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San Francisco 49ers offensive communication

The answer is up there somewhere
The answer is up there somewhere

It's no secret that the 49ers have many problems getting the play in on time. This has led to multiple time outs being called in non-crucial situations and more delay of game penalties than I'd like to think of. Up 'til now the root cause has been a bit of a mystery. Fans were left wondering if Raye was just taking too long to figure out what to do, or if it was a problem with QB Alex Smith getting the play relayed to his teammates.

Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports has the answer. In a column he wrote yesterday, he detailed a list of the problems affecting the 49ers and put the blame squarely on offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye.

According to Cole's unnamed source:

"It seems like Jimmy calls plays from memory a lot of the time and not exactly the way it's written down," said one of the aforementioned sources, adding that the plays often get garbled. "He knows the plays and he knows the right thing to call, but he's fumbling through his papers and it's like, ‘Hey, we need to get a play called.' "

If that's the situation it's a major problem, especially if it's a situation that's been brewing for awhile as Cole claims. He makes a few points in his article which I'll summarize:

1.) Last year Jimmy Raye would call plays from the box, and relay them down to assistant Jason Michael who would then send them into the QB. This worked because Michael could interpret Raye-speak and there weren't delays trying to figure out what was being said.

2.) This Raye-Michael link alienated QB coach Mike Johnson who's widely regarded as the heir apparent to Raye

3.) To solve this Singletary decided to have Raye call the plays into Johnson who would then call them into the QB. This led to many problems because Johnson couldn't decipher what Raye was saying, especially in noisy situations on the road.

I don't know how many "sources" Jason Cole has, but the information in this story jives with what I've seen with my own two eyes. The play calling always takes far too long to get in on the road, and is hardly ever a problem when at home. In addition the delay of game penalties and forced timeouts tend to happen more once the first quarter is done, i.e. after the first 15-20 scripted plays have been run. Those scripted plays would be discussed between Raye, Singletary, Johnson, Rathman and others, so no interpreter would be needed.

Matt Barrows also chimes in with some additional information:

Smith had to burn three timeouts in the first half and also was flagged with a delay-of-game penalty. Afterward he said that on some plays he wouldn't get a call before his headset automatically cut out with 15 seconds left on the play clock. On other occasions, he got only a partial call before his headset cut out.

As it stands now, the play - which is composed of 10 or more variables - is relayed from Raye, who is in the coaches' booth, to quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson, who is on the sideline, and then on to Smith.

So how do you fix it?

Here are some possible solutions

1.) Move Raye to the sidelines and have him call in the plays directly to Alex. This eliminates one step in the chain, but then you might have an issue with Alex not understanding what Raye was saying and screwing up the play. You also lose the advantage of seeing the entire field.

2.) Promote Mike Johnson to OC and have Raye be an "advisor". He can stay in the booth and relay any key pieces of information that he sees, but let Johnson do the bulk of the actual play-calling. Doing this leaves us with some of the same problems as the first option, so I don't know that it would fix the clock management issues.

3.) Use a numbering system/wristband. Instead of saying "Maui Right, Rub - Dart, F Juke Gone" (an actual WCO play call), you number it and say M25 or somesuch. This eliminates any need for translation and saves several seconds in just talking.

4.) Let Alex call his own plays.

However there's another problem with that. Again from Barrows' article:

The 49ers have a fail-safe option whereby Smith can call his own plays if he doesn't get a call from the sideline. But Smith said there's not enough time to do that in the 15 seconds after the headset turns off.

5.) Using a direct link from the booth to the QB is not an option according to Barrows, so that's out.

So what's to be done, and can this problem be fixed fast enough? It's certainly a big issue. It really affects the team's offensive rythm (compare the offensive performance during the scripted plays to the performance once the calls were being relayed), and it certainly causes wasted time outs. This is also a frustrating issue because it was happening last year and didn't get fixed.

Singletary had this to say about the issue:

"We will take a look at it and we will have an answer for it," Singletary said. "... However it is we're going to figure it out and nip it in the bud."

My problem with this statement is that he had the chance to nip it in the bud last year and didn't.

This leads me to one final question--how much of the offense's tepid performance is due to poor play-calling and how much of it is due to miscommunication between the booth and what's drawn up and to the field and what's actually called?