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Alex Smith, Frank Gore, and the 49ers offensive philosophy

We all agree that yesterday's loss was about as brutal as they come. Throw in a Cardinals win to push us to the precipice of playoff elimination, and the time is fast approaching for us to start peaking peeking ahead to the offseason and beyond. I certainly am not ready to completely give up on this season, but I can read the writing on the wall.

Accordingly even I am willing to look ahead to the offseason and to the 2010 season. This is particularly true when discussion the quarterback position, and its relationship to the 49ers offensive philosophy. We all know the offensive line has been a major issue this season, and will hopefully be addressed in a big way this offseason (pun partially intended). Even with potential additions to the offensive line, the team's offensive philosophy remains a question mark. I know we can't resolve the entire issue at this point, but it'd be nice to "explore the studio space" as we start looking to next season.

In order to have this discussion, we first have to address the position of quarterback. Alex Smith had one of his best games ever as a pro yesterday. While he was not able to drive down the field for the win at the end, he continued to show some of the skills people have been waiting on for five years. Given how awful the field position was for the 49ers for most of the day, he managed to make things happen. He's improved in a variety of areas, even if the team's record (I refuse to say his record when it's a team stat) does not reflect Smith's improvement.

There are still four games to go, and with two coming against potential playoff teams (Arizona, Philly), there is still a lot of value to be had in this remaining quarter of the season. If the season ended today, I'd be willing to wager that Alex Smith would be the starting QB at the start of the 2010 training camp. He's not perfect as a QB (that last drive shows that), but I can accept that he's shown enough improvement to warrant being the starting QB in 2010 (even if the team drafts another QB). Obviously this could change, but we'll just have to work with what we know for now. I figure we'll have enough time during the dog days of the offseason to debate this issue once more information (e.g. Weeks 14-17) becomes available.

I've thrown up a poll just to see what people are thinking, even though we've got an important month of games left in the Alex Smith evaluation process.

After the jump, we apply the above information to the 49ers offensive philosophy going forward...

So, let's assume Alex Smith is the starting QB in 2010. Whether this is what you're hoping for or not, I think at this point it's safe to say it's going to happen (barring injury). People talk about his greater ability in the proverbial Raye-gun offense (courtesy of Matt Barrows). I'm wondering a couple things as it relates to that offensive style. First off, if the 49ers actually put out an improved offensive line that could get push in the rushing game and provide real protection in the passing game, is the shotgun a necessity? Is Alex Smith's success in the shotgun a matter of him simply needing the time it might give him to pass the ball, or does it drastically affect his ability to view the field?

I ask this because it brings us to the second issue of Frank Gore's role going forward. Through 12 games, Gore has rushed for 643 yards on 128 carries (5.0 ypc). The problem with that total is that 223 of those yards came on 3 carries, which leaves Gore with 420 yards on 125 carries (3.36 ypc). At the beginning of this season, Mike Singletary spoke of wanting a smash-mouth offense. As the season developed though, it became clear the passing attack was carrying the team.

Now, I'm not advocating trading Frank Gore. Not even remotely. Gore is one of their biggest receiving threats (#2 in receptions) and has improved his breakaway ability, as opposed to being dragged down from behind as happened so often in the past. The question is how the team can reconcile Frank Gore with the offense in place. Frank Gore seemingly rushes better out of the I-formation with a lead fullback. If the team decides they're going to stick with the shotgun, what comes of the running game.

On the one hand I find myself optimistic about the future of this team. I think Alex Smith is showing actual development and I think he can guide this team to the playoffs in 2010 with the right personnel. However, personnel are only part of the equation. The team needs to figure out a complete offensive identity. Bignerd made a good point yesterday:

Use the time [remaining this season] to develop a real offense.

Neither the 2.2 yards and Cloud of Dust or The Greatest Marginal Show on Grass offense is going to work. No more gimmicks, quick fixes, etc. Find a philosophy that uses Gore, VD, Crabtree, Morgan and Smith or it’s never going to work.

This team needs to figure out its offensive identity heading into 2010. I realize a lot of folks are down on Jimmy Raye, but I actually think what bignerd mentioned is one reason to keep Raye. Raye has shown a willingness to adapt his play-calling, even if it's been from one extreme to the next. I know I can't be the only person curious to see what would happen with a full offseason of having the same offensive coordinator and the same starting QB. Furthermore, with Alex Smith in particular, one would hope this kind of continuity would be an even bigger deal.

Maybe I'm over-emphasizing the value of this, but it's still something that has to be factored into the offense's development beyond just adding offensive linemen. The offense has developed over the course of the season, even if it's been in fits at times and has been rather herky-jerky. It seems to me to be a sign that it's not just a stagnant offense going nowhere. Now, whether that means it develops into a consistent play-making offense next season? Lord only knows.