When Frank Gore gets 20 or more carries, the San Francisco 49ers are (some big number of wins)-(some tiny number of losses). How many times have you seen that stat pop up on a pre-game show, TV broadcast, or in an article talking about how the Jim Harbaugh needs to establish the run early in the game for the 49ers to be successful? 50? 100? A million? Do you feel like this stat never goes away? Is it causing you to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat? Oh, that’s just me. OK cool.
Under Harbaugh, the actual numbers look like this: the 49ers are 16–2–1 (.868 win percentage) when Gore gets 20 or more carries; they are 24–12 (.667) when Gore fails to reach that magical 20 carry mark.
The problem with those stats is that they’re incredibly misleading. They imply that simply handing the ball to Frank Gore is the infallible game plan that results in 49ers success. In reality, Gore is piling up those extra carries when the 49ers are winning in the second half rather than a high number of early carries causing those victories.
Gore Carries by Game Outcome
If we dig a bit deeper to see when Gore’s carries are occurring, we can get a better idea of the type of impact the game situation has on his number of carries. If giving the ball to Gore early is truly the secret to winning football, we would expect to see a high number of first half carries in wins and a low number of first half carries in losses. That simply hasn’t been the case. (Note: all of the stats you see going forward are since the first season with Harbaugh at the helm in 2011 and were compiled using Pro Football Reference’s Play Index.)
In 55 games under Harbaugh, there’s less than a carry difference in the number of first half attempts for Gore in wins versus losses. The difference comes in the second half.
By the time the second half comes around, the game situation is having a larger impact on the play-calling than the game plan coming into the contest. If the 49ers get out to an early lead — a frequent occurrence in recent seasons — that’s when Harbaugh turns to Gore to put the game away and seal up the victory. However, if San Francisco finds themselves trailing, they inevitably have to put the ball in the air more frequently to catch up, leading to Gore falling short of that magical 20 carry threshold.
Gore Carries by Point Differential
The same effect holds up if you break down Gore’s carries further and look at when he’s getting the ball relative to the score, regardless of the when in the game the carries are occurring.
Putting aside the extremes for just a moment, Gore carries the ball on roughly 30 percent of offensive plays when the game is tied or the 49ers are leading (remember, these are only Gore carries, not the team’s total rushing attempts in these situations). When the 49ers are trailing, that number drops to just over 23 percent of offensive plays.
If you’re wondering why Gore’s run percentage takes a strange dip when the 49ers are up big, don’t be alarmed. Gore often comes out of the game completely late in blowouts, with the likes of Kendall Hunter or, this season, Carlos Hyde receiving the bulk of those carries. In the same light, it shouldn’t be surprising to see when the 49ers are trailing by two touchdowns or more, any semblance of a run game gets tossed aside in favor of trying to put points on the board in a hurry with the passing game.
Gore Carries by Quarterback
When researching this article, I came across an interesting change that occurred when Harbaugh made the change to move forward with Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterback over Alex Smith.
In the season-and-a-half with Smith under center, the 49ers were one of the rare teams that is much more reliant on the running game early in contests. Gore had more first half carries than second half carries, regardless of game outcome, with Smith under center. As you can see in the chart above, the 49ers were less willing to put the ball in Smith’s hands when the game was close, opting for the more conservative ground approach.
With Kaepernick, you get splits more similar to what you’re likely to see across the rest of the league. Harbaugh has gotten the passing attack more involved earlier in games and has been more trusting of Kaepernick in second halves where they need to make a comeback.
In the very first article at Football Outsiders, Aaron Schatz wrote The Establishment Clause, rebutting the idea that successful teams run early. That article was written over a decade ago, yet we continue to see this mix-up of cause and effect on a weekly basis throughout NFL coverage.
San Francisco’s run heavy approach in 2011 and early-2012 has only intensified the belief that the 49ers are better off when giving the ball to Frank Gore early in games. In reality, that period was an aberration that came about to hide a weak passing game while accentuating the strengths of those teams: a dominant offensive line and a stifling defense.
None of this is to say that the 49ers shouldn’t run the ball in the first half. There will certainly be games in which the match-up dictates that Harbaugh should run the ball more frequently. However, running the ball early is about running successfully, not necessarily often. There’s no point in piling up two- and three-yard carries just to reach some mythical carry threshold that supposedly ensures victory, regardless of what FOX’s graphics department wants you to believe.