While the 49ers kick tires at Pro days and in free agency, I wanted to look at one of the most striking stories of the 2013 season. The 49ers had a pretty rough start to the season, and, despite some great defense, failed to repeat anything like their incredible offensive burst in week 1. People blamed this on Colin Kaepernick and the lack of receiving depth, but no one received more blame than offensive coordinator Greg Roman. The criticism slowed somewhat towards the middle of the season, but his name became a pejorative, the reason for every stalled drive or botched play. It was a shocking turn, in retrospect. A season before, Roman was the ‘mad scientist‘, the man who designed the 49ers’ stalwart, and still excellent run game. He helped turn Alex Smith around in 2011, and revamped the offense to play to the significant strengths of Kaepernick in 2012.
I do not want to imply that Roman does not deserve a healthy share of the blame. Indeed, I wanted to look into how he brought about this vitriol. There are a number of reasons that I could cite off the top of my head -red zone play calling, lack of creativity in short yardage situations, ineffectiveness at using speedy players- but the one that stuck out the most was the number of times the 49ers ran the ball. Two games from last season come to mind.
Example 1: 49ers at Seahawks, Week 2
Seattle hosted the 49ers for their home opener, an extremely overhyped matchup between divisional rivals. Seattle had what many would end up calling the best secondary in the NFL, and a much improved defensive line. Despite this, Kaepernick attempted 28 passes, turning over the ball 3 times en route to a 29-3 loss. Looking at the score now, a pass heavy attack makes basic sense. The 49ers were down, and needed to make big plays to get back into the game. However, the score was only 5-0 in favor of Seattle at halftime. The 49ers had multiple opportunities to change up and try something new. Frank Gore was given the ball a season-low 9 times for 16 yards, but otherwise played a minimal part in the 49ers offense. Despite the lead being within reach for most of the game, Roman forgot about Gore. Kapernick did a great job rushing, picking up 87 yards on 9 attempts, but was relied on far too much to carry the offense.
It was a baffling game from start to finish. Roman was trying to repeat what he had done the week before, when Kaepernick threw 412 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Packers. However, what he failed to recognize was that the 49ers’ leading back might have helped bring some rhythm to the offense.
Example 2: Colts at 49ers, Week 3
The 49ers started strong; their second drive combined Anquan Boldin, a scramble by Kaepernick and some big runs from Gore and Kendall Hunter, and took the offense from their own 9 yard line to the Colts’ end zone. Gore contributed 54 yards on three carries, gashing the Colts’ mediocre front seven.
After that drive, the 49ers would never reach the end zone again. Gore was only given the ball 7 more times despite averaging a superb 7.9 yards per carry. Roman was determined to utilize the 49ers’ depleted receiving corp, but Kaepernick was only able to throw for 150 yards, an interception and no touchdowns. Much like Week 2, the 49ers’ defense kept them within striking distance until the 4th quarter. Roman’s abandonment of the run game made no sense, and was, in my opinion, the primary reason the 49ers started the season 1-2.
I decided to look at the amount of times Gore was given the ball over the last three seasons, and see if there was any correlation between his carries and wins. Naturally, it is dangerous to draw massive conclusions from one statistic or one particular player. However, given the 49ers’ propensity to use Frank Gore to lead the rushing attack (he accounted for 67% of all rushing attempts from all 49ers backs since Roman arrived in 2011) it is not wrong to say that Gore plays a huge role in the run game and the 49ers’ offense as a whole.
I looked at the number of times Gore was given the ball and broke it into three groups: less than or equal to 13, more than thirteen but less than or equal to 20, and more than 20. I then recorded whether or not the 49ers won or lost that game, and how much they won or lost by:
As I said above, these numbers take a very limited amount into consideration. However, they do show a rough trend, indicating that when Gore gets opportunities, the 49ers win. When Gore was given the ball 13 times or less, the 49ers have gone 6-8, losing by an average of 12 points. When he was given the ball more than 13 times, the 49ers have gone 35-6, winning by an average of 14 points and only losing by an average of 2 points. The difference is so dramatic that the multitude of factors these numbers ignore cannot overcome the basic truth that the offense follows Frank Gore, and giving him opportunities to move the ball leads to wins, and significant ones at that.
What I found most distressing about Roman’s decisions in 2013 doesn’t just relate to Gore’s use. The 49ers’ game plan took so little into consideration; the offense was lacking legitimate receiving threats for the first half of the season, but Roman decided to test some of the best defenses in the NFL with pass-heavy attacks. This speaks of a lack of awareness. Roman seemed oblivious to the ways teams were exploiting the 49ers’ weaknesses, and he ignored players like Gore, who could have been the difference between a loss and a win. Had the 49ers been better prepared against the Seahawks, Colts or Panthers, they could have won home field advantage in the playoffs, and quite possibly a championship.