No Walsh System for 49ers
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 30, 2006

THERE ARE some who think the 49ers are making a mistake by changing offensive systems, but Bill Walsh is not among them.

When I asked Walsh what kind of system the 49ers were running last year, he said, “I haven’t a clue. Whatever they were doing, it certainly wasn’t working, when you’re only getting 200 yards a game. I would think any change next year would be for the better.”

And he’s not at all worried about Norv Turner as an offensive coordinator. “Norv’s a good coach. I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”

Walsh is no fan of departed offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy, who, somewhat incredibly, was hired as head coach in Green Bay, apparently because he worked with so many topflight quarterbacks.

“I saw that list (of quarterbacks),” Walsh said, “but what does it really mean? There were probably 15 quarterbacks who worked with Joe Montana. There might have been 10 who worked with Brett Favre. If you’re with a team at the time the quarterback is playing, you’re going to work with him. That doesn’t mean you’re responsible for his success.”

In fact, McCarthy’s resume would be more impressive if he had done something to help Alex Smith's adjustment to the NFL, but it was quite the contrary. One example: Smith needs to speed up his delivery. Too often, receivers get open but by the time Smith gets the ball there, they’re covered. That’s a flaw that should have been addressed in training camp, but I spent a lot of time at the 49ers’ camp last summer and I never saw McCarthy or anybody else working with Smith on that.

In fairness to McCarthy, Smith was very raw. He had played only two years of collegiate ball and in a spread system, not a conventional offense. I thought before the draft and still think that Aaron Rodgers would have been a better pick because he had played in a conventional offense.

McCarthy, though, did little to ease Smith’s transition. Joe Montana didn’t become a starter until midway through his second season, but when he played before that, Walsh had specially designed plays for him to run. He cut back the offense to give Montana a chance to shine.

McCarthy did none of that for Smith. The only scaling back he did was to send out a minimum of potential targets; that maximized protection but didn’t give Smith anywhere to go with his throws.

And, like Walsh, I couldn’t categorize the offensive system he was using. Certainly, it had no resemblance to what Walsh ran with the 49ers.

In fact, despite all the talk about teams using the “West Coast offense” in the NFL, Walsh seldom sees teams using an offense that retains much of what he taught. As we talked, he mentioned only two.

“Seattle’s system is almost identical to what we used to run,” he said. Of course, Seahawks head coach, Mike Holmgren, was an offensive coordinator for Walsh with the 49ers. “And Denver’s system is very similar to ours.” Denver coach Mike Shanahan was an offensive coordinator for Walsh’s successor, George Seifert. He took Walsh’s offense and tweaked it a little, and that’s basically what he’s running at Denver.

THOUGH 49ER coaches have always paid tribute to the Walsh offense, it hasn’t been the same since Shanahan left after the 1995 Super Bowl win to become the head coach at Denver. Steve Mariucci made his own changes – and wouldn’t listen to Walsh’s advice. Dennis Erickson abandoned the system entirely. And last year, there was no system at all.

If you asked football fans what the “West Coast offense” is all about, I suspect most of them would mention short passes. That was an important component when Walsh brought it to the 49ers in 1979. His concept of short, high-percentage passes which could be turned into long gainers by receivers running after the catch, ran counter to the concept of "stretching the defense” with deep passes which was the foundation of NFL offenses then.

But, there was much more to it than that. Walsh also believed in quick, often undersized, offensive linemen who beat the defensive linemen to the punch. Shanahan uses this concept in Denver, and the Broncos always seem to have a very successful running attack.

Walsh believed in a two-back offense, with the backs lined up parallel to each other, each one capable of running the ball, blocking or going out as a pass receiver. He wanted a strong running attack, which his teams (except for the first champion) had with runners like Wendell Tyler, Roger Craig and Tom Rathman, because he felt that one of the keys to winning in the NFL was to be able to control the ball with running in the fourth quarter.

The tight end was an integral part of his offense, going deep down the middle; Brent Jones was the best example.

He taught receivers and quarterbacks to recognize defenses with a very simple plan. A receiver would run right at a defensive back, and the defender’s reaction would show whether he was playing man or zone. The quarterback could make the same read. The receiver would run one pattern against a man defense, another a zone, and the quarterback knew which one he would run. With other teams, there would often be times when a receiver would go one way and the quarterback another with a pass, but in Walsh’s time, that almost never happened with the 49ers.

Above all, his system had the flexibility to incorporate different quarterback styles. Most notably, when Joe Montana had back surgery in 1986, he put in deep passes for Jeff Kemp, because that was the one thing Kemp did well. Walsh coached two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Montana and Steve Young, but he also got good production out of quarterbacks like Kemp, Matt Cavanaugh and Steve Bono, who did little elsewhere, as well as college quarterbacks Guy Benjamin, Steve Dils and Steve Stenstrom, who were only NFL backups.

As he noted above, the 49er offense in 2005 had almost none of these elements. The 49ers have followed the league-wide trend and gone for size in the offensive line. They had no pass catching tight end. There seemed no rhyme or reason to their passing offense. The only resemblance might have been the running of Frank Gore. Walsh probably would have benched Kevan Barlow until he was ready to give a consistent effort.

FOR TURNER, the one parallel between the Dallas team with which he built his reputation is in the 49er offensive line, with its size. If Jonas Jennings comes back from his surgery, the 49ers offensive line will be a strength.

I’m hoping Turner will be able to get the most out of Smith, though I have no illusions he’s another Troy Aikman, because the Niners aren’t going anywhere without much improved quarterbacking. If Eric Johnson is healthy, that will be huge, but the 49ers still need to get better receivers.

Mostly, though, 49er fans need to let go of the idea that Walsh’s system is the only way to go. The team has been built differently in the last decade, and the NFL has changed enormously since Walsh first came to the 49ers. I have no doubt that, if he were 25 years younger, Walsh could combat those changes, but without a coach with his creativity, just pretending you’re still running his offense doesn’t cut it.

We were very fortunate to live through the great years. Now, we have to realize there isn’t another Bill Walsh on the horizon.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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