Moments before Thursday’s introductory press conference began, Torrey Smith snuck in the back of the auditorium, hidden to most in the room.
And so far, that’s how Smith’s tenure in San Francisco has played out. The 28-year-old has been the most underutilized player on the 49ers roster the last two seasons catching just 53 passes for 930 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015 and 2016 combined.
Smith’s personality matches exactly what Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch say they’re all about: He’s a straight shooter. The wide receiver was blunt about his production Thursday down in Santa Clara, admitting he’s sick of being ignored in this offense.
“I’m a big play guy. I’m able to turn little things into big plays and stretch the field,” Smith said. “So that’s one thing they will do. Especially coming off a year like this when I didn’t even get one chance at doing what I do best.”
Because of this absurd disregard of talent from two previous coaching staffs, Torrey Smith could essentially feel like a brand new free agent acquisition being brought to the fold under Shanahan — even though he’s already on the roster. That’s how dramatic of a change Shanahan’s vision on offense will be.
The 49ers were second to last in the NFL in pass plays for 40 yards or more (6) — and half of those explosive plays came on screen passes near the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile Shanahan’s Falcons led the league with 17 pass plays of 40 yards or more and shattered franchise and longstanding league records. Smith was asked why Chip Kelly didn’t tap into his skill set as a home run deep threat in the passing game last season.
“Chip’s offense, he definitely had them called,” Smith said, “we just didn’t execute or take our chances. They were definitely there. It was plenty of opportunities to hit on it, but we didn’t. Which is why I’m all depressed about it (laughter).”
The days of disaster on offense in Santa Clara appear to be drawing to a close. Smith realistically could see his career revived under Shanahan and the backend of his five-year, $40 million deal could be worth the dollars. Wide receivers Pierre Garcon in Washington (1,346 yards) and Andrew Hawkins in Cleveland (824 yards) — who both have entirely different skill sets — each set career highs in yardage in 2013 and 2014 and effusively praise Shanahan’s creativity. Gone are the days of Kelly’s rhythmic, systematic offense that solely emphasized short passing plays and shotgun running plays.
In a separate interview session after the press conference, Shanahan intricately broke down his offense to beat writers, emphasizing he’s not a system coach and that “systems are overrated.” The big picture concepts of Shanahan’s offense will remain the same in San Francisco. They’ll run an outside-zone scheme and the terminology derives from the west coast language.
But the 37-year-old’s play calling will be based mostly upon what his players do best. Chunk passing plays certainly will no longer be ignored.
“My offense is, yeah, I do commit to the outside zone and we do a lot of stuff off of that, but every year it’s changed (based) on what our players are on,” Shanahan said. “It changes as you have injuries. It changes what type of front you are going against. Stuff we run against Seattle will be totally different than what we would run against New England. It depends on how people are playing you. You’ve got to be able to adjust to anything.”
“The thing that stuck out to me most is that he was able to adapt to his players,” Smith said. “And I think that says a lot about his talent.”
An added plus: Smith has experience using Shanahan’s verbiage while playing under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak in 2014 with Baltimore. Smith had one of his most productive NFL season in that offense, hauling in 11 touchdown receptions and the Ravens set franchise highs in nearly every category.
Smith is also one of the only players on the roster that shares something in common with Shanahan and Lynch: He’s been to a Super Bowl. Smith likes the fact that the pair of decision makers have been to the promise land and that they want other older guys from the 49ers’ glory days to pop around the facility more often.
But the elephant in the room: Will Smith be around in 2017? What will Shanahan and Lynch see on tape when they re-watch the 2016 season? The 49ers were reportedly close to trading Smith to the Philadelphia Eagles last November near the trade deadline, something at the time, Smith was welcoming of.
Is Smith patient enough for another rebuild this late in his career? Does he want to try and go to a contender?
“I am where I am. I never like to look beyond that or expect anything else,” Smith said. “So I’m here, right? Like they brought me in here to help be a part of this, to help win ultimately right away. And obviously there’s been a lot of change and we haven’t done our part.
“For me, man, I just want to be a part of something special. And we can do that. It’s a new regime. I don’t like to use the word rebuilding, because it makes it seem like it’s okay to lose. It’s okay to not play as well. Like, no. We’re reloading. And we’re trying to win. And I feel like we can that here. This is an organization where you can win. I really do believe that and I think the players do as well. You just have to get the right pieces in. I think it’s a place as a player that you should be excited to play.”
The 49ers are looking to add more playmakers, and I think it’s highly unlikely the subtract Smith in the middle of that process. Shanahan will want to see if he can awaken a sleeping giant. Because if you add a true No. 1 receiver and a playmaking tight end, all of a sudden Smith becomes an essential and valuable piece to this offense.