From Sid to Woody to Bo to Bill - How the 49ers offense was developed

Jan 14, 2014 at 4:39 PM


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 We are still at Miami University, however Gillman has moved on to Cincinnati and been replaced by a fiery young coach named Woody Hayes.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.
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.


3 Comments

  • AJ Dembroski
    I think a key point of emphasis might be "power" running. I'm talking power running in coach speak... in an era when most teams employ zone attacks, the 49ers employ an old-school power scheme that, in fact, absolutely resembles the Bill Walsh running game of old, using traps, pulls, and lead FBs to create numeric superiority at the point of attack.
    Jan 16, 2014 at 11:07 PM
    0
    Response: Very true.
  • Stephen Green
    While in 1986, that DeLorean should have gone on a road trip to Chicago, because the way Mike Ditka coached his team is very similar in the way that Jim Harbaugh coaches his team. Using a great running back to pound the defense, knowing that he'll get a great run and change the momentum of the game, that's all Ditka and Sweetness.
    Jan 15, 2014 at 1:22 AM
    0
    Response: True, but there was a shortage of Plutonium in 1986 and Harbaugh was still at Michigan. : )
  • niner
    but arent we last in the nfl in passing? dont get me wrong our defense and running game are great in order for us to get where we are. The problem is that in the giants game and the super bowl we were miserable at red zone and 3rd downs. using more wco offense especially long hand off type passes to our backs certaly would help in those areas. go 49ers!!!
    Jan 14, 2014 at 5:46 PM
    0
    Response: The 49ers were 30th in the NFL in passing because they attempted the fewest passes in the league. When they do throw it they are very effective. Their 7.7 yards per attempt was tied for 7th best in the league.

Facebook Comments



More San Francisco 49ers News



Is the 2022 49ers offense better than the 2021 offense?

By Rohan Chakravarthi
May 18

With the NFL Draft finished, every team essentially has their roster full as they approach their respective offseason programs, with a few late-offseason additions like the signing of James Bradberry to the Eagles this morning. The San Francisco 49ers had many concerns heading in to the offseason and addressed them via free agency and the draft, leaving them with another deep roster once again. But, top to bottom, is the current team better than the 2021 49ers? Quarterbacks: Same Last year, after the selection of Trey Lance with the third overall pick, the



A post-draft glance at the 2022 49ers offense

By Sasha D. Robinson
May 14

Since the start of free agency and the NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers have added more talent to their roster to hopefully get the team over the hump in its quest for a sixth championship. With training camp set to open at the end of July, let's take a quick look at how the 49ers will look on offense. Next week's article will focus on the defense and special teams. Quarterback At the start of training camp, the Trey Lance era will officially begin. Since the offseason began, Lance has worked with the other skill position players to hone his timing and offensive rhythm with his pass-catchers. Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster, but he is unlikely to get on the practice field as the team works to trade the veteran quarterback. The move will



Cowherd: It's time for the 49ers to go 'all in' with Trey Lance

By David Bonilla
May 6

On Thursday, FanSided national reporter Matt Lombardo tweeted out that the San Francisco 49ers are "continually underwhelmed" by Trey Lance. While most quickly dismissed the report, given the team's consistent praise of the second-year quarterback, Colin Cowherd offered a reaction on his FS1 show. The longtime host believes it's time for the 49ers to answer their doubters and go "all in" on their young quarterback. I have heard that the #49ers' staff has been continually underwhelmed by Trey Lance …



Matt Lombardo explains report that 49ers are 'continually underwhelmed' by Trey Lance

By David Bonilla
May 6

On Thursday morning, Matt Lombardo of FanSided caused a good deal of chatter with a single tweet. It stated that, per his sources, the San Francisco 49ers have been "continually underwhelmed" by the development of now-second-year quarterback Trey Lance. I have heard that the #49ers' staff has been continually underwhelmed by Trey Lance … https://t.co/BfypDIHzXo— Matt Lombardo (@MattLombardoNFL)


Featured

More by Jack Hammer

More Articles

Share 49ersWebzone