The draft is officially over and there's already speculation swirling that the 49ers are regressing back to their anemic offense from the early stages of the 2009 season. Pardon me if I have to see it before I believe it. While San Francisco did everything in their power to improve the running game, it doesn't mean we'll be seeing less of the Alex Smith-friendly offense we saw in the second half of '09. What it does signify is that the team knew exactly what it wanted, and exactly what it had to do: improve the running game and the offensive line.
According to Football Outsiders, San Francisco's offensive line was brutal in 2009; the team finished 32nd in Adjusted Line Yards, and 26th in pass protection. Regarding NFL team stats, the 49ers finished 25th in rush yards per game (98.3) and 22nd in pass yards per game (190.8). In other words, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the team needed better players for the OLine. What did San Francisco do? They went out and addressed the biggest need by not only taking two top tier OL prospects, but a bruising RB, and a blocking TE. Does this spell the end of the shotgun formation (I don't want to call it a spread)? No.
Like I mentioned earlier, Alex Smith has the support of the 49ers, and if the 49ers were to scrap the playbook from the second half of 2009 it would completely contradict another philosophy Mike Singletary preaches: continuity. The team can't take away what the players are familiar with as they've been down that road too many times. The team is simply trying to complement the Alex Smith formation with a physical running game. How many times did the 49ers struggle to run the ball with the lead? How many times did the 49ers struggle to run the ball period? All Mike Singletary wants, is a team that can run the ball when they need to run the ball.
The 49ers, at one point or another, will have to rely on running the ball from a power formation. This doesn't mean the 49ers will be running every time the power formation is on the field (just like being in the shotgun doesn't guarantee the 49ers won't run). Even if the 49ers have a heavy package with a blocking TE on the field, it's not as though they'll be lacking options should the defense stack the box. Lest we forget about the personnel group that was the bread and butter of the shotgun last season (2 TE, 2 WR, 1 RB). Similarly, a heavy package (or power formation) could consist of a similar personnel group (with better blockers).
After the jump, take a look and see what I'm talking about...
The base shotgun formation saw Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis relied upon to be receiving TEs, but also gave the 49ers an opportunity to run if the defense had nickel personnel on the field. Even though Delanie Walker is less than average at blocking, it wasn't a tall order to have him block a DB. In other words, the formation could create defensive mismatches. In 2010, a heavy package could do just that: make the defense commit to one thing, and hit them with something else. A blocking TE is only coming on the field to replace one player (either Walker, or Josh Morgan), which leaves Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore as dangerous threats with extra protection. Putting Alex Smith under center also sells the run in a unique way.
If the 49ers keep the shotgun heavy section of the playbook, defenses will automatically think run when Smith takes the snap from under center in a heavy formation. Does Vernon Davis become a worse receiving option because of this? I think not. If anything, it gives Vernon Davis an advantage from a receiving standpoint. If a safety is up in the box, he'll have trouble running with Davis and no LB can cover VD one-on-one. Remember 4th & 1 against Jacksonville last season? The defense stacked the box and VD burned them for a 30-yard gain. A week later against Seattle, Davis did the exact same thing on 4th & 1, this time 33-yards for a TD. Why does drafting a blocking TE and back-up RB change any of this? It doesn't, it just give the 49ers better personnel to block when the team wants to run (and they can still pass when these guys are on the field).
The philosophy is not changing, it's just getting better. The playbook isn't changing, the personnel is improving. Also keep in mind that O-Linemen are on the field for every offensive snap, and the team won't have to change it's shotgun personnel to be able to run efficiently out of the formation. If the team succeeded in the shotgun last year with a LOLine, why would they shy away from it with a better OL? An improved OL basically gives the 49ers a better chance of running the ball with success out of any formation. A tight end that can block gives the 49ers a better chance of running the ball with success out of a power formation (especially if that player can play H-Back or FB, like the 49ers envision Byham doing). Do you follow me? Let me recap why the 49ers will have a successful offensive philosophy in 2010.
1. Alex Smith is the QB. In order to maintain continuity, the team cannot scrap the Alex Smith friendly section of the playbook and go with 3-yds and a cloud of dust. It doesn't allow Alex Smith to fully utilize the talent surrounding him, or be the QB he's shown flashes of being (not the bust version).
2. Vernon Davis is a weapon. In order to capitalize on this, the team can sell run (whether it be play action or formation) and still have a dangerous threat to beat the defense. San Francisco did this in 2009, and should be able to do this even more effectively with a better roster. Vernon Davis getting doubled or triple teamed? See Below.
3. Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, and Delanie Walker are still 49ers. The team just simply complemented that group with a better OL, a better blocking TE (for short yardage, not 90% of the plays), and a back-up RB that can thump. If defenses begin keying on VD, any of these players can beat a defense (see: Frank Gore). If you put the heavy formation on the field, guys like Michael Crabtree can still beat you.
4. A better OL means more options. Having improved personnel on the field at all times generally equals success, not regression.
5. Anthony Dixon ran many times in the shotgun at Mississippi State. If the team drafted a player that is familiar running in a specific formation like the shotgun, wouldn't that mean the team's philosophy isn't changing? Dixon could've been selected over other RBs for the very reason that he's shown significant results in a shotgun formation. It never hurts adding a player that's comfortable with a formation the team ran a lot of last season.
Is this making sense? It certainly does to me. I just don't see the 49ers taking a step backwards, after taking such a huge step forward through the draft. Sure, we might see less of the shotgun formation, but it's not going to disappear. We also might see more passing plays with Alex Smith under center, but it would be fantastic to see the team run the ball when they need to (and when the defense knows it) and have success when doing so. The new players increase the odds of this happening.