I know some of you are going to get tired of hearing this, especially in the absence of actual victories, but the 49ers are feeling great about going into the 2010 season with the same offensive system.
A few days ago I wrote about the confidence quarterback Alex Smith has been inspiring in his teammates. That confidence was on dramatic display shortly into this morning’s practice in Santa Clara.
The offense was gathered en masse on one field, the defense on another. In Offense Land, the first-team unit lined up against a patched-together assemblage of fake defenders to work on some plays. Smith got to the line and instead of barking his cadence, drilled the “defenders” to see if they knew their assignments. He then gave detailed instructions to his blockers, telling them which defenders to key on. Smith didn’t do this once. It was four or five times. A couple times he finished the tutorial by educating his receivers as well.
Smith was in complete control of the action. It wasn’t a 50-yard spiral between defenders, but it was very impressive.
“Basically, it was what he has to do in our third-down package when he’s in the gun and making the protection correction,” offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye explained after practice. “A year ago, we couldn’t have even attempted to correct that. We were flying by the seat of our pants. He’s embraced his responsibility and role in that part along with Eric [Heitmann] in terms of making the identification of the Mike call or where the pressure problems are coming from, being able to redirect the pressure. He’s taking control of that, which is what he has to do to be able to play on third downs and be able to communicate that to the blocking unit and to the wide receivers.”
Raye said Smith wasn’t really able to do that in games last season: “He had some idea, but … most of it was ‘I hope I’m right, and if not, then scramble to my right.’ “
Raye noted that he and Smith have spent a lot of time since February talking football at the offices. The quarterback gave him input on reads and footwork that he wasn’t comfortable with – part of the reason, Raye believes, Smith has become a more confident leader.
But it isn’t just the quarterback. The entire first-team offense that took the field today is back for a second season under the same offensive coordinator – a luxury this team hasn’t known since before Smith came into the league.
“We’ve come almost 360 degrees from a year ago in terms of the basic, fundamental understanding of the words and the nomenclature of the system and trying to get past that point,” Raye said, borrowing an infamous line from NBA star Jason Kidd; he no doubt meant 180 degrees. “We’ve expedited that part of it so we don’t have to spend as much time on the rudiments of what we are doing, that we can review that and get onto the basic things. This is the first time that they would have had an opportunity to see cut-ups going into the next year. The work they did a year ago, we use that as teaching tools to advance and go forward as we install. So we have some things that we identify that they are doing good and bad, and so it helps us tremendously where we are starting point-wise from when we walked in here February a year ago.”
Josh Morgan definitely sees the difference. A year ago, the wide receiver said, the coaches called a lot of stoppages of play to get players lined up correctly or moving as they should after the snap. This year things are much more efficient.
“And that’s when you know you’re taking that step as an offense and as a team, cause there’s not as much coaching,” Morgan said. “Basically we ourselves as a team correct our mistakes, and we know what we did wrong and we know what the coaches expect of us. … Coach Singletary used to always say we needed to take that step, and it’s like now we’re taking that step. I don’t want to say we don’t need them. But we know what they’re gonna say to us, cause we know what they want from us, we know how they want it, so our focus is do it right and execute it and be consist with it.”
Again, it won’t mean anything until the 49ers put their claims into action against another NFL team. But it’s clear that everyone on offense is a lot more comfortable than they were in May of 2009, and that seems like a good start.