Mike Johnson had been mapping out a strategy to fix San Francisco’s struggling offense long before coach Mike Singletary phoned late Sunday night and asked the 49ers quarterbacks coach for his plan.
When Singletary decided to make a change less than 24 hours later and fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, Johnson was ready.
Johnson found himself in a similar situation seven years ago in Atlanta when Wade Phillips replaced Dan Reeves as the Falcons coach late in the season. Phillips approached Johnson with two weeks left in the regular season and asked him for a plan to turn things around.
“It’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time,” Johnson said Thursday, speaking formally for the first time since being promoted to replace Raye. “It’s something I just didn’t come up with that night. He didn’t tell me anything the night before and I didn’t ask why. I went back home and put it together and brought it to him in the morning.”
Singletary initially said after Sunday’s loss at Kansas City that he was keeping Raye. After returning to the team’s facilities later that night, the coach watched several game films and changed his mind.
The 180-degree turnaround came as a shock to some because of the timing and Singletary’s supposed support for Raye, though many in San Francisco’s locker room welcomed the change.
“Mike might bring something different to the table with the passing and the running game, and try to mix it up,” tight end Delanie Walker said. “I’m just looking forward to seeing what we’re going to do.”
The 49ers offense heads into Sunday’s game at Atlanta ranked 27th in rushing and 20th overall. Running back Frank Gore is averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry and has only one touchdown through three games.
Johnson, who had previous coaching stops in San Diego, Atlanta and Baltimore before joining Singletary’s staff before the 2009 season, said he won’t make radical changes to the offense. With a little tweaking of the playbook, Johnson believes the 49ers have enough talent on their roster to be contenders.
That might not sit well with frustrated San Francisco fans hoping for major renovations. The winless 49ers went into the season with playoff aspirations but now they’re trying to prevent starting 0-4 for the first time since 2005.
“You have a certain way we’ve been operating for the last 1 ½ years and you can’t go in in one week and change the entire playbook,” Johnson said. “There will be some different things but I don’t think we’ll make a bunch of wholesale changes. We’re going to take the same core plays, the same core concepts and make them look a little different to the opponent and then see if we can have a different result.”
Singletary, who does not talk to the media on Thursdays, insists his own philosophy for San Francisco’s offense remains the same: a physical, balanced attack with an emphasis on the ground game.
“Coach Singletary has a philosophy and he has a certain core of principles he wants to operate from,” Johnson said. “But he has given me the freedom to do certain things within that philosophy to win football games. I believe that you have to be multiple and be diversified.
“Jimmy Raye left a great foundation here. What I’m going to try to do is to get the ball to the players on our offense that can make plays, to utilize the talent and potential that we have here as an offense.”
Part of that means getting better production out of Gore and quarterback Alex Smith.
Smith has passed for 732 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions, while his 66.2 rating is 28th among the league’s 32 teams.
“Alex has played OK,” Johnson said. “He has not played great and that’s why I think our offense has not played to that level. In saying that, we have to give him a better opportunity as coaches to make sure that he is successful. That’s what I’m going to try to do with the entire offensive staff.”