If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
If your receivers have 0ne catch for three yards in the NFC championship, and you lose in overtime, does anybody notice?
The first question, you can debate with your philosophy professor. The second? The answer is an unequivocal yes. In fact, for the 49ers and their fanbase, it seems like that’s all anyone wants to talk about these days. What needs to be done at wideout? Is Randy Moss the answer? Is Michael Crabtree a bust?
Honestly, that’s a luxury most teams and fans can’t afford. Fans should be thankful. The reason the receivers are getting so much attention is because, in 2011, they were the only weak spot on a team that went 13-3. The 49ers had a monstrous defense, the sort a 4 year-old checks for under his bed. They had a pounding run game, led by a workhorse running back and a young, improving offensive line. Alex Smith, for years the object of ire for 49ers fans, became a QB many had stopped believing he could be.
I believe, however, for the 49ers to sustain high levels of success, they will need significantly more from their offense. I also believe that any new offensive production will not be a result of upgraded talent at receiver, but because of an improved Alex Smith, a better offensive line, and a more fully realized Jim Harbaugh offense.
In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers ranked 11th in the league in points scored, thanks to a league-leading 44 fields goals by kicker David Akers. Subtracting those, the 49ers scored 32 touchdowns (18 passing, 14 rushing), an average of 2 touchdowns per game—not great. Those 14 rushing TD’s were slightly above league average; the 18 passing TD’s were tied for 25th most.
In terms of yardage, the team was hardly better off. As much as San Francisco loved running the ball, they were not exceptional at it, and certainly were not efficient. While the 49ers finished 8th in rushing yards with 2044, they finished 3rd in rushing attempts with 498, giving them a 19th-ranked run average of 4.1 yards-per-carry. The passing offense, though, was significantly worse–29th in yards (2930) and completions (277), 22nd in net yards per attempt (5.9), and 30th in first downs (150). In that passing offense, the team’s wide receivers combined for 8 of those touchdowns. The team’s tight ends, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, combined for 9 touchdowns. Good for the tight ends, bad for the receivers.
All of that tells us one thing, a thing we already knew—the 2011 49ers had a bad offense. Outside of sparkling turnover numbers, as well as some shining moments of execution in crucial situations, the offense was not the engine of the team. I have to think that makes Coach Harbaugh exceptionally angry. In his final year at Stanford, the 2010 Cardinal ranked 9th in the nation in total scoring (40.3 pts/game) and 14th in total offense (472 yds/game). He likes scoring, and he likes controlling the game.
Hence, the attempt to upgrade the talent at wideout. Without a clear need to upgrade the running back position (though LaMichael James is an exciting player—we’ll talk about him in a later post), no need at all to upgrade the tight end position, and an offensive line full of young talent already, the only place left to look was wide receiver. (The team made an attempt to upgrade the QB position, but plenty has been written about that already; I won’t rehash it here.) In come Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and AJ Jenkins. The hope is that those three, in combination with Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, and Ted Ginn, Jr. can provide enough to turn the 49ers into at least a league average offense. Will that happen, and will the receivers be responsible for it?
In short, no. Randy Moss hasn’t played in over a year, and is not Randy of old. Manningham was a third receiver for a reason—despite his obvious talent, he is not a gamebreaker. Jenkins is talented and loaded with potential, but it’s only potential at the moment. I believe that improvement to the offense will come primarily from a combination of reasons: a second year with Harbaugh for Smith, a full offseason of work, and an improved offensive line.
If and when Harbaugh runs the offense he wants to run, though, I doubt it will be the pass heavy offense rampant across the NFL at the moment. The NFL is a copycat league, sure, but I get the sense that Harbaugh would rather be copied than do the copying. In 2010, his final year at Stanford, the Cardinal passed 3357 yards and 32 TD’s. With a solid group of running backs, the Cardinal ran for 2779 yards and 34 TD’s. (The 2009 numbers are even more pronounced: 2722 yds and 14 TD’s passing, with one from Toby Gerhart, vs 2837 yds and 39 TD’s rushing. THAT is old school.) Even with all-world, No. 1 draft pick, best-QB-in-a-decade Andrew Luck, the Cardinal still jammed the ball down opponent’s throats. I think, someday, that’s what the 49ers will be.
That Stanford passing game, though, was miles better than the 49ers was last year, so of course Harbaugh wants to improve the pass offense—I don’t think there’s a portion of the 49ers game he doesn’t want to improve. The new WRs will help with that, no doubt.
They just aren’t as big a deal as everyone thinks they are.