Everyone who follows the 49ers has read - hundreds of times -- how difficult it is for offensive players, and especially the quarterback, to learn a new offense every offseason. Today members of the media got a taste of just how Herculean that task is. The team's top coaches spent about two hours in what was billed as a "49ers 101" session designed to give the people who report on the team a better understanding of what exactly is going on on the field.
It was like a trigonometry lesson taught in Greek. At one point today the offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, showed a chart of the formations, shifts and protections the 49ers had installed on the fourth day of OTAs last week. There were almost 70 different esoteric terms with names like "Wolf Bob" to "Cobra Stat." I'm not going to give away any trade secrets in writing this - Lord, I'm not sure I could if I wanted to - but it definitely reminded me of learning a new language, one that uses hieroglyphics as much as words.
As Raye explained, players first learn the team's core routes and runs and the rest of the offense derives from those core principles. By this time of year, the incoming rookies should be familiar with all of the core plays. By the time the team's minicamp rolls around in late June, the 49ers should have everything installed and they will hit upon those core plays again at the start of training camp.
The subtext of the lesson was that everything is infinitely easier the longer a team has been in a system. "It's a big difference, us coming out and ... hitting the ground running and already talking about protection adjustments," Alex Smith said during the team's first OTA this year. "Us having so much more input whereas a year ago you're really just out here trying to take it in, your starting with the basics, were working on huddle procedure, we're working on motions and shifts and all the fundamentals that you have to build to be successful, At this point now, were so much past that. Yeah, the guys that are new have to catch up, but we're taking the next step forward."
The lessons were given, in order, by new special teams coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer, Raye and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky. They answered questions at the end. If I gave each a one-word description, I'd call Schottenheimer "The Statistician", Raye "The Professor" and Manusky "the Entertainer." Some tidbits:
• I didn't know this, but Mike Singletary mentioned it as some media members straggled in after the session began. He said that he doesn't fine players for being late to meetings. He does, however, run them. That is, a player late to a meeting "pays" by running Singletary's hill.
• Schottenheimer had a number of statistics that spoke to the importance of field position. For example, teams that begin at their own 10 yard line statistically have a 12 percent chance of scoring a touchdown and a 5.3 percent chance of scoring a field goal. That goes to 24.1 percent for a touchdown and 18.1 percent for a field goal when they start at the 50.
• More stats: Teams that have a defensive or special teams touchdown win 70 percent of the time. Teams that finish +1 in the turnover margin win 71 percent. At +2 it's 83 percent and at +3 it's 87 percent.
• Raye noted that the 49ers finished fifth in the league in red-zone scoring in 2009. "We have a tremendous weapon in that area," he said. That weapon: tight end Vernon Davis, who caught 13 touchdown passes in 2009 and who -- by the way -- is in the final year of his contract.
• Raye's red zone is further broken down into categories: "The Fringe" goes from the 21-30, the "High Red" is the 16-20, the "Middle Red" is the 10-15, the "Low Red" is the 3 to the 9 and "Goal-Line" is the 3 on down. The point is that the quarterback has a different mentality for each sector. For example, he is taught not to have any negative plays - throw the ball away rather than a force a play - in the Fringe because a mistake costs the team a field-goal opportunity.
• Raye said that a lot of the time he can protect the quarterback with the scheme. The two instances where Alex Smith is on his own: third downs and in the red zone.
• Raye said that young running backs are particularly challenged because in college they only need to worry about the plays in which they are handed the ball. At the NFL level, "the biggest challenge is playing without the ball," i.e. blocking assignments, etc. That's why no one should expect rookie Anthony Dixon to usurp carries from Glen Coffee this season.
• Manusky prefaced his lesson by saying that he strives to make his lessons as lively as possible so as to avoid glazed-over eyes staring back at him. He gave a boisterous overview of what the defense is expected to have under its belt for any given game plan.
• Manusky said he had about 27 base packages and that it usually takes about a half hour to install one of them.
• Manusky said that sometimes he'll install a new scheme in the beginning of the week and find that the players are having trouble running in later in the week. In those cases, Manusky will scrap it entirely.
-- Matt Barrows