In a day and time when the football spends the majority of time in the air, the 49ers are doing something quite different and have done so since Jim Harbaugh took over as their head coach in 2011. Under Harbaugh the 49ers offense has jumped in Dr Emmett Brown's shiny silver DeLorean, and gone back in time.
To understand Harbaugh's offensive philosophy you would first have to turn the date back to 1948. After getting up that DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour you would find yourself on the practice field of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. It is here that a young freshman tackle by the name of Bo Schembechler is practicing under the watchful eye of Sid Gillman. Gillman as you probably know was one of the fathers of the modern passing game, and laid the groundwork for what would later become known as the "West Coast Offense."
Now let's fire the DeLorean up again, and this time, let's set the date to 1949. We are still at Miami University, however Gillman has moved on to Cincinnati and been replaced by a fiery young coach named Woody Hayes. Hayes was the polar opposite of Gillman when it came to offensive philosophy. Hayes wanted to run the ball at all costs behind a bruising offensive line. Hayes only stayed at Miami for 2 seasons, but those seasons began to shape the football ideal of Schembechler, who would later go on to work under Hayes at the Ohio State University.
Fast forward to 1985, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Schembechler is now well into his tenure as the head coach at the University of Michigan, and he has a fiery junior quarterback by the name of Jim Harbaugh. With Harbaugh at the controls of his offense the Wolverines put together their first 10 win season since 1980 and the highest ranking in Schembechler's career at #2. In an offense that was focused more on the run than the pass, Harbaugh still put up respectable numbers as noted by his 8.7 yards per attempt and 18 touchdown passes to only 6 interceptions. The leading rusher on that team was a fellow by the name of Jamie Morris.
Everybody get back into the DeLorean, we are off to 1986 and the destination is New Jersey, Giants Stadium to be exact. Here we find Bill Parcells in his fourth season as head coach of the New York Giants. Parcells had been a linebacker in college at Wichita State, and from 1964 through 1982 he was mostly a linebacker coach at the collegiate level, with a short stint as the head coach at the Air Force Academy in 1978, prior to becoming the defensive coordinator for the Giants in 1979.
Much like Schembechler, the teams that Parcells coached were a tough, hard nosed bunch that offensively would prefer to run through you instead of throw over you. In 1986, led by the running of Joe Morris, the older bother of Harbaugh's teammate at Michigan, the Giants would bring home their first world championship since 1956. That season the Giants ran the ball 558 times, while throwing it 472. Morris led the team with 1516 yards on 341 carries.
The Giants dependence on the running game was no coincidence. They often struggled to pass, as they had 5 games in which they threw for fewer than 120 yards.
Sid Gillman, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and Bill Parcells. These four men each played an instrumental role in how the 49ers offensive philosophy came to be. Gillman and Hayes had a profound effect on Schembechler, who in turn was a very influential figure in the development of Jim Harbaugh, and Bill Parcells is the man who gave Trent Baalke his break into the NFL.
The decision of Jed York to partner Baalke and Harbaugh to rebuild his franchise was a simple one given the background of the two men. Together they a winning percentage of .728, and their teams have been among the NFL's final four each year.
Their offense very closely resembles a combination of each of those men who mentored them and their mentors. The 49ers offense is built to grind opposing defenses into the ground and often they do with their power run game. Over the course of the 46 games that Harbaugh has been at the helm, the 49ers have run the ball 53% of the time.
At his introductory news conference Harbaugh stated that the 49ers would employ a West Coast offense, and while their passing game uses some West Coast principles, it is much more East Coast. Like those Michigan and Giants teams the 49ers pass offense is much heavier on play action than the Bill Walsh West Coast offense ever was.
The dependence on play action is a result of the 49ers run first philosophy, and has served them well. Although their pass offense has never ranked higher in yards per game than 23rd, that is mostly due to the fact that the team is has not been higher than 31st in total pass attempts. The best measuring stick for the 49ers passing game can be found by looking at their yards per pass attempt. Since 2011 the 49ers worst ranking in this statistic was 2011 when they ranked 17th during the first year for Harbaugh and Baalke. During the 2012 season they finished 2nd, and are currently sitting tied for 7th with the Detroit Lions. For historical perspective, that 1986 Giants team that won the Super Bowl threw the 2nd fewest passes, ranked near the bottom of the league in yards, and ranked 8th in yards per attempt.
In a day and time when many fans have turned to fantasy football, and teams are throwing the ball all over the field, the 49ers have gone back in time, and San Francisco has become the New Jersey of the west.