Digit system speeds Crabtree’s learning

When Norv Turner brought the “digit system” to the 49ers in 2006, it signaled a change in offensive terminology for the organization after more than a quarter-century with the Bill Walsh’s fabled “West Coast Offense.’


In Walsh’s old system, it might have been impossible for a wide receiver, such as Michael Crabtree, to show up after four games and then be expected to play at least half of his team’s snaps less than three weeks later.


But the idea behind the digit system is pretty straight forward. For instance, offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye this week made reference to Crabtree knowing what he’s supposed to do on a play called “525 F-Post.” Heck, even I know that Crabtree runs a “comeback” route on that play. I have no idea on which side he lines up, if anybody goes in motion, the depth of his route or any of that. But I know the X runs a 5 (comeback), the Y runs a 2 (slant), the Z runs a 5 (comeback) and the F runs a post pattern.


The numbers represent the pass routes, 1 through 9. In order, the numbers tell XYZ which routes to run. The X is split end; Y is tight end; and Z is flanker. The F — the position Delanie Walker and Moran Norris play — is told what to do.


In August 2006, I wrote “New Approach Comes Into Play” to give an overview of the system Turner brought to the 49ers. Turner learned the digit system from Don Coryell. When Coryell was at San Diego State, he relied heavily on junior college transfers. His numbers system made it possible for a player to learn the basics of the offense quickly.


Said Turner, “That’s the beauty of the system. That’s why I think the teams you see using it do get off to fast starts and are able to get young players playing faster.”


Crabtree did not have to make up for 71 days missed before playing in Sunday’s game. He does not have to learn the entire playbook. All Crabtree has to know are the plays Raye has included in the 49ers’ offensive game plan against the Texans.


I asked Raye on Thursday how many pass plays are typically in a game plan.


“You’ve got run-down situation passes, first and second down (plays that are practiced on Wednesdays),” Raye said. “Then (Thursday) you get third-down passes – third and 2 to 4, 5 to 7, 8 to 12. Then, (Friday) he’ll get red zone passes. I would think if you took all of those categories, and there are probably three or four passes or pass concepts in each one, you take that and multiply it by whatever it is. I guess it would close to 45 or 50.”


Crabtree surprised Raye with how much of the offense the rookie already knew.


“At least (he) had a starting point that was better than what I had anticipated in terms of him understanding the formations and understanding the route tree and the plays and how they fit together,” Raye said. “He conceptualizes football extremely well. He’s a quick study that way.”


Crabtree is responsible for knowing what the X position (split end) does in the entire game plan, but his concept of the offense is understandably narrow at this point.


“He knows what he does and how it fits in the continuity of what you’re trying to do,” Raye said. “He doesn’t know what Vernon (Davis) is doing specifically, or what Frank (Gore) is doing or what Isaac (Bruce) is doing, but he knows what he does. So, if that all meshes and it blends well in the game plan that he understands, then he can play.”


The game plan, designed specifically for that week’s opponent, is essentially a review of what the players saw and practiced at some point in training camp. But for Crabtree, this is all new to him. Eventually, he will learn the 49ers’ entire offense one game plan at a time.


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