Interview With Matt Barrows From the Sacramento Bee
Posted 7/1 by Cecil Lammey and Sigmund Bloom, Exclusive to Footballguys.com
CECIL LAMMEY: Welcome back everyone to it is The Audible, the show that you know and love. I am your host Cecil Lammey, joined with my co-host, Sigmund Bloom. We talk football nonstop on this show. Let's talk a little 49ers football today and to do that, we go to the VIP line, it's Matt Barrows from the Sacramento Bee. Matt, what's up brother?
MATT BARROWS: How are you guys?
LAMMEY: Doing real good. I mean - everyone say it with me: 'There is no offseason, only a non-playing season.' So let's jump right in. You talk about the 49ers - in my opinion, a team that's on the rise, but it starts with the quarterback position. Alex Smith, this could be his last hurrah as a 49er. Shaun Hill certainly brings a lot of competition to the table. And there's the dark horse - J.T. O'Sullivan. This is a Mike Martz offense now. So in your opinion Matt, who gets the majority of the snaps at quarterback in the '08 season?
BARROWS: Well, that's a very good question. It's one they haven't even begun to settle yet. So far it's been Smith and Hill who have been splitting all the first team reps. And O'Sullivan, having played for Martz in Detroit already, is familiar with the offense so the thinking right now is that he doesn't need the education that Smith and Hill are getting. And Martz is just piling it onto those guys. The more they can handle the better in his opinion. And he's giving them a lot to digest. So, so far the OTAs have been a little bit rocky but I believe that's mostly because Martz is being so ambitious and so aggressive with the teaching process and he's giving these guys quite a bit to swallow.
SIGMUND BLOOM: Matt, you break down this quarterback battle and what it means to the team, particularly with how delicate it is, switching over to a Mike Martz offense. How important timing is - the most important of any part in a Mike Martz offense. If the timing isn't there, nothing works. So it seems like - and we've certainly heard the team make some noise - that they want to name a starter early on and they really want that starter to get most of the reps in training camp. Are you getting the feeling they are going to stick with that plan or could we see a true quarterback battle right down until that third preseason game and maybe even later in the training camp? Or are they really going to give it to Alex Smith, give it to Shaun Hill and let then run with it from training camp forward?
BARROWS: Well, you make a very good point. You know, this is the last week of OTAs and they really haven't made any headway as far as determining who it is exactly that is going to get the lion's share of snaps in training camp. It's been very much an equal split between Smith and Hill. But you're right. Once training camp starts, they are going to have to start giving one of those guys more because it's such a system that relies on the quarterback and the receivers being synchronized. Throws are made before they make their break that the receivers are going to need to know who is throwing the football and vice versa. The quarterback is going to have to know the tendencies of his receivers. So I believe that this competition, at least from the start of training camp, will still be even, but the first or the second week into it they are going to have to start emphasizing one of those guys more than the other. And that's where the preseason games are going to play a big deciding factor in that. Whoever looks good in those first few games - those first two games probably - is going to be the guy that gets the lion's share of the practice snaps and of the playing time in those last two games, because it's critical that they get on the same page with their receivers.
LAMMEY: Very critical, like you say Matt. They upgraded the wide receiver core, bringing in free agent Bryant Johnson over from the Arizona Cardinals. I want your opinion on how good Bryant can be in this offense. Obviously, in a Mike Martz offense, he could be pretty damned good. And also, comment on the great Isaac Bruce. Is he really the true wide receiver 2, or do you expect maybe a young guy - maybe Josh Morgan or Jason Hill - to really be the wide receiver 2 and Bruce more of a veteran type of wide receiver coach?
BARROWS: You're last comment is a good one. They brought him in because of his familiarity with the offense and because of his work ethic. And they're hoping a lot of that rubs off on the younger guys. And that's very much been what Bruce's role has been. He's been very professional, very businesslike so far in the OTAs and minicamp. But his numbers have definitely begun to reduce the last few years in St. Louis and I think the thinking is that he might be very good in the beginning but that towards the middle and the end of the season, it's going to be some of the younger guys who take advantage. And I'll tell you, the guy who has looked the best to me so far has been Bryant Johnson. He's a big target. Alex Smith in particular loves to throw to him. If there is one guy who is catching the bulk of balls in these practices, it's Bryant Johnson. He's looked every bit the part the number 1 receiver so far.
BLOOM: Matt, this should be a challenge for Mike Martz in a way because the most dynamic receiver on the roster is a tight end, Vernon Davis. Do you see the will there for Martz to modify that system and make Vernon Davis the true centerpiece of that attack, or is Vernon Davis going to have to be the one who has to adapt? From what you've seen so far, where does he fit in?
BARROWS: Well, I think you're absolutely right that Vernon Davis is the guy who puts the most pressure on defense, poses the most matchup issues for defenses. We were just talking to him today as a matter of fact, and he was saying that this offense much more so than the previous ones he's been in really puts him in situations to succeed. They have him in the backfield with Frank Gore sometimes, they split him out wide receiver sometimes, and they put him in the slot sometimes. And it's always with the design of getting him one-on-one matchups, forcing the defense to commit a safety to cover Davis so that the defenses don't have safety help with the receivers. So more one-on-one coverage. So you're basically making the defenses pick your poison when you put Vernon Davis out at receiver or out at the slot. They have to make decisions and the idea is that the quarterback then sees those adjustments and hits the open guy. But he's definitely going to be a top target, if not THE top target in this offense.
LAMMEY: Let's talk about the running back position a little bit, Matt and of course the great Frank Gore. He truly is a superstar back in the NFL and we've seen what Mike Martz does when he has a superstar on his hands, ala Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson. The guy's going to get the rock a lot and get involved in the receiving game. So tell us what your projections are for Frank Gore this season and just how dominant can he be and in your opinion, will Mike Martz learn that you need to run the ball sometimes. Because he gets away from it a little bit. Oftentimes in Detroit you'd see that, where maybe they should've kept running and they didn't. Do you think Martz has learned his lesson or is this the same old Mike Martz?
BARROWS: Well, I think Martz would say that the reason he didn't run the ball more in Detroit is, you know, they didn't have the weapons in place to run the ball more. His greatest asset, attribute is that he can sense the strength in his offensive players and play to those strengths. And Frank Gore's strength, obviously, is running between the tackles. And there has been no sense so far in what we've seen that that's going to be any different. Now he will get more passes out of the backfield and that's something that he can handle. The last two seasons Frank Gore has been the team's leading receiver in terms of receptions, so there will be more passes to the running backs, but I don't think they are going to abandon that straight ahead pound it style that they've begun to develop the last few years.
BLOOM: We've been talking a lot about this offense, and of course every question is somehow related to Mike Martz. So I want to step back and ask you sort of an overarching question: We've seen this team really struggle to get an offensive identity switching offensive coordinators, Alex Smith really not working out, not panning out as that #1 overall pick. Of course it's early, it's just OTAs - but what kind of feeling are you getting on whether this is going to work or it's just going to another failed offensive coordinator, failed experiment and just in general. What do you think the front office was thinking, what was the thrust of this move? A somewhat risky move, but one that could have a big payoff, bringing in someone like Mike Martz to rebuild the offense.
BARROWS: Well, listen, at the end of the season, Mike Nolan had to go in and basically plea for his job. Convince the Yorks - the owners - that he deserved another chance and his argument was this: That they've got a good defense. They have a very good special teams. But the problem last year was all about the offense. And he convinced them that hey, if I can fix this one part of the team, 1/3 of the team, this is going to be a good team. And so he did that by bringing in Mike Martz, a guy who is synonymous with high-powered offenses. But he's also putting - Nolan and Martz and Alex Smith - all of their eggs are in this basket. I mean there's really no wiggle room. Nolan has said that this is going to be a good team if this offense improves, so now they've got to kind of live up to promise. So there's quite a bit of pressure on one aspect of the team and that's the offense. Like I said earlier, they've been very ambitious with putting this offense in, both Shaun Hill and Alex Smith have said that - you know, these are guys who have had a different offense every year they have been in San Francisco - and they can say without any hesitation that this is the most information they've had to absorb by this point in the season, this early point in June. So, they're going at it aggressively, ambitiously. Whether it's going to pan out, obviously that's why they play the games. But so far their approach has been a good one. They've been jumping into it with two feet and going full bore as fast as they can in learning this new offense.
LAMMEY: You're listening to The Audible, on the VIP line, from the Sacramento Bee, its Matt Barrows. Talking some 49ers football. Matt, my final question for you today has to do with backup running backs. The guys behind Frank Gore. Gore is spectacular. We know he does have a tendency to get a little banged up from time to time. They bring in DeShaun Foster, coming back to California after he played at UCLA. They've got Michael Robinson, the kind of do everything guy from Penn State. How do you see this shaking down? Do you see DeShaun Foster playing a bigger role then people expect?
BARROWS: Well, I think Mike Martz learned a lesson from St. Louis. Those last few years that he was there, Marshall Faulk got hurt quite a bit and they really didn't have a decent backup to pick up the slack when Faulk was out. So they went out and they got DeShaun Foster, and he's very different than Frank Gore. He's very smooth, very fluid out of the backfield. He's probably their best pass-catcher out of the backfield. And he's kind of learning how to run between the tackles, run more like Frank Gore in these OTAs. But the point is that if Gore did have another injury - you know he had that broken hand earlier in the season, then an ankle problem throughout the season - they do have a guy in DeShaun Foster that can kind of pick up the slack, so they really won't have to miss too much of a beat if he goes down. Michael Robinson is another guy, like you describe him as a jack-of-all-trades and that's a perfect description. He's a guy that can do both the pounding type running though the middle and catch the ball out of the backfield. He was featured quite prominently in today's practice and caught quite a few balls. So he's also a guy who can do that. So I think the bottom line is that if Gore goes down, and this offense is very much built around Gore, the offense can still function with Foster and Robinson back there.
BLOOM: For my last question, I want to ask you about that defense, which definitely has been the better side of the ball and had some emerging superstars at least in Patrick Willis and hopefully this year, a healthy Manny Lawson. I want to ask you about how much of an impact a healthy Manny Lawson can have and in particular, with the new free agent acquisition Justin Smith, how much does that open up possibilities of them generating more pressure and getting at the quarterback, having Lawson pan out and having Smith run interference. Does it seem like this was that last piece to really make this defense one of the best in the NFC?
BARROWS: Well, I would describe their defense as a chameleon-like defense. That is, they love to switch things up. They go from a 3-4 to a 4-3, they drop their linebackers back in coverage, they rush their linebackers, their defensive linemen stand up and become linebackers - it's a defense that has many, many faces and probably the most chameleon-like of those players is Manny Lawson. He's a guy that's even played safety quite a bit in the nickel coverages. So getting him back is really essential for everything that they do, including the pass rush, because he is so versatile and can do so many things. He really is the epitome of this defense. And they're trying to do the same thing with Smith. Smith is a guy who came here in out of free agency, and he came for his physical and was 285 lbs or so. They have him standing up and rushing from the right side as a linebacker now. So he's a guy that they're trying to use in as many capacities as possible. In fact, Mike Nolan was comparing him to Chris Long, the rookie that the Rams took, in that the Rams are thinking about playing Long all over the field at defensive end, at linebacker. He thinks that Smith can do many of the same things and they are giving him an opportunity in these OTAs and in training camp to prove that.
LAMMEY: You want to keep up with the San Francisco 49ers, of course, you read the Sacramento Bee and see what Matt Barrows has to say. And you have to check out his 49ers blog at SacBee.com. Matt, great insight, thank you very much for joining the show, man.
BARROWS: Anytime guys, I enjoyed it.