Article Title: Replicating 2006.
Of all the concerns that die-hard San Francisco 49er fans have, it all starts with what is the offense going to do this year? Seven offensive coordinators later and yet another new head coach one would logically assume it has to get better doesn’t it? Back under Mike Nolan in 2006 we had but one brief offensive thrill that was quickly benched with again more questions than answers. With Nolan now gone and the Mike Martz experiment over can we get back to the traditional fundamentals that made this offense tick?
I have to believe we can. Under the diagnoses of new head coach Mike Singletary he gradually came to the realization that what was working back in 2006 then under offensive coordinator Norv Turner had all but been destroyed with the internship of raw coordinator Jim Hostler and the Don Coryell antics of the mad genius in Mike Martz. Although there were various glorious highlights in 2007 thru 2008 to talk about, nothing replicated what 2006 had administrated and that was a genuine power running attack that Mike Singletary intuitively knew was the catalyst for our overall success.
The main weapon of choice and still is, would be none other than Frank Gore who back in 2006 carried the ball 312 times for a career high of 1,695 yards. His production fell sharply as new coordinators were named following Norv Turner’s departure after accepting the head coaching position with the San Diego Chargers that left Mike Nolan isolated and vulnerable to defending his unpopular decisions and rationale for his controlling tendencies.
Frank Gore declined down to 260 carries for 1,102 yards in 2007 to 240 carries for 1,036 yards in 2008. His receptions with Mike Martz at the helm increased but his hard-nosed style of running the ball and chewing up the game clock were but mere thoughts of what yesterday was all about. He was also adamantly handcuffed after losing his bosom buddy in power-house fullback Moran Norris who was replaced for the more agile and athletic dread-locked Zak Keasey.
Mike Martz although an offensive masterpiece in his own right immediately overthrew all the main fundamental concepts that made the San Francisco 49ers a dynasty in the first place; with the West Coast Offense being that main artery that pumped life into its power running attack, which dominated the tempo of a game on any given Sunday. Martz’s offense was the finesse, spread-them-out, one-back style offense that seemed to look down in disdain for the traditional fullback-running back type tandem often associated with successful West Coast style offenses of the past.
If you want to look farther back from 2006 one would have to go back to head coach Steve Mariucci during our last playoff run when we had the tandem of fullback Fred Beasley and running back extraordinaire Garrison Hearst and his bust of a replacement in Kevan Barlow. Back then we ran the ball with pride behind a dominating offensive line that won the battles in the trenches and allowed great quarterbacks such as Steve Young and Jeff Garcia to be ultimately successful. In the back of Mike Singletary’s mind and his fondness of Bill Walsh I sense he knows this to be the foundation for renewal in our future success.
This is why he chose to let go offensive coordinator Mike Martz because he doesn’t share these same core values on offense as Singletary does. Frank Gore lobbied his coaches to reconsider bringing Moran Norris back as he was cut from the roster in favor of Zak Keasey towards the end of training camp just last year. Moran Norris was signed by the lowly Detroit Lions who were the laughing stock of the league last year going a 0-16 on the season.
What is even more intriguing with the valuable duo getting back together is the presence of running backs coach Tom Rathman, who played a vital role in the 49ers last NFC West title run in 2002. At that time he was in command of Garrison Hearst and Fred Beasley who were one of the most prolific NFL running tandems in the league at that time. Frank Gore went to his first ever Pro Bowl in 2006 by the lead blocking he gives credit to in fullback Moran Norris.
The trust that is formed between the two is unmistakable as each player gives unquestioned credit to the other for each others success. From training together during the off-season, which is a rotation from Frank Gore’s home in Miami to Moran Norris’s in Houston the two are seen as hitched for the long haul. New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye is counting on this tandem to be the main weapon of choice for the new San Francisco 49er offense in that control of the game begins with the early tempo being set and manipulated by these two. Jimmy is an old-school type teacher on the field in that he wants all his players to understand and predict what the other is doing from a position standpoint outside of their own.
In every practice session from mini-camp to organized team activities Jimmy Raye’s offensive system is well written and simplistically understood as being very similar to the Norv Turner type offense we had back in 2006. His system is a two-back-based system designed to grind down opponents with the running game first, while at the same time keeping the pass as an effective counter option.
He has been hammering home the fact to every player to study what the other is actually doing on each and every play so as to be better able to diagnose what is going on around you. This has been a drastic change to most of the players and has taken the most amount of time in getting everyone to be on the same page with. This is particularly true with the offensive line knowing what the other is doing as well as what the quarterback is anticipating.
From centering in what the receivers, tight ends and even the quarterback are doing offensive linemen can help their own techniques, timing and even their own blocking schemes. Understanding the entire play as it happens from a positional standpoint just makes a lineman better in knowledge of the assignments and how the positions move when an actual play is implemented.
In Mike Singletary’s mind and in his hiring of Jimmy Raye as our new offensive coordinator the running game will take priority over all other offensive weapons. He wants to “impose our will upon our enemies,” meaning that no matter what we do, we will be able to run the ball at anytime we see fit even if that means against an eight-man box.
To be able to do that the San Francisco 49ers needed to address the depth behind Frank Gore so as to minimize the abuse he would have to sustain over the long season. Reacquiring Moran Norris was a big part of that, but the 49ers went a step further by drafting Alabama running back Glen Coffee in round three with the 74th overall draft pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. As you know the 49ers selected their premium weapon of choice back in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft in Frank Gore out of Miami.
Now the team believes it has a back-up that will share the limelight with Frank this year, even though he was just a back-up before his senior year he led the Alabama Crimson Tide to the top of the national rankings behind second-year head coach Nick Saban. In fact in his first attempt as the full-time starter, Coffee ran for 1,383 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per carry and tied former NFL MVP Shaun Alexander for the second-best season total in school history.
Rolling in his success as the full-time starter he chose to forego his senior year and declare himself eligible for the 2008 NFL Draft. His reputation on the field is all about being passionate about what he loves to do best, and that is running the ball. He loves the physical contact and the exhilaration of achieving success for the team. He doesn’t think twice about hitting the hole and lowering his head to make that initial contact. Although only 6 feet tall and 209-pounds you’d never guess that he wasn’t a physical take no prisoners type of back.
He hits the hole with authority and he loves to plow people over. He also has the distinct abilities to be a slashing type of running back, but if you appear in his lane and are in his way, he’ll take the challenge of boring down on you and erasing you as a competent defender. Glen Coffee will vie for the premier position right behind Frank in the rotation with an average of 5-10 carries a game. He is likely or predicted to beat out veterans Michael Robinson out of Penn State and Thomas Clayton out of Kansas State for this coveted position, with Michael likely to be in reserve and playing the bulk of his duties on special teams.
The San Francisco 49ers added even more fuel to the competition by acquiring as an un-drafted free agent Purdue’s running back Kory Sheets who was very productive and finished with 3,341 career rushing yards against Big 10 competition and scored at least 10 touchdowns in each of his four college seasons while finishing with 48 for his career. What is likely to happen here with Sheets is a battle with Thomas Clayton on who stays on the 49ers practice squad in the bitter end.
What we do know is that the 49ers are in a great position as far as depth at running back. All four mentioned are in special categories of their own and will assist Frank Gore in establishing a rushing attack equal if not better to the statistics he registered in the 2006 NFL season in which we identified ourselves as a team on the rise. Despite having our seventh offensive coordinator in a row and adjusting to a new playbook all over again, the similarities to Norv Turner’s offense are definitely there.
Competition is apparent all through the offense rather it is at quarterback, wide receiver or even the tight end we have depth like never before. This is shaping up to be a replication of the 2006 season, however we want this season to spell post-season rather than playing golf while the others bask in all the glory that should be ours. The offensive line’s continuity and consistency are focal points to our running success, right tackle must be solidified in the end and our future quarterback must be followed by a period rather than a question mark.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.