Mike Singletary may have saved his job with the flexibility he finally showed in the 49ers’ win Sunday against the Jacksonville
Singletary is a strong-willed man, a trait that served him well as a player. It has not always worked for him as a coach, though. When he fired Mike Martz and looked for his replacement at offensive coordinator, some candidates were unwilling to work for him. Jimmy Raye got the job because he was the last man standing.
His policy of emphasizing the running game was a nonstarter from the beginning. It’s important to have balance, but NFL teams win primarily because they can throw the ball effectively. Raye, who has coached in different systems but has no real offensive philosophy of his own, followed Singletary’s wishes and put in a running-heavy offense and short passing game to fit the limited skills of Shaun Hill.
You know how well that worked.
When Alex Smith replaced Hill — and Michael Crabtree finally agreed to contract terms — the dynamic changed. As Singletary admitted after the Jacksonville win, the 49ers now have more playmakers in the passing game than the running game. This is the best young receiving corps the Niners have had in a long time, with Crabtree and burners Josh Morgan and Jason Hill. Tight end Vernon Davis also has become a huge weapon.
Smith also is more comfortable operating out of the shotgun/spread.
Finally, Singletary and Raye recognized the obvious.
On Sunday, Smith lined up in the shotgun on 34 plays and threw 41 passes overall. He was not sacked once, though he scrambled on one play for 10 yards and a first down.
Significantly, the 49ers also started strong. When they started at their 20 or better (they were twice backed up by punts to the 7 and 9), they marched to two touchdowns and a field goal. Smith threw for both touchdowns. The second, to Frank Gore at the back of the end zone, prompted the TV people to bring up “The Catch,” the highest moment in 49ers history.
There’s still work to be done with the offense. More pass routes need to be programmed to give Crabtree running room, because he is an excellent runner after the catch. Here’s a flash: How about running the slants that Joe Montana, especially, threw to Jerry Rice and John Taylor with such devastating effect? Crabtree doesn’t have Taylor’s speed — few receivers ever have — but he’s as good a runner after the catch as Rice. Usually, he’s also as good a receiver, though he missed on a couple catchable balls Sunday, one in the end zone.
To make room for those plays, the 49ers should drop the 3-yard dumps that are too often called when they need 7 yards for a first down. Those checkdown passes should be used only as a last resort, when everything else has been closed down. They also need to devise running plays for Gore beyond the oh-so-predictable straight handoff and run into the line.
An old-fashioned draw play out of the T would work. So would a pitch to Gore running wide out of the shotgun. I’d also like to see more of the reverse, which Raye called for Delanie Walker on Sunday.
Whether this will be enough to get the 49ers into the playoffs is problematical, but it’s certainly improved the future prospects of both the team and Singletary.