Burn After Reading--Ryan Mallet as 49ers Savior?

Tre9er's note: Solid piece here. Grant and I (as well as Drawnitsud) tossed around some of the degrees of separation between Mallett and Harbaugh, via Michigan, this weekend. Let's hear it, folks!

The title alone will probably earn me a bunch of flames, but I'm going to try this out: I'm going to develop a conspiracy theory that will explain why it would make sense if the 49ers would draft Ryan Mallett. This is strictly hypothetical, and you should know that I also have my doubts about Mallett. He looks like he has concrete boots on his feet, he makes questionable decisions, and he has poor footwork and thus relies on his arm strength to fit the ball into tight windows...and that's all without mentioning the possible drug issues that cloud all discussions of Mallett's NFL future. I will grant you that all of that is tremendously worrisome. In fact, I hate this QB draft class and am not sold on any of the QBs (except maybe Ponder if his decision-making improves and if his arm is actually healthy--but that's another story). Drew K's take on Mallett is also worth a read, so check that out.

I do hope, however, to draw a few connections and to build something of a case for, specifically, *Harbaugh* taking on Ryan Mallett as his Quarterback Of The Future for your San Francisco 49ers.

No, no, no, Jim HARBAUGH is the savior!

Nearly all of 49erland is still floating along in the afterglow of the 49ers signing Jim Harbaugh to a 5 year, $25 million contract. But as that haze is clearing, the hard-core fans that post here on Niners Nation are concerned with the draft, and perhaps more than anything else, who will quarterback the 49ers in 2011 and beyond.

There’s a general consensus that the 49ers have struggled over the past number of seasons because of the sub-standard (that adjective might actually be generous) quarterback play the team has received from Alex Smith, Troy Smith, David Carr, Shaun Hill, and the immortal JustTurnOvers, and Harbaugh’s arrival has been met with general optimism for two reasons:

1) Harbaugh is as close to a Quarterback guru as you can get, and 2) Harbaugh has stated that he will install the West Coast Offense as head coach of the 49ers.

Harbaugh has established his QB guru cred by mentoring two good but not great prospects (Josh Johnson and Andrew Luck) not only into draftability, but into draftability well beyond expectations; Johnson went in the 4th round to Tampa Bay and Andrew Luck was the presumptive #1 pick in the 2011 draft before he decided to return to Stanford.

Harbaugh is seen by many to possess the know-how necessary to install the WCO because of his friendship with Bill Walsh and his experience during his 15-year NFL career. I, however, think that this is a convenient angle that the media has pushed really hard--which actually suits Harbaugh just fine, because it helps Harbaugh's reputation with the fans, and gives him credibility and claim to a coaching lineage that is pretty much the gold standard in the NFL. But it's overdrawn. Harbaugh actually only knew Walsh for nine months--and Walsh's last nine months at that. As amazing as Walsh was, there was only so much he could impart to Harbaugh during that brief time.

What will Harbaugh's Offensive System look like?

So who are Harbaugh's other influences? Bo Schembechler and Lindy Infante. For a taste of Schembechler's offense, check this video from the 1986 Fiesta Bowl, and check out who's quarterbacking the team. After watching that video, watch this one of the 2010 Stanford offense. Do you see some similarities? Really, this is a point that RLott#42 has been making for months in the forums and with his sig: Harbaugh runs a version of Bo's offense from his days at Michigan and his experience in the pros. Say what you will about Bobby Petrino, his offense does bear at least a passing resemblance to an NFL offense: Mallett does run play action, does do some boot action, does some "sprint" outs (using the term sprint loosely) -- he has experience with all of that.

So what makes a WCO, and how does Schembechler's offense differ? Here's Len Pasquarelli's account of the many variants of Walsh's offense. What you notice in the sidebar by someone that actually played in that offense (some guy named Steve Young) is "any play or set of plays that tie the quarterback's feet to the receiver's route so there is a sense of timing." This is something that Harbaugh has stated that among his criteria:

Athletic instincts, accuracy, timing, decision making, leadership, intelligence

While people familiar with the 49ers version of the WCO immediately think of either Joe Montana or Steve Young when they think of a WCO quarterback, I think the case can be made that Ryan Mallett could also be made to fit Jim Harbaugh's version of the WCO.

When Harbaugh described the kind of offense he wanted to install, he did not say "I want a dink and dunk offense that relies on short accurate passes to keep possession and move the ball down the field." He did say this:

I think the West Coast offense is a very broad system," Harbaugh said. "It has the ability to encompass the talents of a lot different kinds of athletes.

In other words, he expects to tailor his offense to the talents of the players he inherits. Given this, Barrows' comment is informative:

While Harbaugh's Stanford offenses often put up big numbers and gaudy scores, they relied as much on a punishing ground game as they did on a sophisticated passing attack. Harbaugh also inherits a roster that has been built more for brute strength than quickness, although new general manager Trent Baalke began adding more speed this past season.

Given Harbaugh's claim to adapt the offense to the players that the team finds, it seems to follow that Harbaugh's 49er offense will tend to exhibit the same power-run style that his Stanford offense ran. And consider this: the 2010 49ers seldom ran the sweep, the play that was the staple run play in Walsh's WCO...but they did run a lot of the play that was the standard in Schembechler's offense--the power O. Furthermore, the initial Walsh concept was for a standard pro-set offense, with two backs split, 1 tight end and two wide receivers. Harbaugh ran more three tight end sets than nearly any coach in college football in 2010...and given that the 49ers have already or are working out multiple tight ends for the upcoming draft, it would seem likely that Harbaugh's 49er offense will look more run-heavy -- Schembechler-esque, one might say -- in 2011.

Ryan Mallett? Really?

My interest in Mallett is keyed by the following connection. Mallett is a pro-style Quarterback that chose Michigan out of high school because Lloyd Carr ran Bo Schembechler's offense at Michigan. Jim Harbaugh ran Schembechler's offense and had success as an NFL quarterback. Jim Harbaugh will run a Schembechler-esque offense in the NFL. So why not draft the quarterback that is best able to run a Schembechler offense?

As to Mallett's background, this article by David Hyde goes into more detail than I could ever hope to give about Mallett's background, so I'll just refer you to it. Long story short, Hyde poked around as much as he could and he couldn't find anything really damning about Mallett. His former coaches and teammates consistently stuck up for him...and there was this little nugget:

Months ago, before Cam Newton was generally considered as premium a prospect as he is today, you heard us make a defense of Cam Newton, proposing that his experience at Blinn College and Auburn helped him to turn over a new leaf and forget his misdeeds in Gainesville. I see no reason to extend that olive branch to Newton, and then withhold it from Ryan Mallett based on far less substantial evidence of wrongdoing.

I've become convinced that people don't like Ryan Mallett because he didn't openly shoot down the drug rumors in front of all the cameras. This seems to me to be an instance where the journalists covering the event felt slighted that he wouldn't give them the straight goods. To my mind, the teams are the ones that have a legitimate claim to that information, and those are the people to whom he will give it. That doesn't bother me that much. Some people will apologize for Cam Newton because they already think he's an NFL level athlete and will grow into being a quarterback. The people that don't apologize for Mallett probably don't do so because they don't think his college success will translate at the NFL level because of his lack of athleticism.

The counter-argument to the "Mallett's a terrible athlete" argument is that Mallett's quarterback specific skills make him uniquely capable of making the transition to the pros. There is no other quarterback that throws the ball as well as Ryan Mallett in this draft. That is a more or less undeniable fact. Throwing the football is not optional for a quarterback, and may be as unteachable as running a 4.4 40 yard dash. Here is some youtube-age that illustrates this point about Mallett's unique skills:

YOUTUBE 1: Mallett throwing the deep ball.

What you notice about this video is that Mallett's arm strength allows him to take advantage of the fact that the windows down the field are simply larger than those within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. He consistently puts the ball on the right shoulder down the field. Dave Hyde looked at 5 games of film, and says the following: "of the 21 pass attempts I being a deep vertical attempt, only 4 of the 21 passes fell uncatchable." That kind of downfield accuracy completely changes games and defensive strategies, and opens up huge lanes for running Frank Gore, for example.

YOUTUBE 2: Mallett throwing the ball from the pocket.

What you notice here is how quickly Mallett gets rid of the ball. Mallett doesn't have the quickest release, but in Hyde's research found the following:

From the feet up, Ryan Mallett’s full motion was the second-quickest of the group at about 42.9 milliseconds. The very fastest was T.J. Yates at 36.7 milliseconds. The slowest was Colin Kaepernick at 56.4 milliseconds. The ordering changes when you measure the time it takes for pure arm motion, cued off the dropping of the throwing elbow. The quickest and slowest remain T.J. Yates (33.8 milliseconds) and Colin Kaepernick (46.0 milliseconds), however Ryan Mallett’s arm motion sinks into the very middle place in the seven-player sample at 36.3 milliseconds.

Mallett's recognition skills and knowledge of when a receiver will come open will undoubtedly help him at the next level. People say that Dan Marino couldn't move around, but his quick release helped him keep his sack% down to 3.1 (i.e. 3 sacks per 100 pass attempts) for his career.

YOUTUBE 3: Mallett throwing the ball on the run or against heavy pressure.

The argument that Mallett's lack of athleticism will make him unsuccessful at the NFL level often overlooks the fact that whenever you send an extra blitzer, the passing windows in the secondary get bigger. And Mallett can throw the ball all over the field with impressive accuracy. Hyde makes a very astute observation about when Mallett gets himself into trouble here:

when he is facing one source of pressure, he can anticipate and/or feel that rusher, and execute a plan to deal with him. Where he gets into trouble is when he anticipates pressure from a certain direction and begins to execute a plan to deal with it, but then is surprised by a bad development in another area of the blocking.

Hyde also notes that the recent rule changes that were made after the Carson Palmer and Tom Brady knee injuries will protect the more lead-footed quarterbacks, and Mallett stands to benefit more from those rule changes than any potential draftee.

Finally, if we're so confident that Harbaugh is an offensive genius and a quarterback guru, why wouldn't we trust him with Ryan Mallett? Harbaugh has said that he would tailor his offense to the athletes that are on the roster. What if Ryan Mallett were on the roster?

I'll grant that none of this will allay your fears about his character and leadership. In fact, I'm a little scared that I might be right about this. Because if Harbaugh's line that "a good NFL quarterback can go start on the soccer team or catch fly balls, at least be the sixth man on the basketball team" is a an elaborate ruse, then I might've just hindered the future of my favorite team by writing this! Wait, what?


This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.