The labor issues are going to have an immediate impact on our San Francisco 49ers if there is a 2011 season. New Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh, brings with him the West Coast Offense, which was created and popularized under the late great, Bill Walsh. If there is not free agent period this off-season, which I think is extremely unlikely, the 49ers will have to rely on in-house candidates to fill the proverbial vacuum.
Today's article is going to be part one of a three part series, focusing on certain skill position players currently on the 49ers roster and how they correlate or do not correlate with the West Coast system. After the jump, my focus will turn to the Tight End and Wide Receiver section.
The WCO relies a lot on wide receivers that can run after the catch, this statistic was created solely for Jerry Rice, who among everything else, was the best at this. Not only does the WCOrely on outside receivers that can rack up the YAC (yards after the catch), it also relies heavily on solid route running. Certain players that succeed in other offenses such as Brandon Marshall and Steve Smith would probably not be too great in a WCO style offense. The 49ers of the glory days had a great WR corp for the system they were running, some of the players would not have succeeded in other style offenses. For example, John Taylor had some awesome seasons opposite Jerry Rice, but would he have been as successful playing in Bill Parcells or Dan Reeves system? I am not too sure. Taylor averaged a whopping 16.1 yards per reception throughout his nine seasons with the 49ers. Many of these yards came following the initial reception. For all intent and purposes John Taylor was a play maker within a specific system. Listen, I am not down playing how good he was, however, I am making a point in regards to getting the best players to fit a particular system.
So, now lets take a look at the current crop of 49er receivers and how they fit into Harbaugh's newly implemented WCO system.
Michael Crabtree: We all have our opinion in regards to how Crabtree has performed over the course of his first two seasons, however, no one can deny the talent that he holds. That said, putting it together is a completely different thing. In two seasons with the 49ers Crabtree has averaged 3.8 receptions per game, and 50.6 yards per game. On the surface it would seem that he has under performed, but we also have to look at it another way. Crabtree hasn't played in an offense with much continuity in terms of both scheme and QB play. Mike Singletary went from spread to smash mouth in the matter of the same drive, and often players on the 49ers didn't even know what style to run when on the field; it was utter disaster. Additionally, when Crabtree has had the ball thrown to him a nice amount of time over the course of the game he has produced. This is evidenced in the 49ers week 16 loss against the St. Louis Rams; Crabtree had the ball thrown to him ten times, and contributed with 6 receptions, 122 yards and a TD.
A player cannot contribute when the ball isn't coming his way. I understand that some of the lack of targets may be a direct result of his inability to get separation, but again that also may have to do with the style of offense the 49ers were running; this should not be an issue in the WCO. In this new system you are going to see a lot of bubble screens, short four yard out routes and six yard slants go in Crabtree's direction; and this is what his strength is. He won't be asked to get separation 15 yards down the field, and rely on a spot on pass from the likes of Alex Smith, Troy Smith and Shaun Hill; instead, there will be more shorter and mid range passes for Crabtree to break off of the defender earlier in the route. I believe that the WCO fits him perfectly.
Josh Morgan: He has put up solid stats for a #2 WR over the course of the last two seasons, especially with the talent the 49ers have at tight end; however, I don't see him as a true #2 WR in the WCO. Morgan doesn't get great separation, even on shorter routes. For some reason, he seems to have an issue running a solid route, and that is going to be a problem in Harbaugh's new system. Too often, I have seen Morgan stop on routes expecting the ball to go in a different direction.
One of the pre-requisites for a WCO wide receiver is to anticipate the defenders move and the QBs decision making; this is something that Morgan has had a problem with in the past. Additionally, I am not sure that this is something that can be learned. It is vital for wide receivers in the WCO to make snap decisions on their routes, anticipate the flow of the play and the type of coverage. For example, defenses tend to go with the umbrella coverage against a WCO, but this doesn't mean that happens every single time. If Morgan expects umbrella coverage with a zone on the short route and a receiver jumps the coverage, you will see interceptions left and right.
Additionally, blitz schemes are an important part of defending and interupting the WCO offense, if Morgan doesn't read the blitz it is going to leave the QB out to dry. Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Dwight Clark, and to a lesser extent, Mike Sherrard and Ed McCaffrey were great in anticipating the blitz and breaking off a route in order to get the QB an open target quickly. Josh Morgan would would perfectly fine as a #3 wide receiver in the WCO, or any offensse for that matter. However, I am afraid that is the best he will ever be.
Dominique Zeigler: He may actually run the best route of any receiver on the 49ers roster, and that is hard to believe. For some reason Zeigler seems to be a natural route runner, who doesn't have to think before he acts. This is an extremely important facet of the WCO. With only 14 receptions in two seasons, Zeigler has not had an opportunity to display his abilities during the regular season, maybe that will change in 2011. That said, from what I have seen him on the practice field and during exhibition season, Zeigler has the ability to be an extremely successfull receiver in the 49ers new offense. I believe he could end up performing the way the aforementioned McCaffrey and Sherrard performed for the 49ers seasons ago. That said, asking Zeigler to be a #2 wide receiver may be way too much to ask.
Ted Ginn Jr: Ginn's value to the 49ers special teams cannot be under played, he is a true play maker. However, so far that has not translated to the offense yet. Could this change? Maybe. But, don't rely on it. Ginn runs loose routes and has been unable to tighten them up during his NFL career, this will most likely remain an issue for the rest of his career. I don't believe that Ginn is going to be much more than a home-run threat on offense, and dynamic play-maker on special teams; the WCO system will magnify this issue even more so.
Kyle Williams: I really don't have a lot to go on in regards to Williams rookie season. It is obvious that he is a project and probably won't contribute a great deal to the offense in 2011, but I could be wrong. I would like to see more from him before coming to a snap judgment in regards to whether or not he can succeed in the WCO.
Tight Ends and the WCO: Can anyone say Brent Jones? But, before the "rodeo" came to town, the 49ers had some pretty talented tight ends play in the WCO. Russ Francis had some real solid seasons early in the 49ers dynasty. In five seasons with the 49ers, Francis had over 2,100 yards receiving and 12 TDs. More than that, Francis was a real solid blocker, which is extremely vital in the WCO. He was on the 49ers during a time when they really didn't have one stall wart RB, but the committee combined to run for a nice amount of yards during his run with the 49ers. Additionally, San Francisco had solid back up tight ends to come in and fill the void for Francis, or combine with him in two tight end sets. Earl Cooper, playing both the fullback and tight end position, was extremely solid for the 49ers as well. During his six year career with San Francisco, Cooper gained over 1,000 yards rushing and 1,900 yards receiving in limited action. He was the perfect complement to Francis when the 49ers were in short distance situations. Cooper forced other teams to respect his receiving ability, so they could not stack 8 or 9 in the box.
Vernon Davis: He seems to be the perfect fit for the WCO. Davis has all the variables that you look for from a productive tight end in this system. First, he is a solid route runner that gets a nice amount of separation from opposing defenders; including cornerbacks on occasion. Secondly, Davis is able to go up the middle in the seam and take a slot screen the distance. Finally, Davis is one of the better blocking tight ends in the NFL. This leads me to believe that #85 will turn out to be one of the best statistical tight ends in the NFL in 2011, no matter the QB. I really have a hard time finding any area in which Davis would struggle in the WCO system. Under Harbaugh we are going to see a lot of two tight end sets, this should utterly confuse the defense. Davis could stay in and block while Walker runs the receiving route, it is also possible for the opposite to occur on occasion. If utilized correctly in the WCO system, Davis should end up having a hall-of-fame career for the 49ers moving forward.
Delanie Walker: Walker would start for about half the teams in the NFL. Not only is he a solid route runner, the dude has some awesome hands. I believe that we will see Walker shine in the new system as Harbaugh implements more two tignt end sets. There won't be an issue of spreading the ball around either as it is possible for Walker to act as the quasi back-up tight end and #3 wide receiver, which works out perfectly for whoever is under center.
Nate Byham: I was extremely surprised by Byham's receiving ability during the pre-season last season, that caught me completely off-guard. A good comparison to Byham in the WCO would be Earl Cooper, who I mentioned above. Someone that can act as a hybrid FB/TE in the system. There will not be a lot of balls to go around in order for Byham to get a lot of touches; however, when in the game in either running or receiving sets he will be incredibly productive, this is a nice problem to have.
Overall the 49ers would seem to have a few nice pieces together here for the WCO. Of course, you can always build on the talent that you have, and a lot of that happens via the draft; however, as it stands I wouldn't be surprised to see a few of these players out perform previous career highs. Running the WCO is completely different from every other system in the NFL, therefore, you have to adapt your personnel in order to fit it. This type of offense requires wide receivers that can run clean tight routes, break off on aid routes if necessary, and understand the scheme of the defense. I understand that this is usually a necessity for every offensive system in the NFL, but it is magnified when it comes to the WCO. Players that don't have these traits can really hinder the success of the offense much more than any other system.
The quarterback relies on the receivers, tight ends and split ends, to understand the defensive scheme and work in a fluid way with the quarterback. Again, this isn't a huge necessity in other offensive schemes. For example, the Cincinnati Bengals do not rely on Terrell Owens breaking off a route because the defense is blitzing from its zone coverage. Owens would run his route, turn around and look for the ball, if Carson Palmer were to be harassed then Owens would look to get open. This is different in the WCO, the receiver would have to run his route, but also understand the way the defense had set up their formation, and run the route accordingly. This puts a lot more pressure on the wide receiver to know the nuances of the game, but it also aides the quarterback in running the set.
For those of you not familiar with how the west coast system operates here is a link to a PDF that explain in detail what it is all about.