Mike Martz is mad, and Alex Smith couldn’t be much happier as he deals with his own frustration.
Those emotional states are not really related, but the San Francisco 49ers are hoping they mix into something brilliantly successful. Martz is San Francisco’s fourth offensive coordinator in the four years since Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. The constant change is one of the many reasons Smith has so far dealt with more failure than success as an NFL quarterback.
The 49ers hope to get a glimpse this weekend at how effective their offense might be as they open their first offseason camp since hiring Martz, who was fired after two seasons in Detroit.
For Smith, this will also be a big step in his recovery from a separated shoulder. He suffered the injury in September and ultimately required surgery after he could no longer play in December. It was a situation that caused tension between Smith and head coach Mike Nolan.
That tension, combined with a 16-32 record in three years, led to Nolan losing his control over personnel in the offseason, when Scot McCloughan was promoted to general manager. In short, the 49ers are a team with a bunch of frayed emotions at the top. The question is whether the emotions can be fused or whether they will cause an implosion.
Again, that success will largely revolve around the offense led by Martz and Smith, assuming Smith recovers and wins the battle with journeyman backup Shaun Hill. Martz is the most brilliant offensive mind the 49ers have had since Bill Walsh was in charge. Unfortunately, his brilliance has evolved into a mad scientist reputation, fed by what happened in Detroit the past two years and by the whispers that all he wants is to become a head coach again, even if that means taking over from long-time friend Nolan.
“The stuff that has been said about me behind my back is really hurtful,” Martz said. “I’m here to be the offensive coordinator and to help Mike (Nolan) and this offense be better. That’s all I’m concerned about right now. I’m not thinking about being head coach again. That’s not my focus … all the things that people say, it really angers me because it’s not productive.”
Nolan knows what has been said about Martz, but also knows there’s a bottom line for both Martz and himself.
“Mike knows that for him to be a head coach again, he needs to win. That’s it for all of us,” Nolan said.
One of the main criticisms of Martz is that he ignores the running game, a charge he vehemently denies.
“People who say that about me don’t look at the realities of what we were dealing with in a given situation,” said Martz, who has always included former St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk among his favorite players. Martz made Faulk the centerpiece of the Rams offense when the team won a Super Bowl during the 1999 season and then returned to the title game in 2001.
But Martz's reputation as a pass-happy play caller took a strong turn in that second Super Bowl. New England suffocated St. Louis’ passing game with strong bump coverage, yet Martz continued to throw.
Last season in Detroit, Martz orchestrated three games in which the Lions finished with fewer than 10 rushing attempts, including a season-low seven against Minnesota. The NFL record for fewest carries in a game is six and the belief is that Martz's play-calling led to tension among the coaching staff.
“Mike is a great coach, a really wonderful guy and I think he’ll have great success out there,” Detroit President Matt Millen said. Then came measured criticism.
“But you have to control what Mike is doing during games. Mike is brilliant. He can break down what a defense is doing faster than anyone I have ever seen. Then, all of a sudden, he’s coming up with a bunch of new ideas about how to attack that defense right there on the spot. That’s great, but you’d sit there sometimes and wonder, ‘Hey, what happened to all the stuff we talked about Monday to Saturday?’”
Martz recoils at that assessment.
“How would Matt know what we were talking about Monday to Saturday since he wasn’t there Thursday to Saturday?” Martz said, referring to Millen’s work schedule which includes him taking time with his family at the end of every week.
“The guys on that coaching staff know why we did that. Look, we just weren’t a good football team at that point,” said Martz, alluding to the fact that Detroit’s defense was atrocious early in the games when they ran so little. Against Arizona, the Lions were down 24-7 early in the third quarter. Against Minnesota, it was 35-10 at halftime. Finally, San Diego led 27-0 by the middle of the second quarter.
To defuse that reputation when he joined the 49ers, Martz said his priority is to maximize running back Frank Gore, trying to get him approximately 20 carries and another four or five receptions a game.
“We have to use Frank,” Martz said.
At the same time, Smith sees a fascinating passing game.
“It's amazing to see what flies out of him when we’re talking about the offense and it’s all right out of his head,” said Smith, who has become all too familiar with different offensive ideas so early in his career. “You can see from the way he talks, it’s full ahead, full throttle. Pretty much, you better get on the train because it's moving and it’s not stopping.
“Most mini-camps, when you’re installing a new offense, you put in just a little bit to start. That’s not going to be the case this time … if guys think they’re going to just go in and play after practicing a few times and not have to work on their own or take tapes home and study, they’re kidding themselves.”
Smith, a bright guy who graduated from college in less than three years, said he has already filled up more than one notebook from Martz's lectures and the team is barely a month into meetings. Smith talks with an almost furious excitement about what he sees.
“In most offenses, they tell you who the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 receiver on a given route is and they pretty much leave it to you to figure out how to handle this defense or this type of pressure,” said Smith, who has seen two of his first three offensive coordinators become head coaches (Mike McCarthy in Green Bay and Norv Turner in San Diego). “With coach Martz, it’s completely detailed about how you handle this defense or that pressure. It’s really amazing.”
That has Smith feeling better about the entire situation. Last season, he and Nolan hit a rough spot when Nolan questioned Smith’s ability to play through the shoulder injury. Smith said that instead of talking to each other directly, he and Nolan began to communicate through the media.
“We kind of allowed the media to ask what we were thinking about each other instead of just talking to each other about it,” Smith said. “When you do that, it’s not always clear what each other means … we laugh about it now, but I’ve gone up to his office and I think we’re both working hard to make sure it’s direct talking.”
Martz talks about Smith with similar excitement. Martz has made a career of turning lesser talents at quarterback, such as Trent Green, Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger, into productive passers, if not MVPs. Now, Martz may have his most physically gifted passer.
“Alex can do things on the move, change the pocket, throw on the run more than any quarterback I’ve had in a long time,” Martz said, emphasizing the word “long.”
To help Smith, the 49ers have also upgraded the receiving corps, bringing in veterans Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson. Bruce knows Martz's offense from their days together in St. Louis and Johnson is hoping to blossom after leaving Arizona, where he played behind Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Johnson has averaged more than 42 catches a year in his five-year career despite being the third option.
All of that has the 49ers optimistic. Even if it’s all driven a little bit by anger, they’ll take it.