple. Consequently, the more they tried to have a shove-it-down-your-throat mentality, the more opposing defenses flooded the box with bodies, which made the run blocking look bad too. The team acknowledged their weaknesses in the offseason and drafted two first round linemen in tackle Anthony Davis out of Rutgers and guard Mike Iupati out of Idaho. Now the questions are whether one or both will start right away and can a team be successful with two rookie linemen up front?
"We started D'Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle and Nick Mangold at guard as rookies in New York and went to the playoffs, Raye said (he was an offensive assistant with the Jets in 2003). "It can be done and left tackle is a much more difficult position to play in the NFL than right tackle spot (where Davis would be playing). It just depends on the individual, how fast he matures and how stable the people are around him."
Both Davis and Iupati are immense (literally) talents, and their presence on the roster has forced last year's incumbents, guard David Baas and tackle Adam Snyder to come to camp in the best shape of their lives, knowing their starting jobs are in peril. "It's always interesting how much better someone gets when you draft somebody else at their position," noted Singletary during a recent radio interview.
Add the rookies to a starting group that includes left tackle Joe Staley, center Eric Heitmann and guard Chilo Rachal, and the Niners offensive line all of a sudden looks pretty good. Baas and Snyder, as well as tackle Barry Sims and guard Tony Wragge will provide depth, while youngsters like tackle Alex Boone (having a great camp, by the way), center Cody Wallace and newly-signed Matt Kopa out of Stanford are also still in the mix.
For too long the Niners offense has been, well, offensive. Finally, the talent is in place to change that, and this year the continuity to go with it. Can this group jell in time to surprise the rest of the league? With every spiral between the numbers Smith fires in camp, the more it seems possible.