Simplicity is Key: The Case for Shanahan to Streamline his Playbook
Kyle Shanahan is generally regarded as an offensive genius, and words like mastermind are tossed around when talking about him. However, genius can sometimes lead to over-complication, to over-thinking.
We are always hearing about how complex the 49ers playbook is, we heard it when Jimmy Garoppolo first came on board in 2017 and we heard it again when they drafted Trey Lance.
An example of the complexity came in an ESPN article last week, in which Kyle Juszczyk talked about how he makes pre-snap check calls to help Garoppolo. The article also pointed out that Juszczyk is in pre-snap motion 41 percent of the time (a league high).
As Albert Einstein said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
What does simple look like for the 49ers?
Firstly, and most importantly, this team is at its best when it has a “run first” mentality. Think back to 2019 and the playoffs when they ran all over the Packers with Garoppolo throwing only eight passes. Football doesn’t get much simpler than that and it worked like a charm.
Although Raheem Mostert has been out of action practically all season, Elijah Mitchell has proven a more-than-able deputy capable of putting up good yardage and moving the chains consistently.
With Jeff Wilson Jr. also back in action and putting in a very solid performance at fullback on Monday, the 49ers are in a strong position to lean heavily on the run game once more.
This takes the pressure off Garoppolo and allows him to play ahead of the sticks and gives him the opportunity to make the short to intermediate throws he’s best at.
When he first arrived midway through what was fast becoming a disastrous 2017 season, we kept on hearing about how Garoppolo didn’t have time to learn the full playbook and he was working on a slimmed down version. The popular narrative was that he would only get better when he had full access to Kyle’s playbook except things didn’t play out quite like that.
It’s easy to forget, though, just how good Garoppolo was in that five-game stretch. He ended up with 1,560 yards passing, seven touchdowns, and five interceptions. Oh, yes, and he went 5-0 on a team that started the season 0-9. That was the form that earned him the big contract; that convinced the 49ers that he was their guy. Maybe the simplicity of the playbook is what he needs to thrive.
I'll be riding shotgun
It has been noticeable how much the 49ers have been running offensive plays out of shotgun formation over the last couple of weeks. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they are looking at a longer term switch for several reasons. Firstly, it may be a nod towards the QB-in-waiting Trey Lance as part of a scheme change designed to get the best out of him. It also suits rookie running backs like Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon (remember him?!) who are used to running out of shotgun in college. Finally, it also covers some of the Niners issues in pass protection and gives Garoppolo a little more time to get the ball off. Whatever their motivation, it certainly seems to be working a treat. The acquisition of Alex Mack is pivotal in this switch as the veteran center has the experience to lead the switch in protection up front.
Garoppolo’s performance on third down has also improved dramatically as the formation switch has allowed him to take advantage of his greatest strength which is his quick release.
Deebo Samuel’s TD reception against the Rams showed exactly what can be achieved with the receiving options the 49ers have: Garoppolo dropping back out of shotgun, getting the ball out quick, leading the receiver on a slant allowing him to use his explosiveness after the catch to take it all the way. With Brandon Aiyuk looking much more like what we expected and George Kittle getting back to full strength, the short pass, YAC game looks like it could be on the way back. This should lead to fewer mistakes and turnovers which keeps the game from getting away from you, and allowing the offense to feature the run more heavily.
In summary, Shanahan can sometimes be his own worst enemy and get in his own way a bit. Let’s get back to basics; back to what this team has done well in the past and establish an identity again. That identity should be: run first, ball control, short passing and limit mistakes. Stay in games, keep them close and don’t get behind the 8-ball and give yourselves too much to do. If, and it’s a big if, the Niners can do that then maybe this season isn’t ready for the last rites just yet?
You can follow John on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great 49ers coverage and analysis!