Beyond the assumption that new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst will be its chief architect — with head coach Jim Tomsula having a minimal role — it’s difficult to know what to expect from the San Francisco 49ers offense in the coming season.
Since entering the league in 1991, Chryst has reached a rung higher than position coach on the NFL coaching totem pole once, a two-year stint as San Diego’s offensive coordinator 15 years ago. The fact that Chryst is so far removed from his last run in his current role combined with his experience in a variety of systems at his various stops around the league, and it simply becomes a guessing game as to what offensive style Chryst is going to bring to the table.
The safe bet would be to assume that many of the West Coast concepts installed under Jim Harbaugh will remain at the core of Chryst’s offense. There are some obvious reasons as to why that route makes sense. Players, specifically Colin Kaepernick, would not be forced to learn an entirely new system. The hiring of Steve Logan as quarterbacks coach, with his background in the West Coast system, also aligns with the idea that the 49ers will only look to tweak the system that has been in place for the previous four seasons.
Among the possible changes Chryst could look to make, two things in particular have been reported in recent weeks: a more simplistic, let-the-players-play-style approach and an increased emphasis on the read option.
This "return" to the read option, as many are billing it, is a bit misleading. As Matt Maiocco recently pointed out, the 49ers use of read option plays increased in 2014, according to data from Pro Football Focus. Harbaugh and Greg Roman called for read option plays more frequently last season than at any other point in the regular season since Kaepernick became the team’s starting quarterback. All of this aligns with what I was able to find when breaking down Kaepernick’s rushing issues a couple months back.
As far as I can tell, there are a few reasons why this perception that the 49ers completely abandoned the read option exists. When many people are saying that San Francisco needs to run the read option more, what they’re really saying is that Colin Kaepernick needs to run more. As PFF’s Jeff Deeney tweeted out, Kaepernick’s keep rate was nearly cut in half last season.1 On nearly four-in-five read options, Kaepernick’s read led him to hand the ball to Frank Gore or Carlos Hyde on the give.
Kaepernick’s lack of success when keeping the ball on read option plays almost certainly plays a role as well. Mention the 49ers and the read option and most will have visions of Kaepernick exploding by a confused Packers’ outside linebacker for a monster gain in the 2012 Playoffs. Few will think of Kaepernick sliding after a minimal gain because Vernon Davis whiffed on a block on the edge during this past regular season.
Maiocco brings up another possible reason for Kaepernick’s lack of success on read option runs, citing a source that believes defenses would often force the "give" read by having a defender head directly for Kaepernick after the snap. This action from an edge defender shows up repeatedly on tape and explains why Kaepernick kept the ball less frequently. It’s also at least part of the reason Kaepernick struggled to find yardage when he did keep it. There were several instances in which it appeared Kaepernick was keeping the ball when he probably shouldn’t have in effort to try and make a play, something that rarely worked out.
This emphasis by the defense to get the ball out of Kaepernick’s hands in the read option is likely why Harbaugh and Roman would often go to other types of designed runs — sweeps, draws, QB power — when they wanted to take advantage of Kaepernick’s legs.
Which begs the question, is simply running the read option more frequently really the answer for San Francisco’s offense?
The answer to that question is more complicated than a simple yes or no, of course. The read option can absolutely be part of the cocktail that leads to a more successful offensive attack for the 49ers. But to expect the offense to look like it did against the Packers in Kaepernick’s playoff debut every single week by calling a handful more read option plays per game is naive at best. For it to work effectively, it must be part of a larger, overarching commitment to that style of play.
The read option isn’t some magic beyond comprehension for defenses. Teams are better prepared to defend the read option now than they were during that 2012 run, and like any other part of an offense, it must be ingrained into the system to be consistently successful. When integrated properly — with a variety of blocking schemes, play action passes built off read-option action, and additional wrinkles such as the pop pass — there are numerous benefits to running the read option even when the quarterback isn’t keeping the ball. Teams like Seattle and Carolina have demonstrated this in recent seasons.
How the 49ers can fully integrate the read option into their offense — along with identifying some other traits that good offenses consistently do well — is something that we’ll be exploring more in-depth throughout the offseason. Until then, let’s hope the 49ers new coaching staff is working on the same.
A quick note about many of the read option numbers that get tossed around. Take them all with a heavy dose of MSG. It can be very difficult to distinguish between a read option and just a normal Shotgun/Pistol handoff. Even when there is an unblocked defender, a must for it to be a read option, there’s no guarantee the quarterback is actually reading him. There’s still value from looking at these numbers, but they’re almost certainly not 100 percent accurate. ↩