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From Jester to Maverick: Using Skilled Backs to Improve the Passing Game

May 29, 2018

 

 

“If I had some duct tape, I could fix that.”

- MacGyver

 

Nobody needs a degree in football to understand that an offense needs to bring a multifaceted attack to the field on Sunday. The all-verticals play in Madden may work 14 times in a row, but I’d have to assume the play caller adjusted the settings to ensure repeated success with a single play.

 

Last season, the San Francisco 49ers lacked a real balance in their offense for the bulk of the year. Indeed, the team played inspired football once quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo began calling the attack, and the rushing offense averaged 112.6 yards per game in December.  

 

However, even with Garoppolo under center, head coach and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan did not get enough from his running backs, both route running and pass catching, to elevate the air assault to Top Gun-type levels.

 

During the last five weeks of the season, 49er running backs had 31 catches for 294 yards and nine drops. Garoppolo threw almost 19 percent of his total season yardage to his backfield and completed just over twenty-five percent of his throws to the backs.

 

Shanahan is running a newer version of the famous West Coast Offense, incorporating broader sets and more receivers than the original crafted by Bill Walsh. In today’s game, Shanahan’s modifications demand more from the backs – like pass blocking, crisp routes and sure hands – not just the ability to hit the six-hole and gain 15 yards.

 

76-77 Protection

 

The elements of football rarely change and looking back in Walsh’s 1985 playbook show the consistencies that remain in the West Coast Offense.

 

Walsh outlines the 70 series and the back action on page 169. As you can see below, the halfback has a free release (scat), while the fullback first checks the linebacker and then can release if nobody blitzes.

 

There’s nothing magical about the scheme, but it allows for two additional targets for the quarterback.

 

 

Nearly twenty years later, Walsh disciple Mike Shanahan had a similar protection scheme in his 2004 playbook.

 

Ignore the route differences in the diagram. The key to the 76/77 protection is the halfback to release into the field, rather than remain in the backfield to pick up a blitzing opponent.

 

Swing passes or soft throws into the flat should be like making a boxed birthday cake in the West Coast Offense. These plays stick to the core element in the system: Ball control through the air.

 

Former 49er Carlos Hyde, who had nine drops in 2017, is not the ideal running back in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Last season, Hyde was targeted 89 times and had 59 catches and zero receiving touchdowns. His 34.9 receiving grade from Pro Football Focus makes Hyde the worst receiving running back in professional football.

 

Rather than wait to see if Hyde improves, the 49ers signed veteran running back Jerick McKinnon on March 14. McKinnon earned an 82.3 receiving grade last season, placing him nicely in the top-ten.

 

And, to show how the 76-77 protection hasn’t changed, here’s Strong Right 76 Strike from the 1994 49ers’ playbook when Mike Shanahan was calling plays in the booth.

 

 

200/300 Jet Protection

 

200/300 Jet (or 2/3) Jet protection is another staple in any West Coast Offense. I remember last season watching a replay and shouting, “That’s 2-Jet protection!”

 

Jet protection tells four offensive linemen to move to the weak side of the play, with the right tackle and back picking up the strong side. It’s a 6-man blocking scheme that’s been around for over three decades.

 

Here’s an example of 200 Jet protection taken from Mike Holmgren’s 1997 Green Back Packers playbook: 

 

 

In the play above, the halfback is asked to help the right tackle and then release into the right flat if there isn’t an opponent to block. The X-receiver is the best read on the play, especially if he is against the right coverage to execute a Sluggo route.

 

Again, here’s a 2-Jet protection diagram from Mike Shanahan’s 2004 playbook:

 

The concepts in both protections remain the same, even if the defensive front is different.

 

Hyde also had a tough time pass blocking last year, finishing dead last in Pro Football Focus’ rankings with a 28.2 grade. McKinnon, on the other hand, is a top-ten blocking back and earned a 74.5 grade in 2017.

 

Although I have a tough time counting to five, it’s clear that McKinnon is a massive upgrade for the 49ers in the passing game.

 

But What About The Run Game?

 

Last season, Shanahan’s 2017 rush offense ranked 21st overall in yards, 9th in touchdowns (15 rush TDs) and 15th in yards per attempt (4.1 yards/attempt).

 

Two new additions on the offensive line, rookie Mike McGlinchey, and center Weston Richburg, along with McKinnon in the backfield will bring an improved ground attack.

 

Frankly, the team cannot expect to compete if they finish 21st overall again or have another performance as they did against Indianapolis in Week 5 last year (22 rush attempts for 66 yards and no touchdowns).

 

MacGyver's Swiss Army Knife

 

If you’re a child of the 1980s, then you remember MacGyver getting out of any situation with his Swiss Army Knife and some duct tape.

 

Coaches that use backs with limited skill sets will find themselves in more trouble than a coach who can find multi-talented players.

 

Shanahan saw Hyde’s limited ability and found himself a someone who can indeed get the most from the entire playbook.

 

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