It was 2nd-and-1 at midfield in the second quarter against the Rams, and the 49ers lined up to execute one of their dumb schemes. They demonstrated some dumb techniques, which led to dumb blocks and other dumb stuff. The results stunk.
The "dumb stuff" opinion is not mine. It came from Joe Staley, the 49ers' veteran left tackle. "We were doing some dumb stuff, and they took advantage of it," Staley told the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch after last week's 13-10 loss to the Rams. "Dumb blocks. Dumb techniques. Dumb schemes. Played like s--t."
Specifically, the 49ers deployed an empty-backfield spread formation on 2nd-and-1, even though they are traditionally one of the NFL's most committed power-running teams, and the Rams' greatest strength is rushing the passer (dumb scheme). Staley got beat to the outside by Robert Quinn, while guard Mike Iupati got knocked on his keister by Eugene Sims (dumb blocks). Both Staley and Iupati were on the ground when Colin Kaepernick decided to backtrack and try to scramble out of a hopeless situation (dumb techniques). Quinn stripped Kaepernick as he cocked to throw, and Sims pounced on the loose football. A Rams offense with no hope of driving the length of the field needed to gain just 36 yards for its lone touchdown in what became a 13-10 win.
The 49ers allowed eight sacks to the Rams in Week 9 and six to the Broncos before their bye. They've only rushed 39 times for 142 yards in their past two games combined. They have scored just two goal-to-go touchdowns in seven tries, dating back to Week 4. The reliable, powerful, conservative-but-effective 49ers are suddenly incapable of protecting their quarterback or consistently punching the football into the end zone. What's going on?
"We have all the talent in the world," Staley said after the Rams game.
The 49ers also have one of the most creative schemes in the world, orchestrated by head coach Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman. But the 49ers might be a little too talented and too creative for their own good. With so many new playmakers on the roster, the 49ers are trying to do too much. The offense that was once great at one thing is now a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, at risk of falling desperately behind in the NFC playoff race with a loss to the surging Saints.
Glass half (or 22 percent) empty
The 49ers have executed 29 plays from empty-backfield formations in the last two games, according to my film study. That's 22 percent of their total offensive snaps. They have averaged just 4.4 yards per play from empty-backfield formation. Here's a full breakdown of the results:
|Plays of 10-plus yards||6|
The 49ers emptied their backfield four times against the Rams, with the following results:
• Nine-yard screen pass to Bruce Ellington
• Dropped interception on pass to Anquan Boldin
• Tipped pass by defender intended for Vernon Davis
• Strip sack by Quinn
Roman and Harbaugh abandoned empty-backfield formations after the Kaepernick fumble. The 49ers had more success with the tactic against the Broncos, at least early in the game. They marched down the field for a touchdown in the second quarter on a steady diet of no-huddle, empty-backfield passes. But the Broncos adjusted in the second half, loading 10 defenders at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter and forcing an ugly Kaepernick overthrow that led to an Aqib Talib interception. Tight coverage off the line and a heavy rush forced more sacks and errant passes as the Broncos pulled away in the second half.
The Rams surely noticed.
Empty-backfield strategies provide some short-term advantages for the 49ers, but they also work against the team's greatest strengths. The 49ers offensive line is better suited for run blocking than pass protection, and both Staley and right tackle Anthony Davis have proven vulnerable when blocking edge rushers without help. No running back means no option or play-action threats, simplifying the defensive decision-making process. Instead of faking, rolling and creating opportunities with his legs, Kaepernick is usually a stationary target in the empty backfield, forced to make quick reads and tight throws. The 49ers in an empty-backfield formation are almost like the Patriots or Broncos in the wishbone; they can do it, but it's a strange tactic to suddenly devote a quarter of their offense to when they are clearly better at other things.
Worst of all, the 49ers don't stick to the empty backfield when it works. The 49ers scored two quick touchdowns against the Cardinals in Week 3 using up-tempo spread tactics, then tried to downshift into their traditional power-and-options mode. The Cardinals came back against a team that suddenly did not look comfortable running the ball. The 49ers faced a similar problem in the Rams loss: After abandoning the empty set, their philosophy changed from drive to drive.
The 49ers are loaded with good players and good ideas; at times, they look like they are cramming everything and everyone into each game plan. For Harbaugh and Roman, the problem may not be game-planning but editing.
Roman has been one of the NFL's great formation and personnel-grouping tinkerers during his tenure as 49ers offensive coordinator. For the last two seasons, the 49ers have been the only NFL team to use each of four different personnel groupings (2RB-1TE-2WR, 2RB-2TE-1WR; 1RB-2TE-2WR and 1RB-1TE-3WR) more than 15 percent of the time. The 49ers used more six- or seven-lineman sets 6 percent of the time last year, far more than other teams.
But Roman's formations and personnel packages were never just a paint-splattering of offensive ideas. The 2012-13 49ers had a clear philosophy: They were the last of the NFL's two-back, tight-formation teams, as the following statistics from Football Outsiders Almanacs reveal:
|Formation||2012 rank||2013 rank|
While the rest of the NFL spread its formations out, the 49ers tightened theirs: The 2012-2013 49ers used four wide receiver packages so rarely that their percentages round down to zero in the Football Outsiders database. (By "four wide receiver packages," I am talking about four players listed on the depth chart as wide receivers, not someone like Vernon Davis split wide.) This season's percentages are not finished cooking, but snap counts of the Broncos and Rams losses show that the 49ers are suddenly a multi-receiver team that even finds a role for a rookie fifth receiver/returner:
|Receiver||Snaps vs. Broncos||Snaps vs. Rams|
|Total offensive snaps||70||62|
The two-back sets of the past were a matter of necessity, of course. The 49ers were thin at wide receiver in 2012 and 2013, so it often made sense to insert an extra tight end or fullback instead of Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Quinton Patton or one of the other ineffective receivers on the bench (or, when Michael Crabtree was injured, in the lineup). The 49ers now have Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and the promising Bruce Ellington behind Boldin and Crabtree. It makes sense to open up the offense a bit.
The 49ers also have Vance McDonald, a second-round pick last season, as their second tight end and Bruce Miller, recipient of a $5.4 million contract extension in March, at fullback. Their roster was built for power football, and they are sometimes still great at it. The 49ers' lone touchdown against the Rams came on a deep pass to Boldin from a two-back-two-tight-end formation and a play-action rollout concept. McDonald and Miller played just 17 and 15 snaps, respectively, last Sunday in a close game against an opponent that was terrorizing Kaepernick but gives up 4.6 yards per carry. Perhaps the 49ers would have been better off with more blockers and fewer fake Ellington end-arounds.
The 49ers have so many strategies and playmakers to juggle that they are at risk of dropping everything. When a healthy Vernon Davis is reduced to role-player status so the 49ers can get everyone involved, it's a problem. When Kaepernick is alone for whole offensive series, allowing players like Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Ware to rush without fear of a handoff, it's a problem.
And when the 49ers cannot decide who gets the football at the goal line, that's a big problem.
Multiple choice, bad choice
The 49ers' loss to the Rams ended with a controversial goal-line fumble by Kaepernick that capped a baffling goal-line series. The 49ers passed three straight times inside the 5-yard line: Crabtree drew a holding penalty on the first pass and was tackled inches short of a touchdown on the second, while a strangely designed rollout pass to Frank Gore came up empty on the third. The 49ers drove methodically down the field in the fourth quarter as they have so often done over the past three seasons, but instead of pounding in a touchdown or forcing overtime, they became uncharacteristically cutesy-poo when they needed to be most 49ers-like.
Here is a breakdown of the 49ers' play-calling in goal-to-go situations this season. A "Success" is a touchdown or a play that significantly improves the team's chances of scoring on the next play. For example, Boldin caught a seven-yard pass on 1st-and-goal from the 8-yard line:
|Carlos Hyde run||7||2|
|Michael Crabtree pass||4||2|
|Anquan Boldin pass||3||1|
|Frank Gore run||3||1|
|Colin Kaepernick run||3||1|
|Steve Johnson pass||2||2|
|Vernon Davis pass||1||1|
|Frank Gore pass||1||0|
|Carlos Hyde pass||1||0|
|Vance McDonald pass||1||0|
In summary, a team with Frank Gore and Vernon Davis on the roster is handing off to rookies, tossing passes to any eligible receiver on the field and calling keepers in the one part of the field where it is easiest for opponents to crowd the line and key on Kaepernick.
Granted, Davis has been injured, Hyde has shown some power-back potential and the Boldin-Crabtree-Johnson combo isn't exactly chopped liver when you need some tough yards. But the 49ers have displayed some of the same over-engineered schizophrenia at the goal line that they demonstrate when they suddenly empty the backfield for a series then change their minds again. Instead of sticking with what they know works, the 49ers move on to the next concept, next package, next wrinkle. Sometimes they appear to be more surprised by what they are doing than their opponents are.
Jacks of all trades
No NFL offense can be great at everything. A team must have a core philosophy, something it focuses on and commits to in practice, in the film room and on the transaction wire. For the 49ers offense, power running was the core philosophy for three successful seasons. No team was better at traps, counters, options, iso-type plays and other details of between-the-tackles football. They upgraded their receiving talent in the offseason, but that does not mean they had to completely de-emphasize the style of football that made them so unique and dangerous.
The 49ers are still an OK power-running offense. They are also an OK spread offense. But too many "OKs" add up to mediocrity in the NFL. Football Outsiders ranks the 49ers 22nd in the league in pass offense and 20th in rushing offense. They rank 23rd in red-zone efficiency and 24th in goal-to-go efficiency. They were better off when they were forced to use power formations to run the ball and manufacture deep passes than they are now that they appear to have the talent to do whatever they want.
For Roman and Harbaugh, the challenge will be to create offensive balance and coherence, and soon. If they rely too much on empty-backfield tactics against the Saints, Rob Ryan will just borrow some pages from old buddy Gregg Williams' Rams game plan. If they noodle around in the red zone, they risk trading field goals for touchdowns against Drew Brees. If the 49ers lose because they are trying to use a dozen weapons instead of doing what they do best, they will suddenly find themselves on the fringe of the NFC playoff picture with an increasing number of tiebreaker disadvantages.
There is no such thing as too much talent or too many great ideas. But it is possible to try to do too much. The 49ers must learn to simplify. Striving to be the most talented, most creative guys in the room has started making them look dumb.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. When not specified, stats courtesy of Football Outsiders.
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