How did Billy Miller go from unemployed wide receiver to effective NFL tight end?
The story, Miller says, involves coaching, compromise and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who appears to have maintained his flexible style as he’s climbed the coaching ladder.
In 2002, Roman was in his first year as a tight ends coach with the expansion Houston Texans and Miller was the type of castoff common on NFL startups.
Drafted as a wide receiver out of USC in 1999, Miller caught six passes in two seasons as a wideout with the Broncos, was released prior to the 2001 season and spent that year out of football.
In an effort to resurrect his career, he’d added weight and arrived in Houston as a tight end, a position he’d never played before.
His inexperience was obvious. Even some of the basics of the position were a struggle. After years of playing wide receiver, Miller felt uncomfortable and uncoordinated when forced to put his left hand down in a three-point stance.
The solution? Roman changed Miller’s footwork, tweaking his technique so the novice tight end could always keep his right hand down regardless of where he lined up.
Miller, now retired and running a gym in Westlake Village, recently relayed that adjustment to highlight what he said was one of Roman’s best attributes: A willingness to tailor his coaching to suit players’ strengths.
In 2002, Miller had a team-high 51 catches for 613 yards, ranking sixth in the NFL in receptions among tight ends and fifth in yards. His two seasons with Roman doubled as the best two-season stretch of his nine-year career as he had 91 catches, 968 yards and six of his 10 career touchdowns.
“Greg obviously taught me so many things because I’d never played tight end, but I think the biggest thing he did was make me comfortable,” Miller said. “Greg allowed me to do things in a progression … There was a lot of compromise between Greg and me. And that compromise allowed me to become the player I became.”
Roman has carried his flexible coaching philosophy with him as his responsibilities have grown beyond position coach. In his introduction to the San Francisco media in February, Roman, the assistant offensive head coach at Stanford last year, stressed that he and Jim Harbaugh had an offensive template that would be altered based on the 49ers’ personnel.
“What we did at Stanford was a direct reflection of what our players told us they could (do) and that’s kind of how we (do it) — put a big, broad system in and then start to see what your players tell you in practice, what they’re good at,” Roman said. “At then it starts to shift one way or another. To just say, ‘Here’s the system, here’s what we’re doing,’ we’ll never do that … the players direct where the system goes.”
Granted, this is not a groundbreaking approach. But it’s likely reassuring to 49ers fans who, two years ago, heard former offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye arrive with a different message. Raye declared his intention to run on 60 percent of the 49ers’ offensive plays – this despite inheriting a so-so offensive line.
In contrast, Roman’s message conjures up images of rookie running back Kendall Hunter being used in ways that Brian Westbrook never was in San Francisco. Or, perhaps, wide receiver Ted Ginn finding relevance after a 12-catch season. Or the Niners incorporating a Pistol offense package for Colin Kaepernick. Or tight end Delanie Walker, a college wide receiver like Miller, finding an expanded role alongside Vernon Davis.
“Greg focused on the things I did best, which was catch balls,” Miller said. “And he worked with me diligently about becoming an efficient blocker knowing that I would never be a guy to get 12 pancakes a game. But be effective. Be a guy that can block long enough for the running back to get past me.”