49ers Mailbag: What Walker's absence means to offense

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49ers Mailbag: What Walker's absence means to offense

The 49ers will have their first official practice of the week on Tuesday, so we'll get a glimpse at the team's injury situation.Obviously, don't look for tight end Delanie Walker to return any time soon from a jaw that was fractured in two places on Dec. 24. Walker did not sound on Friday like a player who thought he'd be able to play."It's emotional," Walker said in his first comments since the injury. "First time in the playoffs and I get hurt, and not being able to play. Kind of hurts. But our team is doing well, and I'm recovering the way I want to recover, so who knows?"Defensive lineman Ray McDonald is nursing a right hamstring strain. He said it's not as bad as the left hamstrings strain that kept him out for a game in November. McDonald said he expects to play on Saturday against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC divisional round at Candlestick Park.The 49ers return to full strength at wide receiver, as Ted Ginn (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion) have been cleared to play after missing time late in the season. Every day this week, we'll be answering some questions from the 49ers Mailbag. Let's see what we have today . . . How does Walker's injury impact what the Niners want to do on offense? Will Gore have a harder time running the football in his absence? (Jeremy Sawvel)
Walker greatly improved his blocking this season. In fact, he became such a good blocker that he became a forgotten man in the passing attack.Walker's value was his versatility. He was still a threat as a receiver, though he went six games without a reception before sustaining his injury. Backup tight end Justin Peelle is considered more a blocker, so nothing has to change with the 49ers' run game. But it does mean that the Saints can play the run more when Peelle is on the field. The 49ers could counteract that with more passes in that personnel grouping.It should be noted that the 49ers have decided to keep Walker on the 53-man roster. Coach Jim Harbaugh said they're leaving the spot only for Walker on the chance that he might be able to return to action at some point in the postseason.Also, there's no reason for the team to fill the roster spot because nobody they add to the 53-man roster would be among the 46 active players on game days, anyway.Does the 49ers offense feel more prepared for the blitz happy defense that the Saints like to run because of their prior preseason meeting? (Andrew Schmidt)
The 49ers do not feel more prepared because the Saints did not unveil any great secrets in the exhibition opener. However, the 49ers feel infinitely better-equipped to handle what New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams throws their way because the offensive line has been working together now for 24 weeks -- as opposed to two weeks together when the met for that first exhibition game. Also, the 49ers' pass protection should have the advantage of being able to communicate their pre-snap adjustments without the complication of dealing with excessive crowd noise.Which LB will be charged with covering Jimmy Graham? (Joel Ellis)
Graham is the best pass-catching tight end in the NFC. The 49ers will mix up their coverages, but look for Patrick Willis to be a busy man. He is generally the player called upon to cover top-flight tight ends. But there will also be instances when safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are responsible, too. Graham was the Saints' leading receiver during the season with 99 receptions for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Colts fire GM Ryan Grigson after five seasons

Colts fire GM Ryan Grigson after five seasons

INDIANAPOLIS -- Ryan Grigson spent tens of millions in free agency, trying to turn the Indianapolis Colts into a Super Bowl contender.

When most of those big investments went belly up, the first-time general manager paid the price.

On Saturday, Colts owner Jim Irsay fired Grigson after five up-and-down years that ended with Indy missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.

"It was a tough decision, well thought out and in the end the right decision for the Colts," Irsay said.

Initially, Grigson looked like a genius.

He hit it big on his first four draft picks - quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and receiver T.Y. Hilton - and used a series of shrewd, cost-effective moves to deliver one of the greatest turnarounds in league history.

But when Grigson's costly misfires like first-round bust Bjoern Werner in 2013, trading a first-round pick for Trent Richardson in 2014 or loading up on a group of aging, high-priced free agents to make a Super Bowl run in 2015 and an anxious fan base, Irsay had no choice.

The timing, almost three weeks after the season ended, was strange - and comes after many thought the delay meant Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano were both safe.

Each agreed to contracts last January that was supposed to keep them together through the 2019 season.

Thirteen months later, Grigson is gone and Pagano's fate may rest in the hands of a new GM.

Grigson, by trade, was a gambler who refused to play it safe.

"I think the guys that sit on their hands, they've got to live with themselves and look in the mirror and realize they didn't take any chances," he once said. "They've got to look at themselves and say, 'Did I even deserve this opportunity?' If you just sit on your hands and say, 'I'm going to play it safe all the time,' you might be middle of the pack. But if you don't take a swing, you're never going to hit it out of the park."

Irsay appreciated Grigson's unconventional style and penchant for taking chances.

What he didn't like was the underwhelming payout.

In five seasons, Grigson made 15 trades for players and only one, Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis, played in Indy's season finale. Grigson also drafted 38 players - 18 of whom finished the season with the Colts. Eleven were out of the NFL.

Then there was free agency, where Grigson signed dozens of expensive players. Only 11 were still on Indy's roster when the season ended, 18 others were out of the NFL.

With an estimated $60 million to spend in free agency this year and a chance to get the Colts righted for the prime years of Luck's career, Irsay couldn't afford to roll the dice again with Grigson so he made the change.

The 44-year-old Purdue graduate's blunt personality didn't always mesh with coach Chuck Pagano. Irsay even acknowledged last summer that the two men needed to resolve their differences before he gave them the extensions.

Players didn't always get along with him, either.

"Thank God. 'Unwarranted Arrogance' just ran into a brick wall called karma," Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee posted on Twitter after word first leaked.

Grigson also drew the wrath of Patriots' fans by tipping off NFL officials that Tom Brady was using improperly inflated footballs during the 2015 AFC championship game. The Deflategate controversy eventually led to a four-game suspension for Brady as well as a fine and the loss draft picks for the Patriots.

And despite Irsay's repeated pleas to better protect Luck, Grigson, a former offensive lineman, never quite figured it out.

Luck missed 10 games because of injuries over the past two seasons and was sacked 41 times last season. The first real glimmer of hope appeared in December when the Colts held Minnesota and Oakland without a sack in back-to back games - the only times all season they didn't allow a sack.

When Grigson arrived, the Colts were coming off a 2-14 season and were about to release Peyton Manning and several other aging veterans in a salary cap purge.

So Grigson cleaned house.

He fired Jim Caldwell, hired Pagano and revamped the roster with low-budget free agents to work with the cornerstone of the future, Luck.

It worked. The man once dubbed by a previous boss as a "great" expansion team general manager, turned the Colts into a surprising 11-5 playoff-bound team.

Indy finished 11-5 each of the next two seasons, too, and advanced one step deeper in the playoffs each season.

The steady progression turned the Colts into a trendy Super Bowl pick in 2015, a trek that was derailed by a litany of injuries that forced the Colts to use five different quarterbacks just to finish 8-8.

Waiting for Shanahan could be a good thing for 49ers

Waiting for Shanahan could be a good thing for 49ers

The 49ers were willing to be patient in securing their next head coach.

Depending on the outcome of the Atlanta Falcons’ game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, they could be required to wait another two weeks.

The other five organizations with vacancies after the regular season have filled their head-coach positions with four assistants from teams that did not qualify for the playoffs and former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, whom the Denver Broncos hired after his team was bounced in the AFC wild-card round.

Early in the 49ers’ search to replace Chip Kelly, the top targets appeared to be Josh McDaniels and Kyle Shanahan, the offensive coordinators for two of the top-three scoring teams in the NFL.

The coach-general manager team of McDaniels and New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio was the runaway favorite to be the package deal, according to sources close to the 49ers’ coaching search.

But when Caserio chose to remain as Bill Belichick’s top personnel lieutenant – just has he has in the past when other opportunities presented themselves – the job became less attractive to McDaniels, according to those sources. McDaniels announced on Monday he would remain with the Patriots for at least another year.

With McDaniels out of the picture, Shanahan became the clear favorite over Seattle assistant Tom Cable. And once Cable publicly stepped aside due to suspicions he was only being used to secure a commitment from Shanahan, only one candidate remained for the job.

Since the middle of this week, Shanahan has been the presumptive coach of the 49ers. Falcons coach Dan Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator two years ago when he was officially hired just hours after the Super Bowl. He knows he drill. And this week he announced to the Falcons staff that Shanahan would be the next coach of the 49ers, according to the NFL Network.

Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, the 49ers will be allowed to interview Shanahan next week – most likely, Tuesday in Atlanta. Shanahan will be involved in the process to hire the next general manager. Minnesota assistant general manager George Paton appears to be the favorite. The 49ers expect the general manager position to be filled early in the week.

If the Falcons lose, the 49ers would be able to hire Shanahan on their own time frame. It would not be expected to take long.

But if the Falcons win, the 49ers would have to wait until after Feb. 5, when the Super Bowl will be played in Houston, to hire Shanahan.

There is an advantage to being forced to wait. In the long term, the 49ers could benefit from their next head coach gaining the experience of a Super Bowl week and calling a game on the biggest stage in all of sports.