In the wake of the San Francisco Forty-Niners’ losses in the past two weeks to the Baltimore Ravens and the Arizona Cardinals, there’s been much talk about the team’s offensive shortcomings. Much of this criticism has focused on personnel, and in particular, on weaknesses at the quarterback and wide receiver positions. While the recent hand-wringing seems a bit overwrought, given the team’s 10-3 record and the difficulty most teams have in cracking the vaunted Baltimore defense, concerns about offensive production are legitimate, as the team has struggled to put up points against quality defenses, particularly those -- like the Ravens and the Cardinals – that feature a potent pass rush.
Nevertheless, the focus on personnel weakness is in the end counter-productive. For better or worse (mostly better) the Forty-Niners are who they are, and no matter how good the coaching, we are unlikely to see transformative improvements in skill levels this season. How then, to improve the offensive production against good defenses?
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Forty-Niners’ first championship season. In remembering that milestone, names like Montana and Lott come to mind. However, the fact is that the unparalleled Bill Walsh succeeded in winning a championship in 1981 with an offense built largely of limited-skill role players like Ricky Patton, Earl Cooper, Bill Ring, Mike Wilson and Paul Hofer. He did it, not by asking them to do more than they could do, but by designing an offense that matched his team, and then demanding that his players execute perfectly those tasks clearly within their power to perform.
That is the lesson, and the challenge, facing Jim Harbaugh and his excellent coaching staff. In order to win against more talented teams, Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman need to design offensive game plans that take maximum advantage of the skills of their players, and that compensate for their weaknesses. Alex Smith sometimes looks shaky in the pocket or throws fluttering passes? Roll him right, taking advantage of his comparative accuracy on the move as well as his ability to run the ball effectively. Kyle Williams has trouble getting off the line against physical corners? Put him in motion, or in the slot, or stack him with one or two tight ends. Offensive line sometimes struggles against speed rushing defensive ends? Use a fullback or halfback to chip the end and slide out to the flat, creating an outlet for Smith under pressure. Can’t score touchdowns in the Red Zone? Let’s see some quick slants, outs or bubble screens. If Bill Walsh could win with the role players he had on that 1981 team, Jim Harbaugh can win with what is surely a more talented group thirty years later. It is hard to imagine a higher or more fitting tribute to Coach Walsh.