The 49ers completed the second day of their current OTAs yesterday, and we got to hear quite a bit about the offense's performance, ranging from the work of the offensive line, to Ted Ginn's drops, to the improved poise and aggressive leadership of QB Alex Smith. It's stuff we've discussed over and over again, but it can be interesting to hear from the horse's mouth, in this case OC Jimmy Raye.
By far the best line was one that hit home for most of us during Alex Smith's career. Jimmy Raye was discussing how Smith was really able to direct the offensive line in a protection scheme. When asked if that was something that could be handled in 2009, Raye said:
"Not really. [Smith] had some idea, but some of it was okay, most of it was I hope I'm right and if not, then scramble to my right.
How many times during the last five years have you been watching the game, and suddenly found yourself screaming at the screen as Smith rolled back and to his right and flutter the ball out of bounds, or short of a receiver? Those plays might have been more frustrating than anything else. I'd fully expect us to see that on occasion going forward, but maybe not quite as much.
If you haven't read the transcript, or seen some of the beat writers reports on it, in practice yesterday, the biggest thing to stand out throughout the day was Alex Smith making protection corrections in a fairly vigorous manner. When asked about that Jimmy Raye said that the team wouldn't have attempted to implement that last year because all the parties were still learning a lot of the basics of the offense. In yesterday's practice, we got to see Smith explaining to the offense exactly what he was seeing based on how a play was expected to develop. This is a big issue because last training camp, he (and Shaun Hill) could not have provided that kind of insight due to the fact that they had never played with this specific offense and thus couldn't predict what the exact outcome would be in a game situation.
I know many of us (even myself) get tired of discussing Alex Smith, but I would argue that this is one of those pieces of evidence of potential Alex Smith growth we haven't seen in the past. I realize it's only a non-padded practice, but have we ever heard of anything like this involving Smith? It's these kinds of steps that are the reason I am a bit more comfortable than some with Smith at the QB position. We don't know if this will translate to game action, and that's certainly reason enough to remain a cynic. However, I like the direction in which things are going.
I'm sure some will view this as me just repeating my same line about Smith's confidence in the offense, but given how the team has developed in the last year and a half under Coach Singletary, this is so huge. The defense certainly has its share of question marks, but it's clearly a very solid defense with the potential to rise to an excellent defense. Now it's time for the offense to really make its mark.
Personally I don't think Alex Smith will ever become the dominant type of franchise QB. It's certainly possible, but I'm not holding my breath. At the same time, I remain convinced he can become a very solid NFL QB. With a healthy Frank Gore, an improved offensive line, and a consistently improving defense, this team does not need a franchise QB. It needs a solid QB who won't make a lot of mistakes, and can make enough plays in the game to keep the defense from getting over-run. We'll see in 2010 if we have that QB in Alex Smith.
Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye
Post-Practice - May 18, 2010
San Francisco 49ers
On the things that he can do with the offense that he couldn't do a year ago:
"We've come almost 180 degrees from a year ago in terms of the basic, fundamental understanding of the words and the nomenclature of the system and trying to get passed that point. We've expedited that part of it so we don't have to spend as much time on the rudiments of what we are doing, that we can review that and get onto the basic things. This is the first time that they would have had an opportunity to see cut-ups going into the next year. The work they did a year ago, we use that as teaching tools to advance and go forward as we install. So, we have some things that we identify that they are doing good and bad, and so it helps us tremendously where we are starting point-wise from when we walked in here February a year ago."
On what was QB Alex Smith was doing at the line of scrimmage and whether he wants him to continue to do that:
"Well, basically it was what he has to do in our third down package when he's in the gun and making the protection correction. A year ago, we couldn't have even attempted to correct that. We were flying by the seat of our pants. He's embraced his responsibility and role in that part along with [C] Eric [Heitmann] in terms of making the identification of the MIKE call or where the pressure problems are coming from, being able to redirect the pressure. He's taking control of that, which is what he has to do to be able to play on third downs and be able to communicate that to the blocking unit and to the wide receivers. It's the visual breaks involved or their sight adjustments involved. So, that period he teaches the protections to the team as he sees them in combination with what the center calls with Eric. It's kind of a two-fold deal where he's in charge because he's on his own on third down. He's basically in charge of protecting himself. So, that period is where he demonstrates the calls and everybody is responsive to the calls and knows what to expect from him."
On whether he was able to do that last season when he got into the game during the regular season:
"Not really. He had some idea, but some of it was okay, most of it was I hope I'm right and if not, then scramble to my right.
On whether Heitmann helps him on third down:
"It's a committee deal. Eric first makes some communication to the line and then they are both in agreement on the communication from his standpoint and then they play off of each other. He has the trouble series and he has the ultimate call, the final call, the quarterback does because there are some things, in assessing the top of the defense that the center can't see that the quarterback can only take care of. Once it gets to the same point, it falls into the lap of the quarterback and if you watch and you see [QB] Peyton Manning and you see [QB] Tom Brady, you see them on third down. You see most of them operate out of the gun at the line of scrimmage, you see that a lot and it's really - some of it is a reaffirmation of what has been said. Some of it is a new declaration and some of it is a change and you never really know what that is unless you know the system because it's all encompassing."
On whether he feels more comfortable with what he has in place and what they can do:
"Yes, a little bit. We know them better and I said earlier on in the first meeting that we had pressed in the minicamp. What you have to be careful of this time of year is judging football players not playing football in shorts and T-shirts, but in terms of knowing the abilities and knowing the highs and lows of the players that we have in place and the ones that we've added as we mix them in, our starting point is different. So, it's a tremendous help because there's a little bit less anxiety. It doesn't totally eliminate it, but a little bit less anxiety based on what we have."
On whether they are getting more feedback from Smith this offseason:
"Yes, he's been more responsive that way. First of all, his personality doesn't lend itself to being that kind of person, but we've spent a lot of time since February just talking football one-on-one in the office and he has some things that were surprising to me that he didn't particularly care for that he went along with last year. He expressed some things that he wanted to changed, some things he thought were better and we came to a happy medium because I told him, it's democratic, but it isn't 50-50. I'm going to make the last call on most of it. Most of the things that he feels strong about, he has been able to express and it shows up in his mannerisms, the way he operates the huddle, the way he operates the team, the way he operates group-install period and the sub-blitz period that he did today. "
On what surprised him about what Smith didn't care for in the offense last season:
"I don't recall, there was any number of things. The specifics of that, I don't think is necessary. There were some things and most of them had to do with the combination of technique and play. Most of them, for a quarterback, have to do with reads and footwork design. Whether he has a visual break opposite the direction or some kind of sight adjustment opposite of the full read that he has, or whether that's synchronized and coordinated so he doesn't have the full feel so his feet are comfortable with his mechanics in terms of delivering and throwing the ball. You know what's difficult about playing that position is, it's easy in a 65 degree environment and stand there and say it and talk it then the 45 second clock with the pressure of playing, and you do all that and at the end of the day, oh by the way, I've got to throw the ball to somebody after I do all of that. Getting comfortable with doing that is a process and the fact that it's been a change for him, repetitively a change for him over the course of his career, we're arriving at the point where we're seeing the fruits of what we were delivering a year ago."
On whether it makes him more comfortable of a play caller to have Smith at quarterback for a consecutive season:
"I guarantee it does because he can bail you out. You could call what you think is the best call for the situation and have it blow up in your face. And you could call the absolute worst play for the situation and have it come out smelling like a rose and most of that is the player not the call. The play caller is at the mercy and the more comfortable you are with the ability of the guy doing it, it's easier if you make the call to be corrected by the player."
On if he felt inhibited in calling plays last season when Smith took over at quarterback:
"Not at all. Once we got past the point where he started playing, it was tapered to what he was comfortable with, with the ability to take [RB] Frank [Gore] and [WR] Josh [Morgan] and [WR] Michael [Crabtree] and [TE] Vernon [Davis]. It's not exclusively the quarterback. He has people around him that need the ball. So, it wasn't just a total lockdown deal. It had enough expression to allow him to make the adjustments he had to make and play within the framework of the people around him."
On whether last season was the most difficult season as a play caller in his career to adjust to the quarterback change midseason:
"I don't know. It may not be first, but it's in the top two. It was very unique to do what was done a year ago in this business, contrary to popular belief, to have the kind of success that we had. We played pretty well given the parameters of how we were operating and the cataclysmic explosion that created a total change. And we never went back to [QB] Shaun Hill and went forward in midstream with a totally new leader. That's why they have coaches and I guess that's why we get paid."
On offensive trends since he's been coaching and how they've influence him:
"Trends come full cycle most of the time. Fortunately for me, I've had three decades so I've always kind of believed that you don't want to be a tall weed in the wind. If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. There are basic fundamental parts of the game of football that haven't changed through the trends. And the things we do, we try to attach ourselves to those things and then have the tributaries of expression that will lead us out of that. We don't ever get to far away from being a fundamentally sound, tough football team that plays physical and will not turn the ball over. Try to be in a position to win the game in the fourth quarter and be a good situational football team."
On whether it's a must to have a reliable and productive passing game:
"Absolutely, you have to have all phases to be productive. The passing game is eventually the thing that separates you when the fit gets tighter in terms of the defensive teams that are pretty good and the final six or eight teams in the playoff part of it. It's still, if you can't stop the run and run the football, none of that really gets to be a point of discussion."
On how the Colts were able to have a good passing game without a solid run game:
"I think their guys that play that position to get to that other spear that have that ability that can go there. Fortunately for them they have one. If you're fortunate in your coaching career maybe you get one like that in your coaching career. It's the exception rather than the rule and their environment is structured in such that it bleeds and blends into that and they have the right mechanics in place to do that. It's unusual and they've done it and done it well. He's a great player and will probably go down in the Hall of Fame and be talked about as one of the all-time greats to ever play the position. They're fortunate. Like the saying goes, there's a lot of ways to get to Chicago."
On RB Michael Robinson not being around for OTAs and the impact that may bring in training camp:
"Not really. We're coaching the players that are here and moving forward in that direction. Michael will add on when he comes and we'll integrate him in that process. He's a six or seven year veteran guy. We know a little bit more about him this year than we would have had this happened a year ago when we came in here. So, the transition when he does come in and to infuse him into what we're doing the transition would be easier in training camp than it would be now. Hopefully he shows up. When he does show up for work, we'll be able to accommodate his physical abilities and what he brings to us."