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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking Down the 49ers’ First-Half Struggles and Successes

Oct 2, 2022 at 12:04 PM--

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Since taking over in 2017, head coach Kyle Shanahan has been hailed as an offensive innovator capable of directing one of the NFL's best offensive systems. Anecdotally, however, I've noticed that the 49ers under his guidance too often start out frustratingly slow, garnering meager first-half point totals despite outplaying the opposition. In light of this, I wanted to take a deep dive into some of these stats and investigate what they really showed about the 49ers' offensive capabilities, and whether or not the team has been truly underperforming its status as a premiere NFL offense.

For each of the last 3.5 years, each game will be broken down into three categories: 49ers' first half total points, first half differential, and game differential. "1st half tot." is fairly self-explanatory - it's how many points the 49ers scored in the first half of that game. "1st half diff." shows how much the 49ers were leading or trailing by after the first half in that game. A game in which they scored 14 points in the first half, but allowed 17, would show up as "-3" in that column. Flip the scores, and you get a "3", instead. Lastly, "Game diff." is the difference in the final score at the end of the game, with the same methodology as the previous section. An easy way to interpret these mini-tables would be to read them as, "How'd we do?," "How'd we do compared to the other guys?," and "How'd it end up?"

Yardage, turnover, and other such statistics are not considered here - while extremely important in determining the sustainability of any particular result, over this sample size, they should not be a reason to expect immediate regression or over/underperformance. If you outgain your opponents by 200 yards every game but still end up with a 9-8 average over 3+ years, then there's likely some inefficiency built into that total, rather than losses that are somehow both frequent and fluky. I chose to start the evaluation at 2019, since the 2019 - current time period represents some of the 49ers' best football since the late '90s. If inconsistencies are prominent during this era, Niners fans may have some reason to wonder about the ceiling of this team as constructed.

I've included a year-by-year analysis and some conclusions under the cut. I may check back in occasionally and update my findings. Let me know if you disagree with the findings, or believe there are metrics that can better explain the 49ers successes and failures over the past few years.

49ers Point Totals, 2019 - Current.

Game/Year 2019 2020 2021 2022
1st half tot. 1st half diff. Game diff. 1st half tot. 1st half diff. Game diff. 1st half tot. 1st half diff. Game diff. 1st half tot. 1st half diff. Game diff.
1 6 -1 14 13 3 4 31 21 8 7 7 -9
2 24 14 28 21 18 18 7 4 6 20 20 20
3 3 -3 4 13 7 27 7 -10 -2 7 4 -1
4 21 18 28 7 -1 -5 7 0 -7
5 7 0 13 7 -23 -26 0 -10 -7
6 0 0 9 21 15 8 12 -1 -12
7 27 24 38 23 20 27 9 -1 11
8 21 14 3 7 -7 -10 7 -10 -14
9 10 3 -3 3 -18 -17 21 14 21
10 10 -6 10 10 -7 -14 20 17 20
11 23 23 29 7 4 3 14 0 8
12 14 4 -3 7 -10 -10 23 2 -7
13 28 1 2 7 -6 -8 17 11 3
14 10 0 -7 14 -3 -8 17 7 18
15 24 3 3 7 1 8 10 10 -3
16 13 13 5 3 -3 -3 3 -4 14
17 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 -14 3
Average 15.1 6.7 10.8 10.6 -0.6 -0.4 12.2 2.1 3.5 11.3 10.3 3.3
Record 13-3 6-10 10-7 1-2


The year in which the Shanahan offensive system truly found its legs. The first thing that jumps out here is that there are as many games (7) with 21+ points in the first half as games with 10 or fewer points in the first half. Surprisingly, two of those games went into halftime with leads of less than a field goal, but the 49ers won all of them by an average of 18.7 points. 20 isn't some magic number, but it does explicitly require at least three scores to reach, and includes the occasional D/ST score without relying solely upon strong D/ST play. I think this season may have planted the seeds of the importance of first-half scoring in me; every time the Niners reached three scores in the first half during that season, they won. This is, as always, partial to some odd near-exceptions - the 49ers lost to Baltimore in Week 13 despite 14 first-half points, and won in week 17 against the Seahawks despite scoring 13 on three scores - but that 2019 team was clearly capable of blowing opponents out of the water, and their results speak for themselves.


A dirty, rotten, no-good year hindered primarily by a league-high amount of injured players, notably QB Jimmy Garoppolo and DE Nick Bosa. Here, the offensive futility shines through in the first-half scores; the Niners failed to reach double digit scoring in 9 of their 16 games. Only one other time did they even reach 10 points. As is to be expected from such a disastrous season, the offensive metrics plummet, as the Niners scored 4.5 fewer points in the first half, the differential dropped by over a touchdown as a result, and the average margin dropped by over 11 points. Somewhat surprisingly, their .375 winning percentage in 2020 came despite averaging only losing by 0.4 points per game - perhaps speaking to the talent level on the remainder of the roster - but that discrepancy is nearly the same as the first half margin of leading/trailing (-0.6). In the three games the Niners scored more than 20 in the first half, they won by 17.7 points on average. Oddly enough, in both 2019 and 2020, the 49ers scored between 14-19 points in the first half exactly once, and both times lost while putting up exactly two touchdowns. But while the 2019 squad lost only 2 of the 7 games in which they put up 10 or fewer first half points, the 2020 version won only 2 of the 10 games in which they did the same.


A somewhat random selection of 49ers first-half point totals, and records in those spans:

0-13 points: .400
14-19 points: .1000
20+ points: .750

Hmm, I'm starting to sense a theme, here.

Of course, the analysis that "more points is better" is... well, if you've read a thousand words and a few dozen tables on the matter, you deserve a better conclusion at that. Fortunately, something popped out at me while analyzing that year. 2021 is the middle ground between 2019 and 2020, with a small uptick in first half points (1.6) leading to a few more points on average (3.9), which translated to about 3.5 more wins. It reinforces those patterns from earlier - score often and you'll do well, don't score early and you set yourself up to the vagaries of random chance - but I identified a pattern in those low-scoring early games that might identify why the 2021 team had nearly as much success as the 2019 team, despite far weaker offensive totals. Counting any game in which the Niners trailed by less at the end of the game (or won) than they trailed at halftime as a "comeback attempt," I formulated this table:

% of Comeback Attempts
0-13 points at halftime Trailing or tied at the half
2019 .675 .833
2020 .400 .143
2021 .600 .666

The methodology here isn't perfect. "Garbage time" does inflate a team's offensive numbers, and the number of times the 49ers faced that on the losing end wasn't considered here. Additionally, twice in 2020, the Niners trailed at half and lost by the same amount, which I didn't count as it didn't represent a tilt one way or another. There also could have been games in which the opposition scored immediately after halftime, turning a lead into a trailing situation and forcing an actual comeback attempt I didn't calculate.

Still, the differences are informative, none more so than the "trailing or tied at half" section. In 2019, the 49ers trailed or tied at the half 6 times, and won 5 of them. In 2020, they converted only 1 of those 7 opportunities. It's the repetition of that same kind of success that allowed the 2021 team to sneak back into the playoff hunt despite starting the season 3-5, and without the same kind of overall offensive success as the 2019 squad had. Combining this metric with first-half productivity should finally give us the frame of reference needed to evaluate the young 2022 season.


At last, we come to what's already been an extremely turbulent year for the 49ers' faithful. With QB1 Trey Lance out for the year and LT Trent Williams sidelined for at least a month, a questionable offensive efficiency has become even more of a concern. So far, 2 of their 3 games have resulted in fewer than 10 first-half points, and the 49ers are 0-2 on the Comeback Attempt metric. In short, they've played two really ugly games out of three in which they didn't score much early, and didn't offer any real threat of making up for that lack of production.

If there's any consolation for Niners fans thus far, it's that the average margin of victory/defeat is about the same as it was last year, when the Niners nearly made it to the Super Bowl, and it's possible that swapping one All-Pro in Williams for another in TE George Kittle could keep their production around the same level. But in order to get back to the Super Bowl, they'll need to upgrade their offensive production significantly. Keep an eye out for how often the Niners score three or more times in the first half, because that's the surest way to put themselves in a position to win, especially if this team doesn't end up prone to exciting comebacks. Given how ridiculous last year's team was at sneaking away with unexpected victories, there's reason to hope the 49ers will engineer more of them - but with a few failed attempts already in the books, it's going to be the early offense that's going to make or break the 49ers' chance at a division title.

With upcoming games against the Rams (who the Niners have dominated in recent years) and the struggling Panthers and Falcons, the Niners will have to re-establish an offensive rhythm and show themselves capable of consistently scoring against vulnerable teams, especially with a fairly difficult month after that. A few 20+ point showings would do well, but look for the Niners to get into the 13-17 point ranges in at least two of the next three games. If they can do that, they'll at least have a solid offensive platform to pair with an elite defense, which bodes well for the rest of the season. If not, their record will probably, frustratingly, speak for itself, and something about this offensive scheme will have to go.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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