A few days ago I focused on how the 49ers receiver and tight end position players correlate with the west coast offense. There was some discussion in regards to whether Jim Harbaugh plans to utilize the traditional version that Bill Walsh adapted some 30 years ago, or go with a more modern system that we are seeing in Philadelphia and Green Bay. My opinion is that it is going to be a hybrid, or some combination of the two. Either way, the roots of the WCO remain the same, and the 49ers are going to have to adapt personnel to fit the scheme.
This post will focus on the offensive back field and how current 49er personnel may or may not be effective in Harbaugh's scheme.
"He can thread the needle, but usually goes with his primary receiver and forces the ball to him even when he's in a crowd. He's a gutty, gambling, cocky type. Doesn't have great tools, but could eventually start.". Scouting report on Joe Montana at the combine prior to the 1979 NFL Draft.
The San Francisco 49ers ended up drafting Joe Montana with the final pick of the 3rd round (82nd overall) that season. Behind the likes of other quarterbacks named Jack Thompson and Steve Fuller. Montana ended up winning four Super Bowl rings in route to being the best quarterback of all-time. Thompson and Fuller, on the other hand, combined for a total of 61 career touchdown passes. The moral of this story isn't just that top tier quarterbacks can be found in later rounds, but that you need to get a quarterback that best fits your system. The 49ers were a prime example of this years later when they traded for the enigma that was Steve Young, who didn't wow anyone in his short career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He went a combined 3-16 in 19 starts for Tampa Bay, throwing for 10 more interceptions than touchdowns. In April of 1987, Young was traded to the 49ers for a 2nd and 4th round pick, and the rest is history. That said, finding a franchise quarterback has proven to be incredibly difficult since the Jeff Garcia days, and finding one to fit their new system may prove to be more difficult.
Alex Smith: I understand all of the frustration with Alex Smith over the course of his five seasons with the 49ers, and most of it is justified. After all, he was the #1 overall pick, and San Francisco had great things planned for him. But, lets put it in perspective for a second. The aforementioned Steve Young had only five more touchdowns than interceptions during his first five seasons, and combined for a record of 10-18 during that span. Alex Smith, on the other hand, has two more interceptions than touchdowns, and is 20-30 during that span. Listen, I am not drawing comparisons between the two, and I do not believe that Smith will have a career that even remotely resembles Steve Young, however, you must understand how the systems effected each player during their early seasons. Steve Young was playing for a horrible Tampa Bay Buccaneer team and existed under a system that did not fit his skills the best. Accordingly, Alex Smith did not have the most talent to work with during his first three seasons, saw a different offensive coordinator each year, and had to learn a new system multiple times. However, the question is this; does Alex Smith fit the WCO?
The WCO relies heavily on quick releases, good reads and good accuracy on intermediate routes, things that have hindered Alex Smith over the course of his five seasons in San Francisco. Smith has never shown himself to have a quick release, nor has he been incredibly accurate on the mid-range passes; especially earlier in his career. However, I did see him progress with this the last two seasons. 18 of Alex Smith's 51 career touchdown passes have gone for ten yards or less, 10 over the last two seasons. Additionally, he had the best red zone QB rating of any player in the NFL during the 2010 season; this shows to me that his accuracy on such routes are improving. It is also important to note that good offensive line play is important to keep the timing together in the WCO, this is something that Alex Smith hasn't had for the most part. Over the course of his five seasons with San Francisco, Smith has been sacked once per 11.8 pass attempts, ranking him second to last among quarterbacks that have started 50 or more games during the same span. I understand that some of that has to do with him not releasing the ball quick enough, and being unable to find quick reads; a prerequisite for the WCO. But, a combination of better offensive line play, and Smith improving on this aspect has incredibly limited the sack percentage I noted above (1 sack per 15.2 attempts). Whether or not you want to admit it, Alex Smith has progressed as a QB over the last couple of seasons, at least statistically. He has thrown ten more touchdowns than interceptions, has a 60 percent completion percentage, 64 percent on intermediate routes (7-12 yards), increased his yards per attempt from 6.3 to 6.9; and yards per completion from 10.4 to 11.6. Is Alex Smith where we want him to be as a starting QB in the NFL? I don't think so. However, from what I have seen of him in doing the game recaps and watching games over the last two seasons, I actually believe he fits quite nicely into the WCO. At least, better than the alternatives in the free agent market and the draft.
The WCO relies a lot on multi-dimensional running backs who can receive out of the back field, and blow up opposing pass rushers. Roger Craig was a perfect example of this, in 8 seasons with the 49ers Craig accumulated 508 receptions; and in 1985, he had 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. But, what many do not know about Craig was his ability to block incoming pass rushers and protect the quarterback. Players such as Rashard Mendenhall and Adrian Peterson would not fill well in the WCO because of their lack of ability in the passing game. Consequently, Chris Johnson, Tashard Choice and Darren McFadden would be perfect fits; as is Frank Gore
Frank Gore: No one has ever been able to question his toughness and heart for the game. Other than Takeo Spikes, there is not another player on the 49ers I want to see make a playoff run; simply put, Gore has been the heart and soul of the 49ers offense for some time now. Despite never playing in the WCO, Gore has been an amazing receiving running back. From 2006-2009, Gore compiled over 50 receptions each season; and has a total of 270 in his six year career. If you put Gore into a system where he is going to see more passes out of the back field, those numbers are going to increase, at least by a third. Even at 28, Gore still has a few seasons left in the tank because has has only touched the ball an average of 273 yards per season. In the WCO you are not just looking at screens going to the left or right, but delays running up the middle and having running backs run short slants and working opposite safeties and linebackers on the outside. This is something that Gore should succeed with the WCO
Anthony Dixon: Despite having issues in the passing and blocking games early in the seasons, Dixon picked it up towards the end; especially after Gore got injured. I noticed Dixon filling lanes really nice and finishing blocks, which was a complete reversal from earlier in the season. However, Dixon was never a receiving back for Mississippi State in college and only finished with 5 catches last season. This could be a major issue for the 49ers moving forward if they expect him to be their RB of the future in the WCO. I compare Dixon to a younger Brandon Jacobs, who would never come to mind in running this new style. That said, Tom Rathman may be able to help him improve on this aspect
Current 49er RB coach, Tom Rathman, was your prototypical full back for the WCO. He was a great lead blocker for Roger Craig, among others. But, what also made Rathman so special was his ability to receive out of the lead blocking position. In 8 seasons with the 49ers, Rathman finished with about 300 receptions. Currently, the 49ers do not have anyone on their roster who could come in right away and succeed as a WCO full back. Moran Norris had a horrible 2010 season, and isn't equipped to be such a force. However, I am intrigued by the possibility of Nate Byhum playing a hybrid FB-TE role, in which he would be a solid lead blocker that has the ability to receive. That said, the 49ers are going to look to the draft in order to fill this position.