In truth, the 49ers cannot play offense the same way if the jaw injury Walker suffered during a 19-17 victory at Seattle sidelines him.
Walker's unusual speed for the position and improved blocking gave the 49ers great versatility when using him with Vernon Davis in their two-tight end packages. Before Saturday, the 49ers had gained 2,407 of their 4,304 yards -- 56 percent -- with two tight ends on the field. That included 1,031 of their 1,616 yards rushing (63.8 percent). Walker had played 58.7 percent of the offensive snaps, including 40.4 percent on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Teams facing the 49ers could not treat San Francisco's double-tight personnel groupings the way they would treat most others thoughout the league. They had to account for both players as receiving threats. Walker has 19 receptions for 198 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning touchdown catch against Detroit in Week 6.
The 49ers already lost their best blocking tight end, Nate Byham, to a season-ending knee injury in training camp. They have 10-year veteran Justin Peelle to take some of the snaps that Walker would have taken. But they do not have a true replacement for Walker.
The 49ers might also consider using three wide receivers more frequently, but they have injury concerns at that position as well. Josh Morgan is out for the season, Ted Ginn Jr. is dealing with an ankle injury and veteran Braylon Edwards has battled through knee and shoulder problems. Ginn's replacement, Kyle Williams, suffered a concussion Sunday.
Going to a three-wideout offense would also depart from coach Jim Harbaugh's preference for heavier personnel groupings. Before Saturday, the 49ers had used three or more wideouts a league-low 81 times on first and second down. That included only three such plays in first quarters, 44 fewer than the average for the other 31 teams. Singling out first quarters can sometimes help determine a team's true intentions. Score differentials come into play later in games, leading teams to change how they use their personnel.
A best-case scenario for the 49ers would go like this: Atlanta upsets New Orleans on Monday night, clinching the NFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye for San Francisco. The 49ers could then play starters sparingly against St. Louis in Week 17. They would have roughly three weeks of practice, counting this week, to make whatever tweaks might be necessary should Walker remain out. The extra time would represent a second training camp, in effect. The best-case scenario would also include Walker healing for the playoffs.
Harbaugh and the 49ers have done an outstanding job overcoming difficult obstacles. They've gone 12-3 after changing over the coaching staff and getting very little time to install their schemes, thanks to the lockout. They have overcome fourth-quarter deficits to win five times this season, including four on the road. It's not like Walker is the most valuable player on the team. He's just a lot more valuable than his stats would indicate.
The chart shows playing time for the 49ers' offensive skill players by down heading into the team's game against Seattle, according to ESPN Stats & Information..