Monday, December 29, 2008

Reality Check: SF 49ers

Yesterday I was driving home from Southern California, after spending the holidays with family. My wife was giving me updates on the Miami-New York game, and I was thrilled that the Dolphins won. Today I am back in the Bay Area and all anybody is talking about is Mike Singletary and the 49ers. In truth this has been going on for the last month, but I can take no more.

Now I can't really blame them. The 49ers seemed awful before Singletary took over, with a 2-5 record. A ten loss season looked like it was on the way. They finished 5-4 under Singletary, and now have given him a new contract. Many (including myself) were surprised when Singletary was named interim head coach. We weren't suprised that Mike Nolan was fired -- he should have been fired after last season because he behaved childishly and subsequently ruined the career of Alex Smith. Now the surprise was Singletary being named instead of Mike Martz. After all, Martz had coached both St. Louis (with great success) and Detroit (not so much.) Now with Singletary being given the reigns for next year, it is a foregone conclusion that Martz will be run out of town so new O-coordinator can be brought in to install a "power running game." Everyone in the Bay Area is giddy about all this -- but they won't be so happy 365 days from now. Let's take a look inside the numbers to see why.

Under Nolan, the 49ers were 2-5. As much as I disliked Nolan, that 2-5 mark was mostly a result of their schedule. The 5 losses were against teams with a combined 0.618 winning percentage. Three of the five teams made the playoffs, and the other two just missed. All five of those teams ranked in the 7 in the league in offense. Not surprisingly, the 49ers surrendered 339 yards per game. Their offense produced nearly 300 yards per game playing against defenses that were on average ranked 17th in the league -- right in the middle.

Under Singletary, the 49ers were 5-4. Again much of this was the product of their schedule. Their opponents had a combined winning percentage of 0.430. None of the teams that they beat made the playoffs. Actually they only played two playoff teams, and they lost to both. They played average offenses (19th ranked on average) and average defenses (18th ranked on average.) They produced 320 yards per game and gave up 315 yards per game. That is about a 20 yard swing on both offense and defense, but this is easily explained by their opponents. They were -6 turnovers under Nolan and -9 under Singletary.

In summary, it is hard to argue that Singletary made much of a difference. If Nolan had stayed on as head coach, the 49ers would have probably had similar "success". This is not a good reason to get excited about Singletary and offer him a multi-year contract. Worse, by making Singletary the permanent head coach, you guarantee that Mike Martz will be gone. Why is that a big deal? Keep reading.

The 49ers had a terrible passing offense last year, but this year they were ranked 13th in the NFL. That's not great, but it's a big improvement. Now maybe that is because of the opponents they played, but most of the really bad teams they played were division foes who were also very bad last year as well. So maybe some of that improvement is because of Mike Martz. Indeed, Martz's game planning ability was even more on display late in the season. He arguably exposed huge weaknesses in several defenses: Arizona, Dallas, and especially the New York Jets.

After beating the 49ers in week 10, the Arizona Cardinals went 3-4 the rest of the way. Before that game, they were giving up 23 points per game. Not great, but good enough when you have a top give offense. After that game, they gave up 31 points game. Martz's offense put up 275 yards passing against the Jets. After that game, the Jets faced the likes of JP Losman, Seneca Wallace, and of course Chad Pennington. The Jets defense was great against Losman, but Wallace and Pennington both posted 100+ QB Ratings against the Jets. In the previous 13 games, the Jets allowed a 100+ QB rating only three times (Philip Rivers, Matt Cassel, and Tyler Thigpen.)

You can argue that Singletary deserves credit for benching JT O'Sullivan and starting Shaun Hill. However, most of the credit for the 49ers "turnaround" goes to an improved offense engineered by Mike Martz. Next year, Martz will be gone. Instead we will see an offense that is more similar to what Nolan preferred last year, and we all saw how that turned out.

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