49er fans will remember the play: January 12, 2013, 3rd quarter, playoff against Green Bay, game still in the balance. Colin Kaepernick keeps the ball on a read-option, ducks past a discombobulated defender, and sprints fifty-six yards into the end zone. In bars, living rooms, and beauty parlors across America, viewers sit, nonplussed, stunned by the speed of the play. "Did I just see what I thought I saw?" "Yes," those of us who watched Kaepernick extensively during his University of Nevada career reply. "The kid's that fast. And the pistol offense is that good." We veteran Kaep-niks knew, even before he crossed the line of scrimmage, that the QB had embarked on yet another big play, possibly even a touchdown. How?
How did we know? Because that play exemplifies what Part 1 of this article referenced as "creating" a cavity in the defense. How did the 49ers create that cavity? First, scheme. The Packer defensive backs, otherwise disposed while covering patterns specifically designed to take them far from the play, left a chasm into which Kaep could cavort once he broke containment. Second, personnel. The 49ers' backside blocking, combined with capable skill-players for whom defenses must account, along with their infernal trickery, sold the play. Third, surprise. Although Green Bay had prepared for the play, Kaepernick's speed, as Packer safety Charles Woodson acknowledged afterwards, simply shocked the defenders, yes, even NFL veterans accustomed to NFL speed. The Wolfpack Kid, throughout the game, scrambled their angles.
Another example of an offense creating space occurred the following week in Atlanta. This time, the Niners' offensive brain trust, knowing that the Falcons would scurry and scheme to stop outside running, recognized said space before the teams ever kicked off the NFC championship game. 49er coaches gratefully accepted that the inside running game would open up, and, although they failed to send thank-you notes to the Falcons, responded with James and Gore gashes up the middle. "Strategic running" consists precisely of these sorts of big plays.
I titled these commentaries "dynamic" instead of "strategic" running for a couple reasons, first, to highlight a former 49er assistant's contributions to the contemporary running game while not dissing the dozens of coaches over dozens of decades who have helped it evolve by other (pick one) names. As noted earlier, schemes cross-fertilize over the years, as avid as seagulls after a Candlestick game. Secondly, the term "dynamic" admittedly indulges in a bit of wishful thinking, surely a prerogative for any fan during the long days and cold-turkey nights of football off-seasons. So, "dynamic," to distinguish the Niner offense. Beyond that, in what manner may the adjective "dynamic" reasonably apply to the 49ers' running game?
A quick flick to the dictionary definition of "dynamic" yields a few applicable terms: Power. In motion. New ideas. Now, that's what I'm talkin' about.
Power. During Mike Shanahan's tenure with the prospectors, veteran sports announcer Rusty "Nails" Rhymes probably said it best: "Tackle be nimble, guard be quick, to play line for the Niners in Candlestick." OK, maybe not "Paid in Full," but you get the idea. In other words, that era's San Francisco linemen, with exceptions, succeeded more because of their agile footwork than their ponderous power. Jim Harbaugh, on the other hand, inherited a line stocked with road-graders. (shout-out here to Mike Singletary for his influence on the 2010 draft) and not just road-graders, but athletically gifted, as well as low-geared, opponent-movers.
Teams have made, and will continue to make, adjustments to stop the 49er running game. The red-and-gold will make counter-adjustments of their own. Ultimately, though, those opposing defenses must face a multiple-formation offense supplemented with smash-mouth capability. Simply put, the 49ers' offensive line can pancake you and leave you soaking in your own syrup. With their investment in offensive linemen and running backs, the 49ers likely do not plan to any time soon abandon the running game. Now that our lads have added a down-the-field passer and read-option possibilities, defenses can no longer focus on stopping just one aspect of the 49er offense. If the Niners achieve the hoped-for balance, expect the 2011 running game, with backs searching for big plays down the field, to revive. Fun to watch, fun to play. Dynamic.
In motion. When watching games, I can't keep up with all the pre-snap 49er rigmarole. Different players rumble around, shuffle on and off the field, line up hither and yon. For cryin' out loud, just hike the ball already! No wonder Harbaugh wastes so many times-outs. My neighbor, last season, kept an abacus chair-side so she could tally, post-game, all the different places Delaney Walker lined up. Whereas Bill Walsh and his football progeny used motion and formations to set up primarily passing plays, the current Niners use them to set up running plays as well. The drafting of Vance McDonald so early this year probably means the shifty bunch that runs the offense will maintain this pre-snap musical-chair madness.
But the 49ers also use movement, post-snap, in a more, shall we say, dynamic way. Receivers read the defense and adjust their patterns. Blockers, all of them, read defensive players and adjust their blocking, and not just in pass protection, but downfield. And, of course, option plays depend for their effectiveness on decisions made on the fly. A subtly dynamic move occurs when, between the tackles, an offensive lineman leaves his initial double-team block to engage yet another defender. If accomplished successfully, this brilliantly intricate move can open space for big hunks of yardage, if, of course, the running back also reads the play correctly, while on the move, and makes the quicksilver dash that sends him into the secondary. You can see the difficulty all this poses for 49er rookies trying to get onto the field their first years. Happily for Niner fans, it also poses problems for the opposing team.
New ideas. As detailed in Part 1, do any legitimately new ideas really exist in contemporary football? Maybe not, but the 49ers do a good job of applying new concepts to traditional formations. They tweak a bit here to take advantage of their own personnel, then tweak a bit there to confound defenses. Greg Roman, a walking compendium of football knowledge, continually tinkers, toys, and retrofits.
As an example, 49er fans will recognize these tidbits of offensive-football bric-a-brac: two tight ends, unbalanced lines, short toss-snaps, pulling lineman, double-team blocks, reverse pivots, pitches, fakes, trickery, skullduggery, deception. That's right, the 49ers include in their bag of offensive toys a retro version of the old-is-new-again single-wing formation. No surprise, either, that the Niners value versatility, since Pop Warner in part developed the single-wing to accentuate the talents of Jim Thorpe, one of the most versatile athletes who ever lived. Thorpe could run, pass, block, and then participate in a couple of decathlons after the game. Had he so chosen, he may have even sung the national anthem. The training-camp pecking order among backup quarterbacks for this year's 49er roster bears watching. Will the Niners opt for traditional drop-back passers, or for the more single-wing friendly options?
The pistol formation, currently all the rage among off-season sages, reboots single-wing concepts, among others, to make them more contemporary-passing-game friendly. Think of it as Firefly on the football field. Those defensive coaches who hope to stop the Niners' offense by going to school on it with their college counterparts might be just as well served to dig out scratchy old photos of the Carlisle Indians more than a century ago. Or better yet, as no doubt they will, they may want to watch video of last year's 49er games against the Rams and Seahawks, two teams that know how to defense the Niners' version of the single-wing.
Success in the modern NFL game relies on adjustments: adjustments between seasons, between games, between plays, even during plays. Just as opponents scheme and plan to thwart the 2013 49ers, the 2013 49ers, rest assured, busily plot their counter moves. Just last week, they added the sartorially well-appointed Eric Mangini to the brainiac trust. Call it intelligent dynamism. In today's hyper-competitive NFL, teams must stay dynamic, or die.