Commentary

32 Questions: What does Martz mean to Niners' offense?

Updated: August 15, 2008, 12:17 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

What does Mike Martz mean to the 49ers' offense?

It's interesting that Mike Nolan and Alex Smith got along so poorly in 2007, because as we head into '08, they both are just about out of rope. In Nolan's three years as 49ers coach, the team is 16-32, and after a 2-0 start last year, the bottom fell out; the 49ers went 3-11 thereafter and racked up the worst offensive numbers in the NFL. Smith suffered a separated shoulder in the first month and tried to come back later in the season, but he amassed a woeful 57.2 passer rating and was outplayed by journeyman Shaun Hill. Nolan lost say over personnel matters to general manager Scot McCloughan; Smith potentially lost the starting quarterback's job.

Enter Mike Martz. The West Coast offense originated in San Francisco, and the Niners ran a relatively vanilla version of it under Jim Hostler in 2007. Martz is not a West Coast guy; he was schooled in the tradition of Don Coryell. In the West Coast offense, the emphasis is on shorter quarterback drops, short to intermediate routes with lots of slants and crosses, and lots of receptions by running backs. In Martz's offense, downfield is the name of the game -- receivers run posts, flies and deep outs and crosses. Martz also prefers to use a power running game when he can muster one. While that wasn't always the case with Detroit (both because of a lack of a good tailback and a weak O-line), Martz's Rams teams were notorious for giving Marshall Faulk the ball in the trenches when three wide receivers were on the field. The key difference in Martz's aerial attack is that plays take much longer to develop. In the past, that's gotten his quarterbacks sacked a bunch.

So there's an awful lot of pressure on the 49ers' offensive line this year. Those players need to be able to pass block better, because even in last year's "quick-release" system, they allowed a whopping 55 sacks, tied for most in the league. And they need to be better on behalf of the run, in the zone-blocking system Martz is implementing. Ninerworld will be watching Joe Staley, who moves to left tackle after, frankly, a not-very-stellar year at right tackle (Staley, of course, is the guy San Francisco traded up to get in the '07 draft, giving to New England the pick that eventually became No. 7 overall in '08). Injury-prone veteran Jonas Jennings and Barry Sims will fight it out for the right tackle spot. Larry Allen is finally gone (although he hasn't officially retired yet), leaving the guard play to Adam Snyder, who was bad at tackle last season, and David Baas, who has a torn pectoral. The center is Eric Heitmann. The good news is that two of the team's '08 draft picks -- guard Chilo Rachal and center Cody Wallace -- give the team more depth here, at least with positive run blocking. The bad news is there isn't obvious improvement, and I'm not sold on Staley on the blind side.

Why do I spend so much time on the O-line? Because my worries about it explain everything that follows. When Martz teams don't get good offensive line play, their quarterbacks get crushed, throw interceptions and suffer injuries. So while there's a lot of jabber about who'll wind up the Week 1 starter under center -- at this point, it looks like J.T. O'Sullivan, a Martz favorite from his Detroit days, has taken control of the job -- I have a feeling you'll see multiple quarterbacks play for the Niners this year. When they're in there, they probably will post gaudy numbers. But they simply might not be in there long. Jon Kitna was a pretty fun quarterback to own the past couple of years, though, so if O'Sullivan, Smith or Hill can keep the job for 16 games, he probably will wind up a top-10 fantasy quarterback.

Frank Gore
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireFrank Gore scored just three touchdowns after Week 2 last season.
For Frank Gore, Martz has the potential to be something of a mixed bag. As I mentioned, when Martz directed the Rams, Faulk was one of fantasy's most dynamic players, but in Detroit, Martz never really produced a consistent fantasy back (to be fair, Kevin Jones always was hurt). The Niners' interior line has potential to be better, and Gore obviously is a very powerful guy. It's possible San Francisco will be able to take its power rushing game to another level, and while Gore might not get 86 receiving targets again, as he did in '06, it's not like Martz will refuse to throw it to such a talented pass-catching back. Some have insinuated that because they perceive Martz as pass-happy, Gore's value automatically goes down in '08, but I don't think that's so. I think Gore's fantasy value hinges on what it always hinges on: his health, his goal-line efficiency and his O-line. I think he will have a nice year.

Finally, there are the receivers. Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson are penciled as starters, although Johnson -- who comes over after being Arizona's relatively ineffective third receiver -- has struggled with a hamstring injury throughout training camp. Arnaz Battle would be very interesting as a slot receiver (think Shaun McDonald and Mike Furrey), but he, too, has missed most of camp because of a bad hammy. That leaves sleepers galore, including Jason Hill, about whom I've written at length, and rookie Josh Morgan, who's impressed in camp.

I wish I could definitively say there is a person in this group without a glaring hole, but there isn't. Injuries, inexperience and (in one case) advanced age make everyone unsure bets, and you have to rate all these guys several levels down from Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson, who benefited from Martz's gunslinging ways in Detroit. Still, as camp continues, know that we're talking high-stakes poker here: If someone can prove he's healthy and consistent, he'll get a ton of footballs thrown his way, often the downfield kind. That can make for sneaky fantasy value.

Just don't go crazy with the Niners only because Martz's name is on the letterhead.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.