Other Teams: CLE | DEN | DET | IND | KCC | NYJ | OAK | SEA | SFO | STL | TBB | ARI | NEP | NOS | Summary
When Mike Singletary took over as the 49ers interim coach seven games into last season, there was only so much he could do to put his stamp on this team. But dropping trou at halftime only goes so far. Heading into the 2009 campaign, Singletary is taking more dramatic steps to impose his identity upon this team.
The short version is that Singletary wants this team to take on his personality: tough, aggressive, physical. Defensively the team scrapped the hybrid 3-4 when Mike Nolan was let go, and Greg Manusky’s more aggressive “pure” 3-4 showed signs of working as the Niners held four of their final five opponents to 16 points or less. Manusky is in his third year as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator, so he has a good feel for the personnel and how to get the most out of them.
Offensively, the 49ers will be breaking in their seventh offensive coordinator in the past seven seasons as 30-year NFL veteran Jimmy Raye takes the reins. Raye wasn’t necessarily Singletary’s first choice—Scott Linehan and possibly others reportedly turned down the gig—but his run-early, run-often philosophy meshes with the 49ers’ new direction.
Raye’s NFL journey has taken him through 10 organizations including the 49ers, where he started as wide receivers coach in 1977. He’s been an offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams (1983-84 and 1991) as well as with the Buccaneers (1985-86), Patriots (1990), Chiefs (1998-2000), Redskins (2001), and Raiders (2004-2005), serving two tenures each under John Robinson (talk about your run-first offenses) and Marty Schottenheimer. More recently he coached running backs for the Jets, where Thomas Jones topped 1,000 yards twice and Gang Green finished eighth in fantasy points by running backs last year.
Other successful stops included the Stephen Davis-era Redskins in 2001 (eighth in the NFL in rushing), the Bucs in the mid-1980 (where James Wilder rolled up 2,004 rushing yards and 96 receptions in two seasons), and the Rams when Eric Dickerson rushed for 2,105 yards in 1984.
Certainly, the NFL has changed since Robinson brought “Student Body Left” from USC to the pros. But you don’t stick around 30-plus years in the league without adapting. Moreover, both Raye and Singletary are aware that the current 49ers personnel is more suited to lean on Frank Gore to carry the offense rather than Shaun Hill or Alex Smith. The team did draft Glen Coffee in hopes that he can take a few touches off Gore’s plate, but you can still expect Gore to get 20 or more carries far more frequently than the three times that happened a year ago. And having Tom Rathman as both running backs coach and a link to the 49ers’ glory days certainly doesn’t hurt.
That doesn’t mean the passing game will be ignored. San Francisco upgraded the wide receiver corps in the offseason, adding Michael Crabtree via the draft and Brandon Jones through free agency. Isaac Bruce returns as a mentor, while Josh Morgan and Jason Hill are developing young talents. And it’s even possible that Singletary may be getting through to talented but as yet unproductive tight end Vernon Davis.
But the passing game will only go as far as Hill or Smith take them. Mike Johnson, best known for his work with Mike Vick in Atlanta and Doug Flutie in San Diego was hired as quarterbacks coach to help improve the position. It’s hard to say what Johnson can apply from those previous gigs to either Hill or Smith, but it’s not as if this offense is requiring a Mike Martz-level of throwing. Hill was solid last season after taking over for J.T. O’Sullivan, and maybe “solid” is just what this offense needs.
Finally, and perhaps most telling of what Singletary wants from this offense, it’s worth revisiting the first move he made after taking over from Nolan: replacing George Warhop as offensive line coach with Chris Foerster. The key to a running game such as the one Singletary desires is an offensive line that is capable of dominating its opponent. On the surface, Foerster’s three years as the Ravens’ offensive line coach would suggest he’s up to the task… but dig a little deeper and the numbers aren’t pretty.
From 2005 to 2007 Baltimore running backs ranked 26th, 23rd, and 19th in fantasy points, though their rushing yardage increased from 1,414 to 1,551 and yards per carry climbed from 3.6 to 4.0. In 2005 the Ravens surrendered 42 sacks, and that number got worse (60 in 2006) before it got better (32 in 2007).
That’s not exactly Alex Gibbs-type improvement, but the Niners do have some young talent on their offensive line Joe Staley, Chilo Rachal, and David Baas. Bottom line: if the offensive line improves, the rest of the offense should as well—and Singletary will look like a genius for his hires.