• Bret Rumbeck

Run it Back: Why the NFC Stacking the Deck Against the 49ers Pass Game is Futile

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann


Through 76 years of rich history and 19 head coaches, San Francisco 49er fans have come to expect more from the scarlet and gold than a power-run offense.

The franchise has been blessed with quarterbacks like Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie, Joe Montana, and Steve Young throwing to wide receivers R.C. Owens, Gene Washington, and Jerry Rice.

An outside zone run or a run-pass option is well and good, but give any old school 49er fan a quick slant route or a redrawn flanker drive and watch his collective head explode into a multitude of colors.

But fans have embraced head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense, a blend of zone runs, power football and foundations in the West Coast Offense. Some may question his strategy, but who among us wasn’t completely overjoyed to see running back Raheem Mostert blow through the Green Bay Packers’ wet-tissue defense in January?

The Seahawks are welcome to waste future capital on strong safety Jamal Adams. One player in the secondary is not going to break the 49ers’ passing game and should not give Shanahan a reason to worry.

Key Factors: The Design and Use

During Super Bowl LIV media week, a reporter asked Shanahan to install a game plan and put it together. Shanahan provided an interesting response.

“No one ever really saves a play. There’s not the magical playbook. It’s just tying your guys together, going against whatever schemes, fronts, and coverages you’re going against. I would be very surprised if anyone in the history going forward could ever come up with a new play. There’s only five eligibles, and it’s probably been done before.”

Shanahan’s quote is antithetical of innovation. The man isn’t artificially speeding up his offense by listing plays on a giant poster board for the players to read.

Instead, he’s borrowing plays from other coaches, and he told the entire world back in January. Ultimately, his success dances on a thin razor of calling the right play at the right time.

2018 Season: Week 10 vs. New York Giants – 4th Quarter: 3rd and Goal at the NYG 15. (2:59)

It feels like years ago, but way back in November 2018, Shanahan called “H-Arches” late in the game against the New York Giants.

“Arches” was not a new design for Shanahan then – it was in his playbook in Atlanta, if not before then – and it is not a new play in 2020.

The play on that November evening did not result in a score. It was jumbled and only gained three yards.

2019 Season: Week 9 vs. Arizona Cardinals – 1st Quarter: 3rd and 3 at the ARI 30 (:13)

Flash forward to Week 9 of the 2019 NFL season. The 49ers’ offense was driving early in the game when they were faced with a third-and-3.

Despite claiming not to save a play, Shanahan called “Y-Arches,” a modified version of “H-Arches” from 2018.

In this play, the inside receiver ran the “Eliminator” route, while Kittle had the great honor of running the “Arches.”

Take a look at Arizona’s defense. They aligned in a Cover-1 Man, which was the worst defense to be in against Arches. Kittle beat his man and had nothing but the open field to score a 30-yard touchdown.

Successful Elements: Timing and Execution

Every athlete at any level of sports knows success comes from three areas: preparation, timing, and execution.

Teams and individuals can prepare for a year to win a game or a one-on-one match-up. However, if the pass from the quarterback isn’t timed right, or an offensive lineman executes the wrong block, then the play is doomed.

The world has seen what Shanahan can do with a capable quarterback behind center, and the disastrous consequences with the wrong man calling plays.

2018 Season: Week 8 vs. Arizona Cardinals – 1st Quarter: 1st and 10 at the ARI 37 (6:03)

There’s nothing magical about the route design above.

Shanahan’s play-action call was stretching a zone defense with two vertical routes while forcing the safety to choose between the stick-post or Kittle’s seam. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk ends up being open, but quarterback C.J. Beathard didn’t see him because he was staring down Kittle.

The play resulted in a sack for a 9-yard loss.

All quarterbacks stare down particular receivers on plays. It doesn’t make them inferior quarterbacks, it’s just the way football works. But it was Beathard’s lack of execution on the play that turned what could have been a score into a 9-yard loss.

Fans and experts alike are welcome to criticize Garoppolo as much as they please. The fact remains that Garoppolo ran the same plays as Hoyer, Beathard, and Mullens – and Garoppolo executes the offense far better than those three men.

The Great Equalizer: No True Offseason

What could impact the 49ers more this year, along with the other 31 teams in the NFL, is the lack of a real offseason.

Except for an ill-advised practice in Nashville, Garoppolo and his receiving corps have not had a chance to work together and stay polished.

The first few days of camp this week may look a bit ugly. It’s one thing to run routes and throw in a t-shirt and shorts against an invisible combination of nitrogen and oxygen. Strapping on a helmet and shoulder pads for the first time in months, and then throwing against a live defense, is going to expose some rust.

Further, the lack of any preseason games means Week 1 may resemble the run-heavy 49ers from the 2019 playoffs, rather than a team willing to stretch the field with intermediate and deep throws.

Shanahan has proven that he has the right play – pass or run – for the right situation. He’ll run a handful of zone runs, and then spring a Y-leak on the defense. If he wants to stay on the ground, he can have right tackle Mike McGlinchey clear 52-yards of field on a toss right to Mostert.


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