Many (including myself) have criticized the 49ers offensive philosophy and the man in charge of calling the plays OC Greg Roman. Issues including the teams execution in the Red Zone, tendency to lean too much on Frank Gore, running Gore into 8 man fronts out of the power I over and over again, lack of utilizing certain players talents like LMJ and an overall lack of offensive diversity and explosion.
While I agree with all these critiques, I also believe there was a reason these things happened & it's not that Greg Roman sucks (although again, I want to point out that I have personally expressed some frustration with him at times) but rather that the 49ers were working with what they had & packaged the offensive and team philosophy around the following principles:
Taking care of the ball, Being a power run first offense, Controlling the LOS & Relying more on the Defense than the offense.
As frustrating as this philosophy was at times, it did work, 3 straight NFCCG appearances & a SB birth is hardly failure. But I believe that's all about to change & we're about to see the birth of a 49ers offensive evolution. And here's why:
True starting QB longevity is finally achieved with Kaepernick's extension: Think about it, this is the 1st time in the Harbaugh era we have truly known who our starting QB is going to be long term. in 2011, nobody knew if Smith would be any good, even after that with his 3 year extension we drafted Kaep in the 2nd round and pursued Manning, hardly a sign of confidence in our signal caller. Then Kaep took over mid-season for an injured Alex & regardless of what anybody says, last season being his first as a FT starter, Kaep was still showing this organization what he had, the contract extension gives us a QB we can design our offense around and we finally have that.
True weapons & depth at all offensive positions: Even last season it looked like we were going to have this with the Boldin trade & drafting McDonald in the 2nd round, but once Crabs got hurt, our lack of depth was exposed and even if Bill Walsh was calling the plays, no way that group of play makers could have allowed this offense to be anything more than it was. This off season the Niners showed a concerted effort to change all that by adding quality depth everywhere on offense. At the QB position we brought in another passer with a similar skill set to Kaep in Josh Johnson & trading for Gabbert, a player I view as very similar to Alex Smith. Extended FB Bruce Miller, drafted Carlos Hyde in the 2nd round (not to mention Lattimore coming back) to improve the backfield. Re-signing Boldin, being extremely careful with Crabtree in OTAs, signing Brandon Lloyd, trading for Stevie Johnson & drafting Bruce Ellington shows that the team is serious about depth at the WR position & will be prepared in case of injury. Extending Kilgore, trading for J.Martin, drafting Thomas and Martin greatly improve OL depth.
Focus on route running & RZ Execution: Neither Stevie Johnson or Brandon Lloyd (or Bruce Ellington for that matter) are considered burners, they are fast but not true burner/deep threat type WRs. What they are, are tremendous route runners with good hands who know how to beat CBs and find the open seam to make plays all over the field. This is a complicated offense, not one that necessarily relies on a guy just flat out burning his defender to get open but a series of things going right and the player making the smart play to get open. The 49ers have this in Crabtree & Boldin already, now having 4 or 5 WRs that can do this, along with VD's great speed & size (I also think he's a much better route runner than some give him credit for btw) the Niners finally have a large group of playmakers to spread the defense out and be a truly dangerous passing offense. Lloyd is excellent in the RZ and although everybody harps on the ball he dropped, so is S.Johnson, this will take Kaepernick breaking his tendency of looking at Crabtree only in the RZ & looking at all his options & making the right decision. I feel that this bad habit was formed because he wasn't used to having so many good/great targets, he will quickly get used to not only having more weapons but having better pass protection from him OL (more on that below) and a more wide open approach to the offense.
Better OL pass protection: This is pretty simple to me. Jonathan Goodwin was the weak link to the OL and hurt the entire line IMO. Whomever wins the C job, Kilgore or Martin, the team will see a big improvement. I'm also in the camp that both Iupati and A.Davis were hurt most of the year last year & that effected our performance on the line, especially pass protection. Now I know we can't guarantee those guys or others won't get hurt also, but as pointed out above, the additions of J.Martin, M.Martin and Kilgore stepping up as either a starter or a top backup, the depth is improved. I believe the coaching staff would be much more comfortable sitting an Iupati, A.Davis or whoever for a game or however long it takes for said player to get themselves healthy while the new backups step in and play than they were last year with guys like A.Snyder (who I think gets cut this year unless we have injuries that force him onto the roster) or forcing a major shift in the OL by moving Boone to OT & putting in another OG. Better pass protection, means Kaepernick will be more comfortable in the pocket & will have more time to make his reads & deliver the football.
Put it all together, and this is what I expect to see out of the 2014/15 San Francisco 49ers (on our way to our 6th SB title BTW):
More 3-4 WR sets: This is simple to me. The 49ers had one good WR last year for most of the year, then when Crabtree came back we had just 2. In 2012 Crabtree was our only legit receiving threat at WR, Moss was over the hill and I don't care that Ginn had a good year at Carolina last year, he's not a good WR, neither is Manningham. This year we have 4 WRs with 1,000 yard seasons on their resume (3 recently), 2 young promising receivers (Patton, Ellington). Many criticized the lack of these sets played in the past, but the fact remains, we have never had the personnel to effectively run a more open/spread formation offense using multiple WRs, that is, until now.
Kaepernick with a longer leash: Unless you're blind you've noticed a more free Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs. Many more designed runs/rollouts, it was almost like the team took the shackles off him & allowed him to be himself & the results weren't just good, they were terrific. Kaep flat out kills teams when he runs the football. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that the 49ers are suddenly going to have Kaep run the ball 15+ times per game, I'm suggesting they won't be as careful with him as they have in the past during the regular season. The reason, better depth behind him at QB, a better OL, more depth at RB/WR & most importantly, I think the coaching staff's confidence in him will continue to grow. He's shown he knows how to avoid hits when running by sliding or getting out of bounds when he needs to instead of taking an unnecessary hit. Kaepernicks scrambling/running ability being utilized more will not only produce yards but will put defenses on their heels which will in turn, open up the passing game even more.
Which leads me to my next point on CK, the teams philosophy with both Smith and Kaep as the starter was to avoid INTs at all costs, this led to less deep throws & more conservative pass play calling. I expect those strings to be loosened also, we've already seen this when the QB changed from AS to CK, this will just continue as CK becomes better at reading defenses, more comfortable in the pocket & with his increased offensive weapons.
Less Frank Gore: Like many, I say this every single year, we need to see less Frank Gore. Not because I don't love Gore, or that I don't think he's great, because I do. We need more diversity in the run game and we need to save Frankie G more for the playoff run. The problem, we haven't had a backup that didn't telegraph what we were doing if we brought that guy in and took FG out. You know Hunter or LMJ aren't going to power between the tackles like Gore, if they get the ball, they are probably going outside and you just can't tip off NFL defenses like that. Now, with Lattimore ready to take the field and Hyde coming into the fold (not to mention Hunter probably being more explosive more than a full year after his ACL surgery) the running game finally has not 2, but 3 guys you can put in the game with the same look. Don't get me wrong here, Gore will still lead this team in carries & rushing yards, likely rushing TDs also & although I see the offense evolving a great deal, no way Harbaugh/Roman abandon the power running game & they shouldn't. The 49ers are awesome at the power running game & it will remain a big part of the offense, the big difference is now we have 3 guys to run it, not just one.
Conclusion: This is one of, if not the most talented offensive units top to bottom with maybe the best OL in football with a young stud QB leading it. A great mixture of veterans & young players at each position & the ability to do, pretty much anything they can dream up for the first time in a very long time. The 49ers have been right there relying on a great running game, defense and ball control/protection. Despite all this, I've always thought that Harbaugh, a former NFL QB has always envisioned more out of his offense & now that he finally has the tools to put that vision into practice, we're about to see something special fellow 49er fans. I not only expect the rushing offense to remain in the top 3 of the league, I expect it to improve with more Kaepernick runs, a fresher/healthier Frank Gore & the additions of Lattimore/Hyde. And a much more creative/wide-open passing game that exploits the talents of the many skilled play makers this team now has at it's disposal. It's going to be a fun year guys and I see this team reclaiming the NFC West with a 13-3 record securing home field advantage throughout the playoff & winning the Super Bowl capturing #6.