Predicting the Next Evolution Within the San Francisco 49ers Offense

Dylan DeSimone@@DeSimone80Correspondent IFebruary 21, 2014

Predicting the Next Evolution Within the San Francisco 49ers Offense

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    Staying ahead of the curve, from a cerebral aspect, has guided the San Francisco 49ers offense back to relevance, but it's not quite there yet.

    When people look back five years from now, the 2012-2014 seasons will be viewed as the early developmental stages of coach Jim Harbaugh’s sublime NFL offense. For those who haven't kept up, it has been one of the most tantalizing restoration projects in pro sports. 

    Let’s get to know the players, including what they’ve done, what they’re doing and what they have in store.

    First off, this offense runs through three key people: head coach Jim Harbaugh, offensive coordinator Greg Roman and general manager Trent Baalke. By drafting for an offense predicated on their distinct formula, it is what they make it. And the positional coaches will do their best to optimize execution.

    They’ve done very well so far.

    Obviously it’s a unit that’s come a long way since the dog days of 2010, and the dumpster fire that preceded that.

    While inspiring at times, the direction of the offense is a bit of a cliffhanger, as the 49ers are drifting further into uncharted waters. This former dink-and-dunk offense is seeing players age out or sign with other teams, while new faces with dissimilar skill sets have entered the lineup.

    This so-called West Coast offshoot is now something else entirely.

    “I don’t know if there really is a prototypical West Coast offense in the NFL anymore,” Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko said about the 49ers offense, via Niner Talk Central. “I think most teams are starting to look like what Pep Hamiliton brought to the Colts, which is called a ‘No Coast.’”

    “It’s really just a hybrid of everything else,” Klemko added.

    And you can see it with the 49ers in particular, a team that has long been mislabeled as a West Coast offense, is actually becoming its own unique hybrid. They’ve taken deliberate strides, veering from that fundamental approach, which was more prevalent in 2011. And truth be told, it’s showing now more than ever.

    Higher percentage passes have been replaced with more attempts down the field. The ball is not out quick.

    In a WCO, where three-, five- and seven-stop drops are critical, as well as going through progressions, it does seem odd that the 49ers would draft and integrate a quarterback that did not fit that mold of a pro-style quarterback. One whose footwork and capacity to see the field seems to constantly be in question.

    Unless, of course, there was a plan to reconstruct the offense around him. 

    Also, in Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh’s West Coast attack, of which many components you still see today across the league, throwing to the tailbacks was essential. The receiving productivity from the backs dropped off the proverbial cliff when Harbaugh installed his system.

    Granted, the 49ers have since had two 1,000-yard receivers since, breaking a decade-long spell, which actually helps to reinforce our point later.

    But it’s kind of as if we were just told that Harbaugh runs a West Coast offense and accepted it without giving it a second thought. His M.O. at Stanford is not necessarily what he’s doing in San Francisco. So if the 49ers aren’t the Cardinal 2.0, what are they? And what are they striving to be?

    It’s time to reevaluate the offense, what it really is and what it’s becoming.


    Statistics courtesy of, unless specified otherwise. 

Offensive Identity

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    Elementally, when Jim Harbaugh arrived on the scene in 2011, this was a run-first power offense with the read-option lightly built in. Zone- and man-power blocking schemes, pre-snap shifts, unbalanced lines, along with well-executed traps, guard pulls and an onslaught of blocking techs from the tight ends helped this unit get rolling on Day 1.

    And that groundwork remains—it has been the Frank Gore show for three years running under Harbaugh, as the running back is still going strong.

    It’s power football, and a lot of the times, there is no window dressing. They’re coming downhill with the simple belief that they’re talented and well coached enough to out-execute the defense, whether the opponent knows what’s coming or not.

    They beat guys to the punch.

    For a while, jumbo packages, play-action and a “run, run, pass” approach worked for a team that lacked supplemental playmaking components on offense. And that provided a heck of a crutch for Harbaugh, who needed that kind of stability to mold his ideal offense.

    He and the staff understand that no matter what, even during this experimental and transitional phase, they can always lean on the ground attack.

    Nobody saw their diverse run plays coming and they just out-executed everyone while placing extreme emphasis on ball security. When they did pass in 2011, and most of 2012, it was mostly short-to-intermediate, where the use of rub routes to funnel receivers into the secondary and taking advantage of yards-after-catch was integral.

    So, while an innovative smash-mouth running game is the foundation, in a lot of ways this is a vastly different offense.

The Changeover

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    The overhaul in offensive play calling from 2011 to 2013 was significant, largely because of personnel. But even still, it was profound. San Francisco parted ways with a lot of things that worked for it in order to adapt to what new players excelled at, particularly with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the pass.

    They still don’t throw very much at all, but when and how they do it is much different than it was.

    Pick plays, sprint options, throwback screens and other creative high-percentage passes have gone to the wayside. Slowly but surely, personnel change has made this a less constricted offense, adding a little more bounce and big-play ability. There’s a lot more air in it.

    While wideout Michael Crabtree is exceptional gaining inside leverage on slants and Anquan Boldin is quick and broad on the comebacks, this is a team that is only going to throw so many times per game. And with that, they’re looking to take chunks at a time.

    Here is a look at the 49ers passing offense over the years (with league ranking, via ESPN):

    YearPassing AttemptsTotal PassingPassing TDYPA
    2011451 (31st)2,930 (29th)18 (24th)7.1 (16th)
    2012436 (31st)3,298 (23rd)23 (16th)8.1 (2nd)
    2013417 (32nd)2,979 (30th)21 (23rd)7.7 (7th)

    The 49ers were one of three teams to have less than 3,000 passing yards in 2013 (New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers). They’ve consistently ranked low there. However, their 7.7 yards-per-attempt was seventh in the NFL, just behind quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints. It was even better the year before.

    That’s Kap doing work with that Howitzer of an arm.

    In his debut in 2012, he led the NFL in completion percentage on throws of at least 20 yards (59.3). In those first 11 games, Kaepernick generated 59 plays of 20-plus yards. Alex Smith had 35 in his last full 11 starts, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.

    So they cater to this. 

    There are more seam-routes, go-routes and deep post- and corner-routes, which really allows the QB to let it rip. For the first time in his career, tight end Vernon Davis is able to take advantage of that 4.3 speed of his. And it all makes up for Kap never really throwing more than 25 or so times per game.

    Not to mention the whole world he opens up with his ability to create with his legs on passing plays.

    Again, the key takeaway here is that the offensive changes do not involve the team’s philosophical run/pass ratio, but rather how they’re throwing and how they’re running. But with this initial change stemming from the quarterback, the most important in sports, its ripple effect is bound to continue.

    So what does it all equate to and how did they get here?

What Does the Future Hold?

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    The 49ers are building an up-tempo spread offense with a read-option flair, one that may soon include more traditional West Coast elements that sees backs earning receptions.

    Tre Faaborg of Niners Nation was able to string together an insightful post before the season that opened eyes in regard to the evolution of the 49ers offense. How they’re drafting, who they’re signing in free agency and who is getting playtime all suggests that San Francisco is geared toward fielding a spread attack.

    Maybe not in the traditional sense going four-wide, but they’ve been experimenting more with three-wide receiver sets and have a tendency to flex their tight ends out to draw one-on-ones as well. They’ve been effectively stretching defenses out that way, but it is a spread-style nonetheless.

    We’re also seeing less bunch sets, which seemed to be the last of the tight-quarter route combos that created room for receivers instead of relying on them to win their individual matchups.

    Many are still so quick to call this team a strict power football team—and they’re still run-heavy—but it seems it is developing toward a more of a finesse style, which is a direction that Trent Baalke has been a part of pre-Harbaugh, particularly since 2009. He's let off the gas in terms of physicality.

    Several of his acquisitions come from Air Raid offenses.

    The front office has sought out quick-twitch receivers, as well as running backs that can run outside the tackles and catch out of the backfield. Faaborg pointed out an interesting tidbit that more or less provides a control for this thesis:

    [Dana] Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator for Texas Tech when Michael Crabtree played there, then moved on to Oklahoma State and coached Kendall Hunter, both players the 49ers drafted and have used extensively since Jim Harbaugh arrived.

    Getting back to Baalke, he was a fast riser in this front office, arriving in 2005 as a scout and was named Director of Player Personnel by 2008. The 49ers selected players like Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley in that time. Though, Scot McCloughan was the GM then.

    As far as offense goes, Crabtree was the first notable name Baalke was likely to have had significant input on as the Director of Player Personnel.

    While it was likely a no-brainer when Oakland passed, and Crab fell to No. 10, this was a player that had been discussed predraft.

    Running backs Kendall Hunter (2011) and LaMichael James (2012), as well as receivers Kyle Williams (2010), A.J. Jenkins (2012) and Quinton Patton (2013) all followed suit. For a team that doesn’t spend in free agency, the signing of wideout Mario Manningham was a notable one as well.

    His high-wire exploits in the New York Giants’ run-and-shoot offense were well documented.

    Misses aside, when you put all the pieces together, it becomes clear what they’re trying to build. Then throw in the addition of Colin Kaepernick as we discussed—who, as Faaborg reminds us, comes from the Pistol offense at Nevada, which uses spread and option elements—and there’s clearly a vision.

    Nothing about Kap’s game ever indicated that he was a pro-style, dropback and timing passer that was fit for a West Coast offense.

    He does his best work outside the pocket, extending the play, which presents the offense with a unique schoolyard-style ball panache to this spread attack. They’re more dynamic because those long-developing routes have ample time. Defensive breakdowns also occur since players can only cover for so long.

    It’s flat out dangerous when linebackers and linemen can’t get a hand on No. 7, and receivers are improvising.

    Making Colin Kaepernick “the guy” was about inserting explosiveness, big-play ability and the downfield threat. They like to be able to run and to have options A, B and C, with the potential to gash a defense with any one. His skill set and everyone around him is best suited in this wide-open attack they appear to be building.

    Unfortunately it’s not very precise at times and if you don’t get what you want, it can result in a lot of three-and-outs.

    This transition is not without it’s trial and error.

Growing Pains

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    The most notable drawback to this growth process—switching from an elementary West Coast attack to an electric spread—was less emphasis on scheme and more about relying on player talent. It’s not necessarily their fault, it’s just the nature of the two philosophies, which the 49ers weren’t 100 percent ready for.

    You expect players to execute, sure, but San Francisco's wide-open attack is still in its early stages of development.

    So when the wide receivers couldn’t separate on their own, and they left the quarterback high and dry, that’s when you saw Kaepernick struggle and this offense flounder. Third-rate receivers like Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin and A.J. Jenkins failing to get free in 2013 was a representation of their growing pains.

    The talent hasn’t caught up to the new system quite yet.

    Harbaugh, Roman and Baalke are working to integrate a totally new offense, while trying to make sure that the personnel and scheme remain at an even keel, and simultaneously take hold of the offense instead of outrunning each other where it costs them on game day.

    The Niners would’ve liked to revisit some of the bunch concepts, but a near-billion-dollar organization would view that as a regression.

    It’s full-steam ahead into the new-era of 49ers offensive football.

    In some other cases, there is an unwillingness to evolve around players or throw them into the fire—a stubbornness that was a surprise to see from a team that seems to have a grasp on natural selection. This is the NFL. Rookies can contribute in some form or fashion. But for one reason or another, the 49ers often haven’t.

    Most forward-thinking coaches know to structure around players, but they've struggled when it comes to player development. 

    Expanding player roles, or establishing strong complementary weapons to their "Big Three"—made of Crabtree, Davis and Gore—just hasn't happened. 

    Granted, the offensive staff has a lot going on as is, and maybe it's best to not get ahead of themselves or overload their players. But if not that, then the reluctance by the coaching staff to write in new roles for players suggests a disconnect between coaching staff and player management.

    That has been enough to lead to conjecture about the relationship between Harbaugh and Baalke, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk

Lingering Questions

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    Expanding upon the growing pains, there are plenty of questions that have to do with the future of this 49ers offense.

    • What does the future hold for running back LaMichael James?
    • Will the red-zone offense be eternally bad?
    • Can the 49ers successfully transition out of the Frank Gore era?
    • Is Vance McDonald the right complement for Vernon Davis?
    • After two separate bone breaks in his rookie year, can Quinton Patton stay healthy?
    • Will the 49ers be able to extend Michael Crabtree beyond 2014?
    • Is this the last season with Pro Bowl left guard Mike Iupati?
    • Will Colin Kaepernick improve his field vision and ball distribution?
    • How long do the 49ers have until Vernon Davis loses his speed?
    • What is the plan for coach Eric Mangini?
    • Can Kendall Hunter carry the load if Marcus Lattimore doesn’t work out at running back?

Conclusion: The 49ers Have a New Centerpiece

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    We’ve seen the evolution—it is real. It will become even more prevalent with Frank Gore coming to the end of his career, Michael Crabtree entering a contract year and Vernon Davis nearing 30 years old.

    The 49ers brain trust has likely considered this fact, which is why it was foolproof to build this team around a new quarterback. That being said, whatever happens in the future, this needs to become Colin Kaepernick’s offense. It’s still not entirely his yet, even though he had one full year as the starter.

    This is still very much Gore’s unit.

    When Gore rushes more than 20 times in a game, Kaepernick completes 62.8%. When under 20, Kaepernick completes 46.1%. #49ers

    — Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) November 14, 2013

    However, the great thing for the 49ers, which they lucked out on, is that in transitioning from Frank Gore to a more aggressive passing philosophy, Kaepernick and star wideout Michael Crabtree struck a rapport.

    And my, oh my, that is a special something when you consider that Kaepernick and Crabtree were two of the most prolific weapons at their respective positions in NCAA history, both having operated in wide-open spread attacks.

    Kaepernick, the only quarterback to throw for over 10,000 yards and run for over 4,000 yards, was an absolute dynamo at Nevada-Reno. And Crabtree, being the first-ever two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, holding eight NCAA records, is the most decorated spread-style receiver to ever leave the college ranks.

    It’s probably why they mesh so well.

    Pending Crabtree’s deal getting done, that is the new focal point of the offense. But for those looking for more offensive developments, want to know what you’re looking for? 

    1) Vance McDonald and Vernon Davis going as a pair of pass-catching targets is a legitimate dynamic they can frame as an aspect of this offense around.

    McDonald had a lot on his plate in his first year, taking on a key role in one of the most expansive run games in the NFL.

    As a rookie, he basically had to learn and execute the duties of an offensive lineman, a tight end and a fullback. There is a lot of room for growth in his second year, considering he only had 19 targets in his first year, via ESPN.

    Look for a more creative and functional approach with two tight ends, similarly to how the New England Patriots used Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Briefly, this entails mobilizing tight ends pre-snap, looking for matchups and picking on defenders to advance the football.

    2) If all goes according to plan, running back Marcus Lattimore looks to be the one-two punch to Frank Gore’s lead in 2014.

    Lattimore, a first-round talent in 2013, has the highest ceiling of the backs and will need all the experience he can get this coming season if he is to prepare for the featured role in a post-No. 21 era. It’ll be important for him to catch his stride, including the system, the speed of the NFL and his confidence, before 2015.

    Outside executing the power rushing game as a three-down back, Lattimore is a tall, sure-handed target that can catch out of the backfield, bringing that West Coast element back to the Bay Area. That is one of the unique contributions he may have, while helping Kap improve at seeing the shallow part of the field. 

    3) Natural ability makes Quinton Patton a bona fide candidate to be a starter in San Francisco. His wiggle, short-area quickness and acceleration make him a tough matchup for any cornerback. And he’ll thrive in a system that carries a lot of the same components as the one he ran in at Louisiana Tech.

    4) “The Mystery Guest.” 

    The 49ers will bring in a skill player or two in this draft, who may very well be the next building block in this offense.

    Trent Baalke and Jim Harbaugh see eye to eye on this team’s offense, which is power and fundamentals with rocket fuel. While they’re advocates of the old school, they share the understanding that it needs to be a more prolific scoring unit in order to win championships.

    That’s why Alex Smith was traded and that’s why they’re restructuring.

    Frankly, if the 49ers thought a safe pro-style offense with no explosiveness or threat behind center would win them Super Bowls, they wouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to recreate this offense in Jim Harbaugh’s vision.

    Everyone they’ve drafted or signed in free agency comes from a similar background, fitting this new-look attack, and the unit has taken baby steps to evolving around them. And when you add it all up, it leads to a dynamic spread offense that we may just be scratching the surface of.