From Checkers to Chess: Thinking About the Game Like Shanahan

June 8, 2018

 

 

“It was a little thing, but in Walsh’s meticulous, precise offense, it is the sum of little things that count.” Super Bowl XVI: San Francisco 49ers vs. Cincinnati Bengals. NFL Films, Inc. 1982. 

 

 

I’ve had a love affair with the West Coast Offense for 30 years, beginning with an NFL Films videotape breaking down the San Francisco 49ers’ first two Super Bowl wins.

 

Lately, I can’t remember what to buy at the grocery store, but I have always remembered this scene from Super Bowl XVI at the 6:22 mark: Brown Right Slot, F-Right, Halfback Counter, 14 Ho. 

 

It was Joe Montana’s ruggedly-smooth voice calling out a real football play, though I really didn’t have any idea what it meant. But for years after, it remained one of the biggest mysteries in my short existence.

 

2011-2014: For a Moment, It Felt Like Chess

 

In 2011, then-head coach Jim Harbaugh and his offensive coordinator Greg Roman resembled highly skilled neurosurgeons after reviving Alex Smith’s career at quarterback and bringing the offense back from a dark decade of genuinely terrible football. 

 

Let's ward off an internet fight: Yes, the 49ers’ defense was born-again hard during the Harbaugh era. For today, I’m focused on the offense.

 

Whatever you’d call Harbaugh’s system, a hybrid of offenses he smashed together, it hit its zenith a few times with Smith and Colin Kaepernick under center. I did snap a photo of Harbaugh’s play card from the 2012 NFC Championship game. Some calls have a West Coast lingo – 2 Scat, F Texas, Z Arrow – while others look like Harbaugh drew them up in the dirt – KP97 Right, Delanie Sneak, Vern Corner.

 

By the time Harbaugh was coaching his last game, he and Roman had gone from surgeons to predictable play-calling morticians cutting open a frozen corpse and asking themselves why the body was dead.

 

2015 & 2016: We’re Playing Candyland

 

The 49ers’ offensive woes carried over into the Jim Tomsula-Geep Chryst tenure, which isn’t worth discussing. 

 

Chip Kelly may very well be a man with a football mind that is beyond what the mere mortal can comprehend. At times, he was an encyclopedia of technical football knowledge which made fans feel a little more confident in his ability to call a game. But the luster on Kelly quickly turned dull as the season progressed. During press conferences, he discussed his lack of confidence in his roster as a chief reason for his conservative play calling.

 

Kelly’s offense wasn’t anything new; he took inside/outside zones, power and lead runs and cranked the tempo to 11. He didn’t allow the opponent’s defense to reset or substitute, so, at some point, they would be lost and tired, and therefore susceptible to a big play. However, Kelly’s endless excuses for a poor roster combined with his play sheet that listed only inside runs and pass routes that left players well short of the first down marker were two of many reasons for his downfall.

 

I do, however, have a strong feeling as to why Kelly’s system doesn’t work in professional football. He places no trust in his quarterback to do the little things that make an offense click. Rather than allow his quarterback to audible, his system forces all 11 men to get to the line of scrimmage and then look to the sideline for the play.  

 

We can debate the multitude of problems and talent level Kelly had to work with another time, but neither Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert were calling line audibles very often – if at all – under Kelly. Quarterbacks need to call the play and make the on-the-field adjustment, not look to the sidelines and get help from the coach. It is a

massive flaw in Kelly’s system. 

 

Entering the 2018 Season: Forget Chess. We’re Playing the Campaign for North Africa 

 

I refused to claim I know how Shanahan thinks in the classroom, on the practice field or during a game. That’s preposterous, rude and insults the reader’s intelligence. 

 

I can grasp why Shanahan married his coaching philosophy with the West Coast Offense. Shanahan has all the qualities of what previous coordinators lacked: flexibility, patience, and innovation. Oddly, these were also the core principles of Bill Walsh’s revolutionary offense. 

 

Right now, even with an expanded 90-man roster, it appears Shanahan has the right pieces in place to call the game he’s wanted to call since arriving in Santa Clara. He rebuilt the backfield with fast backs who can burn through the second level and who won’t drop passes. The receiving corps, with Trent Taylor, Pierre Garçon, and Marquise Goodwin penciled in as starters, can stretch the field vertically and horizontally. 

 

Shanahan has had a full year to build the team in his image, and pound Walsh’s old ideas into its foundation. 

 

"We got beat to the punch, something we strive for. The other team was beating us to the punch. We took a beating. Our defense was not there by six inches on virtually every play. Our support, everything else. You look at the film, and you'll see most guys played that way. Can’t tell you exactly why. Offensively it was much the same way. We had critical plays that weren't executed. We have to remind ourselves that every play is a critical one and they were all involved, 49 guys."

Bedard, Greg A. “Bill Walsh’s Coaching Tapes: An Enduring Genius.” Sports Illustrated. May 28, 2014

 

Sometimes, an inch is all it takes to win a football game. If you want proof, take a look at this play. It’s why the stories about Walsh hollering at Joe Montana for placing the ball a mere two inches behind the receiver are famous. 

 

There is nothing more critical to Shanahan’s game than his offseason with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to teach him the verbiage and nuances of the offense. At the 2018 State of the Franchise event, Shanahan commented on Garoppolo’s progress thus far:

 

He's done everything possible, and it's been very impressive with how far he's come with just the terminology of the offense, understanding the whys, not just trying to survive to get to Sunday so he has a chance. He really knows it, and it's helped him kind of take more ownership. It helps him communicate with other players in the right way where he and other guys can get on the same page.

 

 

Though, Garoppolo’s learning curve is slightly less because some offensive concepts the New England Patriots run are identical to what’s in Shanahan’s playbook.

 

Here’s 72/73 Ghost Tosser in a few different sets from the Patriots playbook:

 

 

And here’s how the play looks in the West Coast Offense. The only difference the language Garoppolo uses to call the play.

 

A football offense, no matter if it’s the West Coast system or anything else, is about the calling the right play, at the right time against the right defense. But it also requires players to buy into the little things that add up over 60 minutes into something more significant: wins. 

 

Already, there’s evidence the players are on board with Shanahan’s overall philosophy and leadership.  Shanahan’s thinking and strategy have placed the 49ers in an excellent position to succeed this season, even if it’s a record just over .500.

 

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