A long time ago, the 1996 Turlock High School junior varsity football team was getting dominated by the Grace Davis Spartans. At halftime, we were getting an earful about our poor play, our complete lack of execution on offense, and our nonchalant attitude about the game. We expected to win just by exiting the bus.
Oddly, our offensive coordinator asked if anyone had any suggestions on how we could improve.
Our tailback spoke up. “The plays, coach. You gotta call better plays.”
That didn’t go over very well.
Whether or not the plays were the right calls against Davis' defense was hardly the point; we could not execute I-Right, 46 Power, a staple run play, to save our lives.
It was easy to leave the bar yesterday and grumble at head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s play calls. There were some that were great, but mostly it felt like he called a tepid game.
Before we cast stones, let’s have an honest review of what blame is his and what may fall to others.
Not His Fault – The Element of Surprise
For too long, the 49ers have run a predictable offense. If you watched enough, you knew what former head coach Jim Harbaugh would run from a particular formation or personnel grouping. It was the same under head coach Chip Kelly as well.
Successful football means mastering the element of surprise, knowing when and where to shock the defense for a big play. We saw Shanahan use a surprise play against the Minnesota Vikings just a few weeks ago.
So, on the 49ers’ opening series, he was faced with a third down and three-yards to go from the Panthers’ 46-yard line.
Rather than a run up the middle or an off-tackle stretch play, Shanahan had quarterback Brian Hoyer motion running back Carlos Hyde all the way out to the right leaving an empty backfield.
Hoyer took the shotgun snap, gathered his feet after a few steps, hitched up, and threw a perfect pass to wide receiver Marquise Goodwin who was streaking down the sideline. Unfortunately, Goodwin dropped the ball, and that ended the 49ers’ drive.
With the 49ers thin on talent at certain positions, they desperately need the element of surprise each game. And Shanahan knew this was the ideal time to stretch the field with Goodwin. While one dropped pass does not make or break a game, had it been completed, it would have shifted the game immediately to the 49ers and kept the Panthers’ secondary honest throughout the rest of the match.
Very Much His Fault – Clock Control
One day, I’m going to get my wish and have lunch or dinner with a professional offensive coordinator. I don’t need to know why he calls a draw play on third down and 25 yards to go; there is no magical play for that distance.
What I do want to know is why coordinators seem to waste time valuable time near the end of the half. In my eyes, the offense controls the tempo with two or three minutes left; ceding that to the defense by huddling or making substitutions does not lead to victories.
With 3:23 left in the first half and down ten points, the 49ers took over at their 25-yard line. It was a decisive moment in the game for the team; they needed to march down the field and hang seven points on the jumbotron and leave little to no time left on the clock.
Shanahan had his team do the complete opposite, which resembled the 49ers of the last few years.
The 49ers ran six plays in just over two minutes and gained about 30 yards. They could not convert on a fourth-and-one from the Panthers’ 45-yard line and turned the ball over on downs.
The Panthers then ran seven plays in 42 seconds, which culminated in a 36-yard field goal. They went into the comforts of their locker room up by thirteen.
Why did Shanahan not put a sense of urgency in this series? The offense wasted time for absolutely zero reasons, running a whopping three plays before the 2-minute warning. The Panthers, on the other hand, ran seven plays in 42 seconds.
Going in at halftime with points on the board – whether a field goal or touchdown – does more for a team than burning two minutes for no reason and achieving no outcome.
Who is the Scapegoat?
Watching some of the film, I don’t think this loss is only on the shoulders of Shanahan or defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Hoyer is going to have a hard time operating behind this offensive line that looks more like a three-lane highway than five men blocking the opposition.
Even with time in the pocket, Hoyer has a few bad habits that salt his game; he often locks onto one side and he baby-burps the football, which is drives a sane fan downright rabid. Hoyer also made a few wrong reads, often throwing to a covered receiver just before someone broke open.
Defensively, it felt as if the air went out of the defense after linebacker Reuben Foster’s injury. It’s hard to see anyone carted off the field, especially the new star on the defensive unit. Saleh only called eight pressures during the contest, leaving Newton time to find open receivers in a very soft secondary.
The 49ers, like the Turlock High junior varsity squad of yesteryear, lacked execution. They were outplayed and outhustled by the Panthers, which adds more sting to the opening week loss.
With the Seattle Seahawks coming off a road loss to the Green Bay Packers, Shanahan is going to have a full plate preparing for the trip up the coast to Century Link Field.