Mailbag: Surprising NFC West stats

Evan from Tempe writes: Mike, as a loyal reader of your blog I've heard griping all year from 49er fans about the overly conservative play calling. The Niners obviously want to have a run-first smashmouth style offense. It shocked me then when I was looking at some stats and noticed San Francisco is actually last in the league with only 22.1 carries per game.

Obviously, they have had to abandon the run at times after falling behind, but so have any number of other teams below them in the standings, and those teams have still managed to call significantly more running plays. It would seem, based on their 4.5-yards-per-carry average, they actually need to run the ball more often. How much truth is there to the picture those stats paint?

Mike Sando: Some of the stats can be misleading. The 49ers have had a few unusually long runs, including 80- and 79-yarders against Seattle in Week 2. Those have jacked up the per-carry averages. The team has not run the ball consistently enough to bank on getting 4.5 yards a pop.

Yes, the 49ers are tied with the Bears for the fewest rushing plays this season. They also rank near the bottom in total pass plays. They are not sustaining drives well enough to stay on the field. Their total number of plays is low, in other words.

Paul Kuharsky uncovered another surprising stat. The 49ers throw the ball a high percentage of the time on second down after throwing incomplete on first-and-10. Only the Cardinals throw a higher percentage of the time in these situations.

Sinisa from Belgrade, Serbia, writes: Hi! I just want to ask you about Marc Bulger's contract situation, or to be more precise what will be cap hit if he is cut? I have heard his cut will actually save team about $300,000 and also it will be very big hit, so I would like to know what is truth. Thank you!

Mike Sando: No problem. Bulger's contract with the Rams counts slightly more than $10.5 million against the cap in 2010 if he is on the team and $6 million against the cap if the team releases him.

Allen from Phoenix writes: Sando, I feel like there's not much attention being given to the Cards-Titans game this weekend. Frankly, I'm pretty nervous about it with Kurt Warner's bum head, the emergence of the Titans of late, and the two games after this game. This very well could be the beginning of a three-game slide for the Cards. This is a HUGE game in my mind, if not for keeping a lead in the division, then for keeping respectability around the league. Would you agree with this assessment?

Mike Sando: It's an important stretch in terms of keeping Warner healthy. I just do not see the other teams in this division putting enough pressure on the Cardinals even if Arizona slips up a little bit. I feel as though the Cardinals will definitely show up for that Monday night game against the 49ers. They tend to respond to challenges. Losing at home to the 49ers in the opener has simmered in their minds all season. If I'm right in thinking Arizona will win that game, the division race will pretty much be over.

Hannan from Hershey, Pa., writes: Hey Mike, read the blog every day. So this year for the Seahawks is a disappointment overall, and I'm already looking towards the draft and next year. Now I want to reference a post that you answered a while ago. More and more teams are switching to the 3-4 defense, and you aren't finding a lot of teams that are not having success with it. With the amazing play of David Hawthorne compared to his expectations, the Seahawks are put in a weird predicament for next year. What will we do with four quality linebackers? We signed two to big extensions, and one we just drafted fourth overall. Do you think that we will try a hybrid scheme, even though our defensive coordinator is 4-3 based? Or do you think Hawthorne will eat the bench next year? Thanks.

Mike Sando: The Seahawks are having a hard time getting all these supposedly great linebackers on the field at the same time. That makes it pretty tough to play a 3-4 scheme all the time. I've always thought teams were better off running such schemes if those schemes were in their coaches' DNA.

Leroy Hill's deal wasn't a big-money extension. The team can bail pretty easily after two seasons. I'll believe the 3-4 talk when I see these guys healthy at the same time for enough games to build some continuity. Hill, Lofa Tatupu and Curry were on the field together for less than one full game together this season, lasting for part of the season opener.

Cassius from North Dakota writes: Hey Mike, I know this is old news, but I'm hoping you can help me make some sense of the Steve Hutchinson situation. Was it the Vikings or was it Tom Condon that put the poison pill in the contract? I understand why the Vikings would want to do that, but what would be the motivation for Tom Condon to do that? Was he just mad that the Seahawks put the transition tag on Hutch and if so, why? Also, was it really that bad of an idea for the Seahawks to put that tag on him? I know Tim Ruskell's taken a lot of heat for it but without the use of a poison pill it was probably a good move. Thanks.

Mike Sando: The Seahawks made a mistake. They should have protected themselves by naming him their franchise player. At the same time, no one but Condon and the Vikings seemed to see this coming. I think this never would have happened without Condon's involvement. Condon was instrumental in writing the collective bargaining agreement. He knows this stuff inside and out. He knew it better than the Seahawks knew it. Without the poison pills, I'm not sure whether the Vikings would have had as much incentive to offer so much money. Seattle simply would have matched the offer. It was a shrewd move by Condon.

Mitchell from Seattle writes: Mike, is it just me or does it seem that Leroy Hill has lost some of his speed this season? He looks a lot bigger and stronger, but doesnt have the speed to run down backs or get to the quarterback. I think up until this season his solid size and great speed was what made him special, but this season he just doesn't have what he used to. Do you see him slimming down a bit to regain that speed for the future, or is he trying to become just a pure tackler with less speed?

Mike Sando: I thought he looked fuller when I first saw him at the offseason camps. It wasn't anything I could quantify. He just looked different. I wonder if he was trying to become more durable. That obviously did not work.

Jed from San Francisco writes: Mike, your post regarding Steve Young has insights regarding Alex Smith, but I don't think anyone has refuted your observation that the Niners' decisions to sign Moran Norris and stick with fullback formations have been awful. Dating back to Shaun Hill's 2007 (Norris benched) to the more balanced Mike Martz schemes in 2008 to the two-tight end and three-receiver sets this year, the offense functions much better without a fullback -- regardless of shotgun vs. under center.

This is now an empirical fact. Gore's production, QB production (Hill or Smith) is visually and statistically superior without a fullback. Defenses stuff the box (SF can't run wide) and do not honor their fullback. (Norv Turver's 2006 offense had a far different offensive line and the NFL always evolves). Jimmy Raye, Mike Singletary and Scot McCloughan are too stubborn to remove the fullback and admit their mistake, both on signing Norris and the mismatch for this offensive line.

Mike Sando: The 49ers broke a 42-yard run on their second play against the Packers. They ran Frank Gore behind Norris in an offset-I formation. Four of their seven longest plays this season came from the same base personnel group (two backs, two receivers, one tight end). These plays produced touchdown runs covering 80, 79 and 64 yards, plus the aforementioned 42-yard rush and a 40-yard pass play to Vernon Davis against Tennessee.

I'm not saying the 49ers need to leave a fullback on the field in an age when more teams are phasing out the position. It does become hard to justify including a fullback as one of the five non-quarterback skill players on the field at any given time. Fullbacks offer nothing in the receiving game. They are not much of a threat to run the ball, either. They block or they are non-factors.

In the 49ers' case, I think their problems on the offensive line complicate everything they want to accomplish from every personnel group.

Scott from Aptos, Calif., writes: Where do you see the top QBs in next year's draft landing? It seems the Rams, Redskins, Vikings and Niners have a need for a first-round QB, or am I wrong?

Mike Sando: Those teams could use quarterbacks wherever they can find them. Hopefully you saw the recent breakdown on potential 2010 rookie quarterbacks, published since you reached out through the mailbag.