The Tragedy of the San Francisco 49ers: How a Flat Offense Flattened the 2020 Season
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Nothing in professional sports is certain. All signs for a particular player or team may point to cosmic glory, but even the Magic 8 Ball’s prediction can turn south.
On paper, and in a vacuum that ignores a global pandemic, the San Francisco 49ers should have waltzed through the first half of the 2020 season.
Indeed, the team lost some key players from its magical 2019 season, but it was still returning a fierce defense and one of the best run games in football.
So, despite some missing faces, the 49ers should have been near the top of the NFL power rankings.
Alas, poor Faithful, how abhorred in our collective imagination this season has become.
There is something wrong with the 49ers this year. It’s more than the laundry list of players, equaling $80 million of salary cap value, that are or will be on injured reserve.
The mood in Santa Clara is rank, and it has cost the 49ers a shot at the playoffs.
The Shanahan-Garoppolo Issue
Last year, 49er football was fun. Maybe it wasn’t always perfect, but it was fun.
If the defense wasn’t smashing the opposition into the ground, the offense would be slicing through running lanes or catching a deep pass down the middle of the field.
The team was balanced and could rely on one another if one side of the ball did not have its best game.
Last year’s win against the New Orleans Saints was a watershed moment for the team. The game was bound to be a shoot-out. Head coach Kyle Shanahan must have known that, and his game plan allowed for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns.
Garoppolo had no fear of throwing the ball through the still breeze of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Shanahan’s game plan was aggressive and varied; he pulled out some of his best designs and had his team motivated to win football games.
That game feels like a decade ago, won by a team that was motivated and fearless.
Today, Shanahan has been reusing some of his most simple plays, “Drift”, “Aggie Now,” and “Attack” game after game. And let’s not ignore that he’s calling 18/19 Force as often as a high school offensive coordinator calls a Power run to the team’s best back.
Not everything in football has to be extraordinarily complicated. Too often, methinks, coaches seek out the complicated when simple slant route would work just fine.
So, Shanahan using a higher tempo, shorter passing game against the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots was a great strategy.
Garoppolo has had trouble getting the ball downfield to his playmakers, so Shanahan mixed in Jet motion and shovel passes to get the ball into wide receiver Deebo Samuel’s hands.
But shovel passes and drift concepts have their limit and are not the backbone of championship football.
During the 49ers’ opening drive of Week 8, Garoppolo threw a pass to tight end George Kittle that was high and outside – which has become a consistent problem for Garoppolo. One play later, the 49ers found themselves in a third-and-5 situation at Seattle’s 37-yard line.
Shanahan took the ball out of Garoppolo’s hands and called a Wildcat formation.
The Wildcat is a gimmick play at its finest. It had its moment twenty years ago, and now it’s overstayed its welcome.
That call tells the football world something. But that says something. After one errant throw, Shanahan would instead use a ridiculous play to gain a piddly five yards than have Garoppolo throw a six- or seven-yard slant route.
2nd Quarter – 2nd and 7 at the SF 33 (1:55)
With just under two minutes left in the first half, Shanahan called an extraordinary screen to wide receiver Trent Taylor.
Garoppolo took the snap at the 49ers’ 33 yard-line, dropping 10-yards to his right to the opposite hash mark.
The 49ers’ offensive line flowed left to protect Taylor, who had run behind the formation.
Once Garoppolo was ready to throw, he was roughly 25 yards away from Taylor, who was now six yards behind the line of scrimmage.
All this running and movement was to allow Taylor to gain seven yards.
Remember, Garoppolo has attempted 10 passes of more than 20 yards downfield this season. He had already thrown a terrible interception, and Shanahan can’t call much besides “drift.”
Out of the hundreds of pass plays at Shanahan’s disposal, the best he has for Garoppolo in this situation is a door screen.
Maybe Shanahan doesn’t believe Garoppolo is the best person to run his offense. As the designer of the playbook, Shanahan is entitled to that opinion.
Shanahan’s call here was horribly wrong and did nothing to move the ball or build Garoppolo’s confidence. It felt petty as if Shanahan wanted to point to someone watching that Garoppolo isn’t his guy.
There Is No Inspiration
Fans, experts, and beat writers are only allowed a tiny peek into what happens behind the locker room door and the executive suite. We don’t know what motivates the team during the week or if the coaching staff provides the sparks to victory.
Last year, it felt that there was real motivation from coaches and players to win. It was written on their faces as the hot fires of Muspelheim burned within their eyes.
This year, there is nothing but frustration. The team walks around with slumped shoulders while Shanahan stares up at the Jumbotron to watch the replay and throw his arms up in disgust.
In the third quarter on Sunday, the 49ers’ offense ran six plays – two runs, two sacks, one pass, and one fumble –and gained a single net yard for its efforts.
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.
The failure here rests upon Shanahan’s shoulders. If he is to lead these men, he must inspire them to play at their best. Shanahan is failing to grasp this part of his job.
All of us can watch the game film and note the open receivers on any given play. That’s bound to happen to even the greatest of teams and the mightiest of quarterbacks.
But the lack of inspired play does not and cannot be the fault of Garoppolo alone. The core of the 49er franchise – general manager John Lynch, Shanahan, and the team captains – are slowly letting the team rot away.
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