49ers Offense, Smith for Real?

Alex Smith and the Niners offense has been impressive.

Jordan Raanan, Xfinity Sports, NFL Columnist
Mon Oct 15, 5:33 PM UTC

Two years ago, Alex Smith was booed off the field in an ugly loss to the Eagles and serenaded with "We Want Carr" chants. The 49ers fell to 0-5 that day and Smith's career in San Francisco appeared doomed, destined for burial somewhere near the corpses of the failed 49er careers of fellow first-round quarterbacks Steve Spurrier and Jim Druckenmiller.

Yes, 49ers fans were calling for Smith to be replaced by David Carr, the same David Carr with a 23-56 career record and a similar No. 1 pick bust label attached to his name.

Two years later, Smith's the league's top-rated quarterback for the 49ers. He's throwing out the first pitch at MLB playoff games and chit-chatting with the president of the United States. Carr is still a backup—now with the Giants, who play in San Francisco on Sunday—five years removed from his last NFL start.

“Seems like a long time ago, longer than two years ago for sure," Smith said earlier this week. "Yeah, a long time ago it seems like.”

It's been even longer since the 49ers had an offense this powerful and efficient. San Francisco (4-1) is averaging over 400 yards and 30 points per game through five weeks. It has scored 79 points combined in routs of the Jets and Bills the past two weeks. It compiled 631 yards of total offense against Buffalo and had a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers for the first time in team history. Not too shabby considering this is a franchise that for years boasted the NFL's best offense under Joe Montana and Steve Young.

For the first time in nine years, the 49ers have at least a competent offense. San Francisco hasn't finished in the Top 20 in total offense since 2003. Even last year, when it went 13-3 and was a cleanly-fielded punt from reaching the Super Bowl, it had the 26th-ranked offense. Smith was a game manager, not a game changer. He threw the fewest passes (445, 28/game) of any 16-game starter.

So what's changed?

Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are still running the offense. Smith's still the quarterback. Wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham have been nice additions, but aren't exactly game-changers at this point of their career.

"One big thing that happened this year is we've had more time together, we had [organized team activities] in the offseason," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "Last year we had training camp to learn the offense and then played games. Now we've had a chance to sit back and study [the offense]."

Goodwin is in his second year with the Niners. So are Harbaugh and Roman. Their offense, in its current form, is in its sophomore year, more efficient and effective than during its maiden NFL season after several years of procurement at Stanford. San Francisco may be 26th in passing yards per game this season, but it is eighth in passing yards per play. And its success isn't based on the spread-'em-out philosophy that many of the top passing teams employ.

"For the most part they are a shot-play offense. What I mean by that is they're attempts at getting the ball at the deeper, intermediate and vertical routes normally come on first down off play action," said NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, who regularly breaks down film for the award-winning "NFL Matchup" show. "When those plays are effective and work, as was the case against Buffalo, they have the pop to put up big numbers."

They do it in unconventional ways, however. The 49ers have a completely unique, unorthodox 21st-century mold. They lean heavily on an offensive line that has been dominant and a running game led by the powerful Frank Gore. The Niners lead the NFL with an average of 196 yards per game on the ground.

While most teams look to hit their wide receivers down the field, San Francisco likes to target its wideouts (Moss, Manningham and Michael Crabtree) on short and intermediate routes. It uses an uber-athletic tight end (Vernon Davis) as its top down-the-field threat.

The 49ers coaches also use ingenuity and tremendous depth to create mismatches. San Francisco is able to move Davis and the versatile Delani Walker all over the field, whether it's flanked as a wide receiver, in the backfield as a fullback, or in traditional tight end formations.

Davis' 52-yard reception in the first quarter of last Sunday's 45-3 demolition of the Bills is the perfect example. San Francisco put five players on the line of scrimmage to the right of the center on that play. It had right guard Alex Boone, right tackle Anthony Davis and tight ends Garrett Celek, Delani Walker and Davis on the right side of the line. No wide receiver was flanked to the right. It gave the appearance of a goal-line-like formation on first down in San Francisco's own territory.

"There is almost no defense for that because you don't see if very often," Cosell said. "What happened is they went play action and everyone hits the play action with a five-man surface because it's a run formation all the way. Then you get Davis on a wheel route. That's the kind of stuff they do."

The 1st-and-10 play worked. Davis made his way from the hashmark to the sideline and up the field. Smith hit him in stride. It netted a huge chunk. San Francisco was on the board a few plays later to begin the rout.

This type of unconventional offense is nothing new. San Francisco had it available last year. Harbaugh and Roman have been designing this playbook for years. It's just more refined and ready for action now.

"It's been here since Day 1. We just have a better grasp of the concepts," Goodwin said. "Last year guys might not have understood why Alex was changing the plays, now everybody understands why. That just comes with the experience, learning, being around it and in it."

Still, it all begins and ends with the quarterback. Smith had to read the coverage, locate the open receiver and stick the throw. He did, just like he's been doing all season. You don't post a 108.7 passer rating by accident.

After years of offensive coordinator overhauls, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick is flourishing working in this system and with this personnel. Everything is clicking. The 49ers finally have the missing passing game that many believe kept them out of last year's Super Bowl. The final piece to get them over the top.

San Francisco already boasts one of the league's top defenses and special teams units. This completes them. The 49ers are no longer a don't-make-a-mistake offense. They are a legitimate threat to score every time they have the ball.

The offense's ascension has been helped by Smith's aversion to turnovers. He's thrown just six interceptions in 21 games since Harbaugh and Roman took over. For Tony Romo, that's a bad afternoon.

"I think it’s just totally understanding and grasping what we’re doing, and being a really good decision maker on the field," Roman said. "Shoot, last week, boy he made some really accurate throws consistently throughout the game. Mentally, physically and then understanding the offense to where he’s running it on the field and he’s comfortable and things are just clicking for him quickly.

"He knows where people are going to be, he knows where to get people, that kind of thing."

Two years ago nobody was offering such praise. Smith appeared destined for the scrap heap. His arm strength was constantly questioned, his injured shoulder a consistent concern. Smith missed parts of three seasons with a shoulder injury, including the entire 2008 campaign. Even when he was on the field, he wasn't the same quarterback who once merited the No. 1 overall selection.

"What he was doing was changing his posture, manipulating, adapting to a shoulder that wasn't quite strong enough or maybe even had some irritation," said former MLB pitcher and expert motion analyst Tom House, who worked with Smith and a handful of star quarterbacks this past summer. "He was changing his posture to get his arm and his release point to where he could throw fairly accurately. When the strength took care of itself and he was pretty much pain free, he returned to the same mechanics when he was in college and when he was drafted No. 1."

Smith still doesn't have the howitzer that some of the league's younger quarterbacks possess. Nobody will ever confuse him with Joe Flacco or Matthew Stafford. He doesn't have the legs of Cam Newton or strength of Ben Roethlisberger either. Physically, at this point in his career, he's just your regular average Smith.

It hasn't kept him or the 49ers offense from succeeding at a stunning rate this season. Even those inside the Niners organization couldn't have expected this type of massive leap in Year 2 of the Harbs. If they did, the 49ers wouldn't have explored the possibility of replacing Smith with Peyton Manning this offseason.

For now, it looks like San Francisco has stumbled onto something. Its offense from top to bottom has looked championship worthy, including the quarterback. That could, however, change rather quickly. One poor performance with most of the country watching Sunday afternoon against the Giants will likely alter some opinions. The 49ers have to keep it going for a full season to convert the doubters.

"If we come out in the next three or four weeks and only have 200 yards of offense, everyone will forget about that 600-yard game," Goodwin said. "There is football to be played and a lot out there for us to achieve."

Jordan Raanan has covered the NFL since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @JordanRaanan, on Facebook or email him at jraanan@hotmail.com.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.