Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


49ers Rewrite Their Offensive Identity To Rescue Season

Oct 24, 2020 at 3:17 PM


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One of the most bandied about questions in the NFL this year has been: "What's wrong with Jimmy Garoppolo?" But maybe a more accurate question would be – "What's wrong with this year's version of the 49er offense?"

The answer to the second question is obvious: Joe Staley's stabilizing influence is gone. Staley, who played 13 years for San Francisco and retired after the Niners' 2020 Super Bowl loss, was the glue that held the offensive unit together. He started all 181 games in which he played and had mastery of both run-blocking and pass protection schemes. At left tackle, Staley protected Jimmy G's blind-side and gave the quarterback those precious extra seconds to read through his progressions and find secondary receivers down-field.

After Staley's departure, the O-line has faltered, and Garoppolo has disappeared. This fact was embarrassingly apparent in the team's October 11th loss to the Miami Dolphins at home. The Miami game will go down as Garoppolo's (as well as coach Kyle Shanahan's) worst performance. Garoppolo, recovering from a high-ankle sprain, was at once jumpy and tentative as the line turned porous. Meanwhile, Shanahan's game plan fed right into Miami's hands, with slow-developing plays leading Jimmy G to slaughter.

The 43-17 loss the Niners suffered at the hands of the Dolphins shocked the NFL and put them in last place in what many call the best division in football. Yet, this pummeling might have actually saved the season – and Garoppolo's legs.

About to face a super-charged Los Angeles Rams defense, Shanahan went to the drawing board to write a scheme that might steady his quarterback. The Miami game had exposed Jimmy G and everybody saw the movie: He looked uncomfortable, almost skiddish. He was firing his passes too fast and throwing behind receivers. Meanwhile, Kittle and company weren't making the tough catches and baling him out.

But in Week 6 against the Rams, Shanahan seemed to finally figure it out. Rather than design a playbook around the pocket, he instead sped up the game dramatically – calling for simple, short passes that had Garoppolo throwing underneath the coverage in 2.4 seconds or fewer. This approach allowed him to avoid the Rams' elite pass rusher, Aaron Donald, while hitting receivers in stride. Several times, the script played perfectly: 49er speedsters George Kittle and Deebo Samuel caught the ball on the move and broke initial tackles, puncturing the Rams' secondary.

In essence, Shanahan revisited history to devise his game plan. What we saw last Sunday in the Niners' 8-point win over the Rams was a modernized version of Bill Walsh's "West Coast Offense" made famous in the early 1980s. Borrowing a page from the wily old Master, Shanahan in effect copied the way that Walsh protected young Joe Montana early in his career, compensating for holes in the offensive line by not giving the defense any chance to sniff the quarterback.

"Kyle mixing all that stuff up like that, it makes it hard on defenses," Garoppolo said in an interview quoted by ESPN Staff Writer Nick Wagoner. "It's a pick-your-poison type of thing."

These quick-hitting passes create numerous opportunities for receivers. The concept is easily understood: when a defense is in react mode and can't set itself properly, every play has the possibility of breaking big. Back in the golden years, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, and Brent Jones used their speed to turn four yard dump-offs into touchdown runs. The 2020 version uses Kittle, Samuel and graceful rookie Brandon Aiyuk (together with an elusive trio of running backs) in much the same way – putting the onus on defenses to finish every tackle or risk getting burned.

Staley's retirement left an obvious hole in the 49ers offensive line. General manager John Lynch immediately compensated for it by trading for perennial Pro-Bowler and former Washington tackle Trent Williams. Williams' skill set parallels that of Staley, spotlighting both the fancy footwork and brute strength necessary to protect Garoppolo in the pocket. The problem is that offensive lines take time to develop cohesion and continuity. Couple this with injuries to center Ben Garland and the underperformance of right tackle Mike McGlinchey (who at times appears lost without Staley), and you can see why this team's offensive identity had to be reconsidered.

Nevertheless, Staley's retirement isn't the sole catalyst for Shanahan's return to the Walsh template. The defense is down multiple starters after Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas were lost for the season with knee injuries; cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K'Waun Williams are also dinged up and on injured reserve. Last year, the defense carried the 49ers to the Super Bowl, but that's not likely to happen again in 2020. They lack an outside pass rush and the secondary gives up far too many big gains on third-and-long.

Ultimately, what this all means is that the offense is going to have to pull the train home. And the game plan Shanahan put on display against the Rams tells us he's accepted the new reality. Now it's about a "fire in fewer than three ticks" mentality. Now it's about adhering to the Walsh template – maximizing the speed of the receiving corps while minimizing the time Jimmy G holds the ball.

This change-up in schemes should give the O-line the time it needs to gel in the wake of Staley's departure while simultaneously reviving the team's chance for a playoff berth.
  • Written by:
    John Aiello is an independent journalist from Northern California whose work has been published in many regional and national publications over the course of a 35 year career in journalism. Aiello is also the founder of the digital fine-arts journal, The Electric Review. His book, A Higher Calling: A Review of the Judges and Lawyers Who Shaped the San Mateo County Courts, was published in August.
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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