There are many among the local media and other self-purported experts who claim that the evidence is mounting that new San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh plans to continue the team's long-standing commitment to a run-first offense. If true, this could spell continued disappointment for a franchise eight seasons removed from its last playoff appearance.
It is widely held that an over-commitment to the running game has been largely to blame for the 49ers' offensive ineffectiveness in recent years. This lack of offensive creativity and seeming unwillingness to embrace the strengths that the team actually possesses on offense—combined with painfully inconsistent play under center—have allowed defenses to absolutely stifle the 49ers of late.
Despite the fact that Harbaugh has vowed to run a derivative of the West Coast Offense, some people remain thoroughly unconvinced that his new offense will be markedly different from the systems of Jimmy Raye and Mike Johnson, which ranged from mediocre to utter failures. On the surface they seem to have a good case.
While Greg Roman has significant NFL assistant coaching experience, he has never held the title of offensive coordinator before. He has filled a variety of roles in college and the NFL, including serving as quarterback coach with the Houston Texans from 2004-2005—where current 49ers quarterback David Carr (another unsettling connection) had some of his best (though still mediocre) output as a professional.
However, Roman has been more involved with the running game in his career than the passing game, serving most recently as run game coordinator as part of a play-calling brain trust under Harbaugh at Stanford in 2009 and 2010. During those years, the Cardinal ran the ball nearly twice as often as they passed, a 1,071-692 margin, and nearly saw Toby Gerhart earn the 2009 Heisman Trophy. He also has a long history of involvement with the offensive line.
Beyond that, the 49ers retained just four assistant coaches from Mike Singletary's staff, two of whom were offensive line coach Mike Solari and running backs coach Tom Rathman. Supposedly this all suggests an emphasis on the offensive line which translates to the same run-heavy, lackluster style of offense fans have grown all too accustomed to.
But is this truly a conspiracy of factors predicting the imminent continuation of the 49ers' struggles, or can each of them be logically explained as mere coincidence?
Most of the anxiety around these circumstances stems from the fact that the term "West Coast Offense" lacks basically any distinct and singular identity in today's NFL. Once upon a time, when a coach named Bill Walsh popularized the then-innovative scheme on the rest of the NFL, it was a system rooted in the novel principle of using short, high-percentage passes to loosen up the defense and allow better options for both the passing and running games.
This flew in the face of more than a century of "conventional" football wisdom, wherein the run was always used to set up the passing game.
Now, more than three decades later, virtually all of the 32 NFL teams and countless coaching staffs have endlessly tweaked and modified the once-defined offensive framework, such that merely uttering the worn-out phrase "West Coast Offense" offers little insight if any into the probable nature of a team's game plan. It can be a system still closely tied to the framework laid by the late great coach Walsh, or it could refer to some hybrid system where runs are interwoven with predictable screen passes and exotic "wild cat" formations.
While there are certainly many indications in Harbaugh's personnel choices and coaching pedigree that suggest the run will be a key factor in the 49ers' offense, there is little reason to suspect impending doom as a result. Most of the factors, when viewed in balanced reality, suggest more method than malevolence.
Roman has strong ties to the running game, as do Solari and Rathman, but these hires suggest more of a commitment to strong offensive line play than to the run, per se. The offensive line is the foundation on which all effective offense is built, and without reliability there, an offense is nearly always doomed (as evidenced by the 2004-2010 49ers seasons).
Both Solari and Rathman are established and respected assistants who not only deserved to retain their roles with the team, but possess key ties to the team's glories of days past and invaluable expertise. Rathman, of course, was a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl-Champion full back for the 49ers in the 1980s and 1990s, while Solari began his coaching tenure under a legendary 49ers' offensive line coach, the late Bobb McKittrick.
McKittrick was the architect behind countless dominant offensive lines under Walsh and his successor George Seifert, shaping men of modest size and ability into cohesive five-man fortifications. Solari helped stem a mammoth wave of injuries last year, while getting rookies Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis to make great strides in their development. Rathman knows how to handle the ball, but he also knows a thing or two about blocking, which he can pass along to the next generation of 49er backs.
As for Roman, his historical connections to Carr are probably going to remain just that: historical. Carr proved irrefutably in his only on-field action last year that he is no manner of answer for the 49ers, and most would be shocked if he returns to the team next year.
Roman's ties to the run are notable, but are probably also being blown out of proportion. Harbaugh has said he himself will be the primary play-caller, and it is doubtful a former QB will allow weapons like Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree to go unused.
As for Stanford's alleged run bias: they may have statistically appeared heavily wedded to the run, but that is not entirely uncommon for a true West Coast Offense. In 10 seasons under Walsh, the 49ers never failed to attempt fewer than 415 rushes nor to gain less than 1,743 yards on the ground (except in the strike-shortened 1982 season). Remember, in a West Coast Offense the pass sets up the run, making the run the change of pace and often the thing that results in big plays. Also, as a team builds a lead, the run still becomes more and more prominent in eating up remaining clock.
Stanford may have nearly ridden Gerhart to a Heisman, but Andrew Luck did not become the hottest college QB commodity by taking three step drops and handing the ball off. Anyone who watched the Orange Bowl could see the balance and dynamism in Harbaugh's offensive approach.
Of course, the 49ers need a QB before they can worry about developing a dynamic and balanced offensive attack. News of Carson Palmer's displeasure in Cincinnati has suddenly elevated him to the top commodity on most teams' radars this week. History suggests he could be had for relatively cheap (perhaps no more than a third round pick), but comments from Bengals ownership could mean the price will be higher.
If the 49ers cannot afford Palmer, or the Bengals refuse to move him, they might pursue others like Donovan McNabb or Kyle Orton to provide short-term help while they search for a long-term solution. The only certainty is that the immediate solution should not be sought in the 2011 NFL draft.
Harbaugh deserves the benefit of the doubt of fully assembling his team before pundits and supposed fans start predicting his predestined failure. The honeymoon sure was short.
Keep the Faith!