This is going to be a difficult year for the 49ers. Installing an offense, for example, takes time and practice. In the late 1980’s, the 49ers never ran the same play from the same formation twice in a season. Think about that. That’s hundreds and hundreds of plays, something Jimmy Raye apparently never figured out. This year, we’re not going to have the time needed to reach that level. It’s going to be more like the late 1970’s 49ers, when Coach Bill Walsh was establishing the team, and executing assignments, learning to be a winning team, and simply moving the chains was the key.
In his book, Finding the Winning Edge, Coach Walsh described the basics for installing an offense. By the way, this is the one coaching book Bill Belichick has publicly mentioned reading, which is no surprise when you reflect on how closely the current New England team matches the dynasty 49ers. So, what did Coach Walsh have to say about installing an offense?
Words of genius? Actually, it’s going to sound like common sense:
The foundation of whatever basic offense is installed in training camp must sustain the team throughout the season.
The team must be able to access the plays in its base offense at different times during the season (i.e. whenever they’re needed). The key point you should keep in mind is that a “new” play installed in a single week’s time during the season doesn’t stand a reasonable chance of succeeding.
So, whatever is installed in training camp is it. New coach. New scheme. New quarterback. It’s going to have to be basic, given the way the lock out and current loss of free agency has made it impossible to sign a veteran quarterback and teach him the offense. That doesn’t mean we won’t succeed, just that in 2011 the offense won’t be as good as it’s going to be. Coach Walsh goes on to say:
Accordingly, you must take steps to ensure that your team develops an inclusive base offense in the time allowed in mini camps and training camp. It is important that your team masters a complete inventory of offensive plays prior to the start of the season.
This could be discouraging, but there’s an upside. Keep it simple for Michael Crabtree – let him get good at running routes, let him grow with the offense over the years. We’d all settle for, “… reminds me of Jerry Rice.” Same with the offensive line – there’s young talent there. The 49ers won their first Super Bowl starting John Ayers, a 245 pound tackle; he made plays because he was well coached, with plays that worked to his strengths. In 2011, Coach Jim Harbaugh will install as much as he can and then coach ‘em up.
Sky high expectations are a given for fans, but fatal for a new coach. Again, from Finding the Winning Edge:
You (a new coach) should not establish “high sounding” goals or set goals that are realistically impossible to reach within a relatively brief period of time.
Apparently, Nolan and Singletary missed that tidbit of coaching wisdom. Too busy building hills and getting fitted for suits to read the memo. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit I was a Singletary supporter when he was hired, although, once he hired Raye, as they say so often in Star Wars, I murmured, “I have a bad feeling about this.”)
In the early 1980’s the mantra was to focus on winning the division, and so if we can simply contend in the NFC West, the 2011 season will be a success. Of course I want the team to shock the world and win them all this season – I just don’t believe Coach Harbaugh should be expected to create miracles. I’m dubious of the situation in Seattle, for example, and I doubt Pete Carroll’s win now, roster churning strategy will succeed over the long term. We should all remember that for the current 49ers, this is the equivalent of Coach Walsh’s 1979 season, not the 1981 breakthrough season.
Due to the labor issues, in 2011 we’re not going to see the greatest 49er offense ever, although I’d love to be surprised, but we will see a fundamentally sound team we can be proud of again.