SANTA CLARA –Without Michael Crabtree, the focal point of the San Francisco 49ers’ passing attack last season, the 49ers need all of their receivers to step up – Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, A.J. Jenkins and anyone else who can run and catch and breathe.
At an afternoon OTA session this week, Boldin stepped up. He was unstoppable. He caught 10 passes in 45-minutes worth of team drills – offense vs. defense. Colin Kaepernick and Colt McCoy and Scott Tolzien couldn’t resist passing to him. It didn’t matter if Boldin was open or not. Often he was not. Still, each quarterback would drop back, find Boldin and throw to him, and he’d snatch the ball out of the air before the defender knew what happened.
Vernon Davis, on the other hand, caught one pass in team drills – a five-yarder from the fourth-string quarterback, B.J. Daniels. The other three quarterbacks never threw it to Davis, who may be the best tight end in the NFL. He was a complete afterthought in the offense, as he’s been for many stretches the past two seasons under Jim Harbaugh. That must change this year.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has explained his inability to consistently get Davis the ball. Davis is so good that defenses try to take him away. So, Roman uses Davis as a decoy and takes what the defense gives him.
If Bill Walsh or Al Davis heard Roman say that, they’d spin in their graves. Walsh learned offensive strategy from Davis, and Davis learned it from Sid Gillman. It’s a direct line. All three believed in taking what they wanted from the defense and forcing the defense to react to them. They would have scoffed at the idea of taking what the defense gives you.
You’d like to think the 49ers realize Davis must be more than a decoy this season. You’d like to think Kaepernick has been throwing dozens of passes to Davis in the practices closed to the media.
Recently, Davis described his relationship with Kaepernick to the San Jose Mercury News: “We joke away from the field,” Davis said. “That’s very important, especially when it comes to having a relationship with your quarterback. You want to be able to joke with this guy. It’s about what you do away from here.”
When did jokes win a Super Bowl? You’d rather Davis and Kaepernick not speak to each other and go crazy on the field together. But they have not yet developed on-field chemistry, and so they resort to upside-down logic.
But no one on the 49ers’ seems concerned about the Kaepernick-Davis connection, yet. After this week’s practice, Harbaugh was focused on Boldin: “Today, you got a look at what he’s been doing,” Harbaugh said with a smile.
Harbaugh was so enthusiastic about Boldin, he named him the starting flanker – Crabtree’s position. Harbaugh rarely names starters this early in the offseason, because he says he’s all about competition. It seems Harbaugh believes or hopes Boldin can replace most or all of Crabtree’s 2012 production.
Boldin may or may not do that, but if he does, he almost certainly will not do it from the flanker position. Putting Boldin at flanker to start the season is a bad idea.
Let me explain why.
The flanker is on the right side of the offense’s formation, or the strong side. The tight end is on the right side, too. I know I’m asking you to visualize. If you’re like me, you have problems with spatial relations. Just imagine two guys on the same side of the field.
If the 49ers align this way, here’s what an opposing defensive coordinator might say: “I see 772 career catches at flanker, and next to him I see 345 career catches at tight end. On the other side of the field – the offense’s left side – I see zero catches at split end. So, I’m going to rotate my coverage to the offense’s right side and have three defenders cover Davis and Boldin. I’ll use one-on-one coverage on Jenkins or Quinton Patton or Kyle Williams or whoever the 49ers’ put at split end, and force the 49ers to operate their passing game through that unproven player.”
The 49ers don’t want to operate their passing game through an unproven player. They want Boldin and Davis to be the primary receivers, and Jenkins and Patton and Williams to be the complementary guys.
So, Boldin and Davis must line up on opposite sides of the field until a third receiver establishes himself. If Davis lines up at tight end, Boldin needs to line up at split end or in the left slot. If Boldin lines up at flanker, Davis needs to line up somewhere on the other side of the field.
Last season, the 49ers frequently lined up Crabtree and Davis on the same side of the field. This worked because they had proven threats on the other side of the field – Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. Defensive coordinators didn’t feel comfortable leaving those two players alone in single coverage without a safety over the top.
This allowed the 49ers’ passing attack to be quite simple most of the time – line up Crabtree at flanker and throw him the ball.
The 49ers’ passing game must become much more creative and complex without Crabtree. The pressure is on Harbaugh and Roman to get one-percent more creative every day.
Grant Cohn writes two sports columns per week for the Press Democrat’s website. He also writes the “Inside the 49ers” blog. Follow him on Twitter @grantcohn.