Why Greg Roman's Play-Calling Is Holding Back the San Francisco 49ers

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Why Greg Roman's Play-Calling Is Holding Back the San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Is 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman wearing out his welcome in San Francisco?

Hard to fathom before the season that the San Francisco 49ers offense would look so inept, especially with the NFL’s best collection of offensive linemen, a superhuman tight end, one of the league’s last remaining feature backs and primo auxiliary weapons peppered all around.

Minus Michael Crabtree, the 49ers still have all those things on offense, but this bungling unit continues to struggle—far more than it rightfully should be, even when you extend it the leeway of not having its No. 1 wideout.

What Bleacher Report’s NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland astutely pointed out is that after 10 games played, the Niners offense is averaging fewer yards per game than Kellen Clemens and the St. Louis Rams. In fact, only Baltimore, Miami and Jacksonville have worse numbers in that category, and they carry a combined record of 10-20 so far in 2013.

Narrowing down where it really gets mucky, look no further than their 32nd-ranked passing offense.

They remain dead last in that area, which has most influenced their inability to sustain drives and score points. So, with this bottom-dwelling standing and seeing other teams around the league do more with less, one has to call into question the direction the offense is under.

Why haven’t the 49ers been able to adjust and compensate, using what they do have? This has led many to point the finger at the team’s offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, who was originally Jim Harbaugh’s right-hand man from Stanford.

“I think it starts with me and I think any time we don’t have success, it definitely starts with me,” said Roman, taking accountability for his anemic unit, via the team’s official website. “We’ve got to get it fixed.”

All calls do go through head coach Jim Harbaugh, but it is incumbent upon Roman to develop and execute a proper game plan, while adjusting during the game. In a recent live chat, 49ers reporter Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area provided some clarity on the chain of command:

Greg Roman talks to the other coaches between series and comes up with a list of plays. He gives Harbaugh the play call on the sideline. Then, Harbaugh sends the call into Kaepernick. Harbaugh is the gate-keeper.

While Harbaugh approves, he does not select.

Therefore, if the plays that are coming in are not working on the field, it still starts with Roman. If Harbaugh has to axe one of the calls and the Niners take a delay of game, it is still on Roman. If they don’t have enough clock to change the play and are forced to roll with a bad call, that’s on Roman.

At the end of the day, the onus is on him to make this unit work, and clearly it hasn’t been. Having said that, it is time to take a close look at the areas that Greg Roman has been exposed as the orchestrator of the San Francisco offense.

 

Out of Touch with Situational Football

Third-Down Inefficieny and Give-Up Plays

Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Besides the supposed lack of talent affecting the offense's ability to stay on the field, the effort and thought process on behalf of Roman has come into question, particularly when it comes to his puzzling third-down play calls. They come all too often.

People need to realize this is not a new development either. Situational football has never been his forte.

Most notably, perhaps, is when the team finished 1-of-13 on third-down conversions in the NFC title game versus the New York Giants back in the 2011 season, when they had Alex Smith and Michael Crabtree (as opposed to Colin Kaepernick and no Michael Crabtree). But, still, same problem: no No. 2 WR and same play-caller. 

It has persisted for two-and-half seasons and on into last week versus the Saints, as they started the game with a three-straight of three-and-outs.

On a 3rd-and-long on the opening drive, the 49ers went with a pass to Vernon Davis, who ran a drag route short of the line of scrimmage. You can’t do that in close games, especially when Davis is your top guy.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Why design a route that relies so heavily on open field or the receiver breaking tackles? 

Ten-plus yards after the catch is a lot to ask. What they should be doing is let him make a contested grab near or beyond the sticks, while leaving the underneath work to the backs and less skilled receivers. But that’s just one observer’s thought.

A series later, the 49ers followed that up with a fly pattern to Jon Baldwin on 3rd-and-long, which isn’t exactly one of the higher percentage designs they have in the playbook. According to Pro Football Focus, he has a catch rate of 37.5 percent, which is the lowest of the team’s active receivers.

On another 3rd-and-2, the 49ers went to a spread look out of the shotgun. So much for that run-first team, huh?

Situational football has been one of Roman's most consistent inconsistencies. This happened the week before against Carolina as well, where on 3rd-and-longs, the Niners had quick passes that went no further than the line of scrimmage. The plays are either aggressive and not smart or too careful and non-aggressive.

They haven’t been able to conjure up any dagger plays that are both well-crafted and aggressive. At least not recently. 

Ten games in the books and the 49ers are ranked No. 17 when it comes to their third-down conversion rate (37.7 percent)—and that mark would be much, much worse if it were not for their run game. Passing for first downs, the offense currently ranks dead last in the NFL.

People are right to question his proficiency as a coordinator in this regard.

 

Clock Management

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Sporadically burning timeouts—as soon as the first series at times—is no way to conduct an offense. Not only does it hurt from a tactical standpoint, but it also makes the 49ers look vulnerable to their opponent.

This is one of the many factors that have contributed to the offense looking topsy-turvy as a whole.

It’s true no one outside a select few really knows what is going on between snaps on the 49ers' sideline or what is being said on the headsets, but someone has to answer for this debacle, even it is shared accountability among many.

So, again, you could argue that even before the huddle, Roman is floundering as an OC.

“The 49ers have a lot of issues on offense these days, but this one is plain and has nothing to do with defensive adjustments or even 49ers personnel issues,” said Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.

“You have to be able to get the play in and the QB has to be able to get the snap off before things go haywire as the play-clock heads to 0.”

Kawakami's comments are valid.

Ultimately, it is hurting the rhythm of the offense in a big way. The 49ers already have to make up for a lack of talent and scheme-related issues; they don’t need this too. And when they’re not calling timeouts or they’ve run out, it’s been resulting in false start and delay of game penalties because the players are uncomfortable or not settled.

It just isn’t a clean brand of football, and it’s highly disruptive for a unit trying to establish a tempo.

 

Red-Zone Scoring

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

According to NFL Team Rankings, the 49ers are not terrible in the red zone, topping out at sixth in the league. But if you’re following the games week to week, you’ve noticed that they’ve struggled, and when they have, it’s been untimely. They’ve paid for their shortcomings.

Roman's play calls just haven't been very clever when he's got less field to work with, and he's had some good ones in the past (see: Delanie Walker TD, Michael Crabtree two-point conversion and Vernon Davis TD). 

In Week 10 versus the Carolina Panthers, for instance, the 49ers had three red-zone opportunities that could’ve resulted in a 21-0 lead if they were able to capitalize. Instead, the Niners settled for three Phil Dawson field goals, and the Panthers came back to steal a 10-9 win.

This is an example of why the 49ers need to get better in that area, largely because it has been coming back to bite them.

Also, when they’re down points, charging down the field and need to score a touchdown, they haven’t proven they can finish.

This goes back to the last drive of Super Bowl XLVII—the field got shorter, and Roman tensed up. The play calls just stopped making sense. It seemed like he was under the gun, not making forward-thinking calls that would outsmart the defensive play-caller on the opposite sideline.

 

Failure to Create Innovative Roles for Non-Stars

Jim Z. Rider-USA TODAY Sports

Without a very stable corps of wide receivers, the 49ers have been relying on their 22 personnel more this year, which always includes two tight ends and two running backs, and that’s where their depth lies.

According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, the 49ers are using 22 personnel nearly 10 percent more on first down than last year—running the ball more with less success as teams continue to load the box.

Using 22 personnel on 1st-and-10, San Francisco has had a success rate of 44.7 percent, meaning it gained three yards or more (down 15.6 percent from last year). So it's not doing a good job setting itself up for second and third down, whether it runs or passes the football.

The kicker is, even though the 49ers have relied so heavily on this personnel grouping, Roman is not taking full advantage of the talent on the roster in an attempt to put a slow to the bleeding on this regression they’re experiencing. No visible attempt has been made to incorporate new players or add wrinkles to the offense—it’s just been rinse and repeat.

Spread it out, look down the field and attempt to back that up with power-rushing.

Running backs LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter, as well as tight end Vance McDonald, are each talented players who have not had not any sort of defined role this season in terms of getting their hands on the ball and making plays. It’s been very limited as the 49ers try to force-feed bad wide receivers.

McDonald is averaging 1.6 targets per game, Hunter is used far too little and James has only had 11 touches in four games active this season.

Sure, they’re good special teams returners, backups and blockers, but they can be helping this offense move the football.

Outside of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, Kaepernick has a 32.6 QB rating targeting the rest of the wide receivers and tight ends. It cannot get any worse. 

Yet nothing changes.

Greg Roman has completely flopped as an OC when it comes to integrating weapons to complement Davis and Boldin, which would ultimately make them more dangerous and help the entire offense establish a flow. It puts way more strain on a defense when it can’t zero in on one or two players.

 

Incompatible Offensive Philosophy and Inferior Aerial Attack

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

“[The] 49ers need to re-visit their offensive scheme and let their QB grow. If not, no chance,” said CBS Sports analyst Pete Prisco. “The 49ers’ offensive style is killing [Colin] Kaepernick more than anything.”

Prisco is not wrong.

One of Roman’s biggest faults this season was his inability to go the extra mile to put the quarterback in a position to succeed. While Kaepernick may be the future of the 49ers, this is still Frank Gore’s football team, and he tends to forget that far too often. That’s probably because he wasn’t in San Francisco during the dog days when there was no quarterback.

Something as simple as balance between the run and pass has eluded him (keep Gore on a pitch count if you’re losing track).

Kaepernick is throwing far more than he should be, and when he does, the team has lost, with the exception of Week 1. The 49ers quarterback is averaging 27 pass attempts per game in losses this season. During the team’s five-game win streak, he averaged 20.8 throws and had a record-setting Total QBR.

Per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, only two quarterbacks this season have had 127 or fewer yards on at least 31 pass attempts in a game: Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert. And in the last two weeks, the 49ers have averaged 1.7 yards per pass attempt. 

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Kap’s throws need to be about quality, not quantity.

It is Gore who must be the centerpiece, not Kaepernick. On those heavy passing days that all resulted in losses, Gore had attempts of nine, 11, 16 and 13, which happen to be the back’s four lowest carry totals this season. No coincidence there: The 49ers are 27-7 all-time when Gore has 100-plus rushing yards.

This is why people have a right to get on Roman’s case.

In the game versus Indianapolis, Gore was averaging 7.5 yards per carry, but his touches dropped off a cliff later in the game. It was the same deal versus Carolina. In the first half, the Inconvenient Truth had 70 yards on the ground but only received two carries in the second half.

In a game that relies so much on tendencies and going with what works—or the “hot hand” as the 49ers would say—how does that go ignored? 

Roman has argued that, at times, there aren’t opportunities to get Gore the ball, and that’s understandable with teams stacking the box. But when you look at the way they blindly try to throw the ball downfield to receivers that they don’t have, that logic can only make so much sense

The 49ers' all-time leading rusher is far more likely to make a play on a given touch.

Overall, the plays and personnel haven’t been in confluence, and it’s as if Roman wants this offense to be something it’s not. Or thinks it’s capable of something it isn’t. Yet, the trend continues, no matter how in your face the correlation between Frank Gore and the win-loss ratio happens to be.

Last game versus New Orleans, the 49ers dropped back to pass 10 times on first down, including twice on the first two drives, which wound up being three straight three-and-outs to start the game. Of those first-down throws, seven were incompletions to wide receivers or sacks.

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On Monday, Harbaugh even confirmed that Roman’s offensive plan involved favoring the pass over the run versus the Saints.

San Francisco’s game-day showings and run-pass ratio would suggest that Roman wants to field a dangerous passing team. He shouldn’t, but even if he was trying to go to the air more, he is doing it all wrong when it comes to the personnel and overcoming the current situation they are in.

On top of not having any wideouts, the 49ers are also allowing more pressure up the middle than ever before and haven’t adjusted their passing game at all. Per Jeff Deeney of PFF, Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin and Alex Boone are all on pace to allow more QB hurries than they did last season.

So, despite having an offensive line with a burst pipe and wide receivers who can’t beat bump-and-run, Roman has not successfully used roll-outs, screens or bunch formations to help the passing game. Instead, the 49ers continue to spread it out and challenge teams vertically with slow developing routes.

They’ve also got the mobile quarterback and stable of athletic running backs to not only make this happen, but be pretty effective where it could become a mainstay in seasons down the road. And right now, it would counter the 49ers’ biggest issues, which are press coverage and heavy blitzes.

 

What Do the 49ers Do?

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Here is what Matt Maiocco had to say about Greg Roman’s future with the team, via CSN Bay Area:

He is signed through the 2015 season, so I don't think he would be on the hot seat. After all, he runs an offense with a lot of input from others on the staff. Clearly, the ideas coming from that room are not working.

If the 49ers fail to make the playoffs, nothing would surprise me. There would have to be changes made. But, like I pointed out earlier, in the offseason, the 49ers extended Greg Roman's contract through the 2015 season. I can't imagine that Harbaugh (who also has all the say he wants in the team's offense) would think that Roman became a bad offensive coordinator overnight.

Maiocco does remind us that it is a collaborative effort, and Harbaugh holds Roman to a high regard, but the fact that it's gotten to this point suggests anything could happen.

One of the things the 49ers head coach has been praised for during his tenure has been his ability to go ahead and make unemotional decisions, confident they are for the betterment of the team.

His brother, John Harbaugh, was in a similar predicament and had make a gut-check decision by firing longtime friend and colleague, Cam Cameron, as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator.

Harbaugh said it was "the hardest thing" he's had to do as a coach.

Amazingly enough, this valiant roll of the dice by Harbaugh wound up paying immense dividends, as a fresh outlook from Jim Caldwell helped the Ravens offense go on a dominant run, winning Super Bowl XLVII after the losing four of their last five regular-season games. 

So, one never knows; there may be a better coordinator for this team.

 

Special thanks to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus for providing in-depth statistical analysis. All other stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless specified otherwise. 

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