1. Mike Singletary
Singletary was hired for his ability to lead. He showed a knack for rallying his players when the chips were down. He established a culture of accountability where underperforming players were held to a higher standard. It wasn’t his X’s and O’s he was hired for, but his intensity, his passion and his ability to speak the players’ language.
The elements that saw him hired are now being tested. His intensity turned to intimidation when he jumped all over reporter Dennis O’Donnell for doing his due dilligence during an interview. His inspiration seems like bluster, unable to motivate his players out of the doldrums in blowout losses. Iit’s unclear whether his message still resonates with his players, and part of that is due to his loyalty turning to stubbornness. Loyal to a fault, he supported Jimmy Raye up until the moment that he (or Jed York, depending on your feeling) decided Raye must go. Raye’s lack of creative playcalling, mixed with opponents calling out the plays before they were called, has resulted in an offense with little confidence in its coaching staff.
Now, whether prompted by ownership or not, Singletary has released Jimmy Raye and promoted Mike Johnson to Offensive Coordinator. He has already praised Johnson, talking about how he expects the new playcaller to better utilize his talent, tailor the offense to utilize his players’ strengths, and bring some much-needed energy and creativity to that side of the ball. Singletary must now rally his players, convince them to trust the coaches once more, and lean more toward inspiration than criticism.
Mike Sando of ESPN has written a very good piece on how Singletary must adapt his leadership style.
2. Alex Smith
Alex Smith has stepped up his game slightly. His position as a team leader was cemented during camp. He came out strong against Seattle but failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities. He had the best game of his career against the Super Bowl champions, and kept the 49ers in strong contention. He struggled to get going against Kansas City. Three weeks in, we still know little more about Smith than we did coming into this season.
Where Smith is still lacking is in how his game breaks down when things aren’t going smoothly. When the run game isn’t working, when the O-Line isn’t blocking, when the score seems out of reach, Smith reverts to old form. He throws the ball high anyway, and when under duress he throws it even higher. He forgets to set his feet. He rushes his reads and his throws. He waits for guys to be open, rather than put it where they can go get the ball. In short, his muscle memory takes over when under duress, and it hasn’t been trained well.
It falls to Smith to be aware of these shortcomings and counter them as best he can. He must play within himself and remember the fundamentals. His ability to overcome these things will tell whether he can be the future at his position or not. He must also use his legs to escape collapsing pockets. He clearly cannot expect perfect pass protection, so he has to be a threat to run to mitigate the pass rush.
3. Mike Johnson
Mike Johnson steps into an unenviable position. Brought into the playcalling loop by Mike Singeltary this season, he struggled as the relay between Jimmy Raye and Smith, much of that attributed to Raye. Now in Week 4 of the season, he is thrust into perhaps the most important coaching role on this team, next to that of Singletary.
He’s never been the Offensive Coordinator before, having had playcalling experience for two games with the Falcons at the end of 2003. By all accounts those experiences were successful, and he has a positive reputation around the league. The word on him is he’s energetic, creative, and spent 2008 researching spread offenses in college programs to find what elements could be transferred over to the NFL. These things bode well for his newest project, Alex Smith.
Singletary, Raye and Johnson all played a hand in rebuilding Smith’s confidence from what it once was. His leadership and command of the offense has improved, but in the areas illucidated above, he needs some targeted coaching. Johnson has the opportunity to call the offense according to the strengths of his players and infuse some new energy. For Smith, specifically, Singletary has mentioned getting him on the move to use his athleticism.
For the running game, Johnson must become more creative and varied in the run calls than Jimmy Raye was. Raye called so many runs into the middle of the line, that opposing defenses never bothered with outside containment. In 2009 an unprecedented 75+% of runs were called to the inside. Johnson must change that. He can start by utilizing Bryan Westbrook’s lateral speed a lot more.
4. The Offensive Line
Okay, I cheated. This isn’t one guy, it’s five separate guys who must function as one unit. Starting Left Tackle Joe Staley, signed through 2017, struggled mightily in Seattle. He acquitted himself against New Orleans. He struggled again in Kansas City. His performance is indicative of the entire line. Mike Iupati has improved. David Baas has been adequate in relief of Eric Heitmann. The right side has been in question. Chilo Rachal was injured against Seattle, and in his return to Kansas City, he was slow and overpowered. Adam Snyder played so well against New Orleans, that it’s hard to argue against him becoming the entrenched starter at Right Guard. Anthony Davis, the youngest player on the team, has been as inconsistent as Joe Staley.
Looking at these last three games, one must recognize that this line, starting two rookies and a backup center, struggled in two stadiums known for wreaking havoc on Offensive Lines and communication. It’s a small consolation, to be sure, but one that should be noted. It should also be noted that they, above all personnel, would know when certain up-the-gut running plays are working and when they are not. If there were any unit that stopped buying in to Jimmy Raye, it’s this one.
It falls to Mike Johnson then to produce a gameplan and playcalling style that instills confidence in the one unit that makes this offense work.
5. Greg Manusky
His strategies and gameplans have stymied the likes of Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, but Greg Manusky has his work cut out for him. Opposing offenses this season have killed the 49ers on screen passes, and Manusky simply must find a way to stop the bleeding. The defense routinely loses outside containment. Kansas City had nothing but grass in front of their halfbacks on screen passes. I watched the 49ers rushers penetrate the middle as the guards pulled, and there was no help.
In the secondary, the safeties are proving to be the weaker link, and they were considered the stronger position. Michael Lewis is old and slow, and must be replaced in the starting lineup. It was no secret this season that Reggie Smith and Taylor Mays have been considered as prospects to do just that. However, Dashon Goldson has been a real question mark thus far. It is not the corners getting beat on long pass plays, but Goldson. He seems to routinely find himself out of position, and in cases of the Kansas City fleaflicker play, failed miserably in his deep assignment.
It is on Manusky to get his defense to play smart, assignment football and hold outside containment. His scheme against New Orleans was nearly perfect, and he could be coaching for his job right now.