Let me start by throwing out a couple of crazy statements. The 49ers get delay of game penalties on purpose! The offense is one of the best in the league!
Okay, so I don't think they get delay of game penalties on purpose. But I do think that taking up a lot of time on the play clock is not totally unintentional. There were about 5 negatives in that sentence so you may be wondering what I could possibly be talking about. Stay with me and I will give you an idea of what I am getting at. I also think that the offense is actually really good.
Let me start by looking at something that I think is a core philosophy of this team and more importantly Jim Harbaugh's coaching philosophy. It is no surprise that he constantly preaches "The Team, The Team, The Team". I think that is more than just a cliched phrase about supporting each other. He puts into practice the idea that what the offense does affects the defense, what the defense does affects the special teams, and what the special teams do affect the offense. What I mean by this is that by avoiding turnovers the offense doesn't put the defense in a bad position. By pinning the other team deep with a great punt it puts the defense in an advantageous position. Ok, I know I am not really breaking any new ground here. So here is the first part of my theory. The 49ers want to give the defense the best possible opportunity to be successful. In order to do this I think the 49ers try to shorten the game. That means a lot of running the ball to chew the clock. Then on top of that they take up a lot of the play clock. They want to milk every second they can off the clock while they have the ball in order to keep the defense rested and it limits the amount of plays the other team can run.
A simple stat to back that up is time of possession. The 49ers are ranked 8th in the league in time of possession. Pretty good.
But time of possession is only part of it. A football team can not change the number of minutes in a game. There are 60 minutes. A football team can help to determine how many plays are played during that 60 minutes though. By using every second of the play clock that they can the 49ers certainly limit their plays. And by winning the time of possession battle they can limit the opponent's plays.
The 49ers average 60.1 offensive plays per game. That is tied for the least in the league. The 49ers also average less then 10.5 drivers per game. That is tied for the least in the league.
The flip side of that is it helps the defense. Opponents average about the same 61.9 plays per game. That is 8th in the league. 49ers opponents average just over 10.5 drives per game that is tied for 3rd fewest in the league.
By playing football this way the 49ers put pressure on teams to be efficient. The coaching staff is gambling that the 49ers are going to be better coached, more disciplined, and more efficient than the teams that they play. There is more pressure on each possession and on each play for both sides to be successful. There is not a lot of room for throwaway plays. A wasted opportunity means a lot more in a 49ers game than it does in most NFL games. The 49ers are prepared for this. They play like this. It is normal to them. However, to most of their opponents it is stressful and puts a lot of pressure on them.
Now to follow up on what I started with. The 49ers are a really good offense. Well, they are at least a very efficient offense. By purposely limiting the number of possessions and plays they have every week they limit the total output. This makes the per game stats that the 49ers put up offensively not look very good. It makes the defense look even better (although the defense looks good no matter how you look at it).
Offense / Defense- Per game
Points: 13th / 1st
Total Yards: 11th / 2nd
Rushing Yards: 2nd (good no matter how you look at it) / 2nd
Passing Yards: 31st / 2nd
Now lets look at these stats on a per play or per attempt basis.
Offense / Defense- Per play or attempt
Points per play: 8th / 1st
Yards per play: T2nd / 1st
Rushing yards per attempt: 2nd / 3rd
Passing yards per attempt: 4th / 1st
The 49ers are clearly the most efficient TEAM in the league. It is easy for the people at ESPN and other sports outlets to look at the per game stats and say the 49ers don't have a good offense. But that misses the big picture. They shorten the game. Chew up the clock. Limit possessions and plays. Put a lot of pressure on the other team to be efficient. There is no team that can match the 49ers efficiency on both sides of the ball.