Is play-calling experience over-rated?

In a lot of ways, Mike Singletary does not control his own fate as 49ers head coach. The same could have been said about Mike Nolan. Defensive coaches must find the right coaching fits on the other side of the ball.

Singletary’s decision on the offensive coordinator might be the biggest call of his career. He needs to get it right. He must find someone to carry out his vision on offense, and he must put in place a system that promotes continuity.

 

That is why, I suspect, he is interviewing “quarterbacks coaches.” Singletary is not only interviewing the candidates for the offensive-coordinator position in 2009, he is interviewing the coaches who would be next in line – whether that might be in 2010 or several years down the road.

 

Right now, he and GM Scot McCloughan have interviewed the teams of Rob Chudzinski-Rip Scherer and Rick Dennison-Pat McPherson. Might they also talk with the assistants Scott Linehan and Clyde Christensen have tabbed as their right-hand men? (That is, if Linehan and Christensen remain in contention for the job.)

 

I would think that Singletary would want to hire an experienced coordinator. But Singletary does not always do the conventional thing. Plus, going with experience is no guarantee the right man is being hired for the job. Singletary will not be afraid to go with his gut on this one.

 

The two most-experienced NFL play-callers are Linehan and Chudzinski:

 

Scott Linehan

 

He thrived with the Minnesota Vikings from 2002 to ’04. But he also was working with Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss, who were at the tops of their games.

 

His most impressive work was during his one season (2005) with the Dolphins as offensive coordinator. The Dolphins improved from 29th in total offense in 2004 to 14th under Linehan. His quarterback was Gus Frerotte. They improved from 29th in rushing to No. 12. Ronnie Brown rushed for 907 yards and Ricky Williams gained 743.

 

So, then, how do we view his two-plus seasons with the Rams?

 

Linehan began his head-coaching tenure with the Rams as the play-caller. But after a fifth consecutive loss in 2006, a 15-0 defeat at Carolina, Linehan stripped himself of the play-calling duties and handed over that responsibility to QBs coach Greg Olson.

 

The Rams got hot when Linehan backed away from calling the plays. They won four of their final six games to finish 8-8. Marc Bulger had the best year of his career, and Steven Jackson rushed for 1,548 yards. Linehan (or at least his offense) made those two men rich – even if they became less-than thrilled with his coaching.

 

Linehan reclaimed the play-calling duties in 2007 after three games. The Rams lost their first eight games, and finished with four consecutive defeats. Again, his play-calling became an issue. He hired offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who called plays last season. Of course, Linehan lasted only four games before getting fired.

 

Rob Chudzinski

 

The Browns offense was historically (or hysterically) bad. In their final six games of the season, Chudzinski’s offense failed to score a touchdown. Seriously.

 

Was that Chudzinski’s fault? Did he all of a sudden forget how to game plan or call plays? Of course, not. But did he make the most out of the situation? That is best answered with another, “Of course, not.”

 

Why were the Browns inept? It can be traced to their quarterback play.

 

Here are their QB stats from those six games in which the Browns failed to score a touchdown:

 

L 16-6 Houston: Brady Quinn 8 of 16 for 94 yards and two interceptions; Derek Anderson 5 of 14 for 51 yards and one interception.

L 10-6 Indianapolis: Anderson 16 of 26 for 110 yards; Ken Dorsey 0 of 3, one interception.

L 28-9 Tennessee: Dorsey 22 of 43 for 150 yards, one interception.

L 30-10 Philadelphia: Dorsey 11 of 28 for 156 yards, two interceptions.

L 14-0 Cincinnati: Dorsey 10 of 17 for 64 yards, three interceptions; Bruce Gradkowski 2 of 5 for 8 yards, one interception.

L 31-0 Pittsburgh: Gradkowski 5 of 16 for 18 yards, two interceptions.

 

So during that stretch, Browns quarterbacks completed 79 of 168 passes (47 percent) for 651 yards with no touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

 

What’s interesting to note is that Browns quarterbacks were sacked only 24 times this season. They ranked ninth in the league is sacks per pass play.

 

This comes after the 2007 season in which the Browns, with Chudzinski calling the plays, ranked eighth in the NFL in total offense and scored 25.1 points a game. The Browns were 12th in passing and allowed only 19 sacks.

 

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Christensen called plays for the Buccaneers as offensive coordinator in 2001. It was such a long time ago, it’s probably not relevant. He spent a lot of time as tight ends coach, which is good. Tight ends coaches must be well-versed in both the running and passing games.

 

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Dennison did not call plays for the Broncos, but he put together team’s run game. That seems to be the part of the game that most relates to Singletary. I don’t believe Singletary wants a fancy passing game. He wants a strong rushing attack and that will help create opportunities in the passing game. Clearly, Dennison made a strong impression or there would have been no need to dial up his presumptive quarterbacks coach (McPherson) for an interview. While most of the focus has been on Linehan and Chudzinkski, Dennison might be worth keeping an eye on.

 

Also, Dennison is a former player and might relate better to Singletary’s “vision.” Singletary has made three hires to his coaching staff and two of them have significant NFL playing experience: running backs coach Tom Rathman and pass-rush coach Al Harris.

 

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