We have heard a fair amount about the front office of the San Francisco 49ers this off-season, but looking beyond the Lynchahan conviviality narratives (all good, as far as I can tell) it may also be worth taking a look at what the new regime has revealed in the offseason and project what we might see on Sundays on the football field. To put it another way: oddsmakers expect the 49ers to win only a couple of games this year. If not wins, then one should know what else to look for. And in order to do that, we first need to understand what Shanahan is trying to build.
Clues from the roster makeover
Despite making more draft picks on defense, we see twice the overhaul on offense (6-7 projected holdovers out of 26 players on offense versus 13-14 holdovers out of 26 on defense, by my estimate). Does this just reflect the current level of talent on each side of the ball or does it reveal more about a change in scheme and philosophy that impacts the offensive side disproportionately? I’m going to go with the latter because it’s just a more interesting narrative.
So what have we seen? There appears to be a relatively higher emphasis on speed and/or athleticism (SPARC), as others have already pointed out. But what does that actually indicate? I see it as part of Shanahan’s insistence on specific types of athleticism for each position e.g. short-area quickness at slot receiver versus general traits for the WR position group as a whole. This may not sound startling, but it does run counter to some recent trends in the league. As described elsewhere, hybrid skill sets and body types have gained favor in recent years, blurring distinctions between position groups (safeties versus three-down linebackers, as one example). Shanahan, on the other hand, seems to have doubled down with a vengeance on the more specialized traditional traits required for each position such as slot receiver (and slot corner), fullback and tight end, with an additional emphasis on versatility within the position group, as opposed to bridging across position groups. This counter-evolutionary trend philosophy looks to me like a Shanahan bet that he can create favorable matchups even when the play design is familiar and defenders match up as best they can.
To win the bet Shanahan requires, above all, some secret sauce in talent acquisition. Forget the good grade in the April draft. Such grades are based on the projected performance of players and mean very little. The eventual performance of players is different. But how different? For an obsessively exacting coach like Shanahan, having a nose for narrowing that delta could be the real secret sauce. The combined history of the new staff in talent evaluation is instructive here. Kyle Shanahan (and his father) own significant track records turning under-the-radar players into high performance studs (think Terrell Davis, Kirk Cousins, Taylor Gabriel) and Adam Peters is thought to have been instrumental in building superbowl champion rosters in New England and Denver. I think Shanahan’s bet leans on this type of track record. His requirements in players are extremely specific.
The new offensive scheme
Where can we best see this changed philosophy in the Shanahan offense? It would be good to know — if only because that would let us look for early successes in specific areas, even if the game does not produce a W.
It’s not hard to divine what type of defense Kyle Shanahan is trying to defeat: his choice of Saleh as defensive coordinator, his previous pairing with Dan Quinn, and his comments in interviews clearly identify the Seattle 4-3U as what he thinks is the pre-eminent challenge his offense needs to overcome. In any case, you can’t win the NFC West without beating Seattle. Preferably twice a year.
So, where is the weakness in the Seattle defense? For an Exhibit A, look at what the Patriots did successfully against Carroll and Quinn in their two recent Superbowl wins. They absolutely nickel-and-dimed a very good group of Seattle linebackers in the middle of the field with short, shifty slot receivers and tight ends. They did it often. And then some more. And moved the sticks. Having gone up against a Quinn-coached defense every day for two years, Shanahan is certainly aware that this chink in the armor can be exploited and I believe this is part of what he aims to do.
So, moose tight ends like Vance McDonald are out, good-hands nimble move tight ends (Hikutini, Kittle) and shifty slot receivers like Kerley — the only old regime defender re-signed by Shanahan — and Trent Taylor are in. I guess I should mention Bruce Ellington here too, but I don’t want to jinx his health. These are the kinds of players who can keep moving the chains against fundamentally sound defenses like Seattle’s, a few yards at a time.
As a complement to that element there is a need for speedy receivers to widen the slice of real estate that LBs need to cover. This is how I view the acquisitions of Aldrick Robinson, KD Cannon, Victor Bolden and Marquise Goodwin.
From a distance, all this so far may not sound like rocket science, But up close it’s devilish in the details. To understand the point better one needs to look at the new regime’s philosophy.
The new offensive philosophy
Kyle Shanahan and Chip Kelly are both very smart offensive football men, the likes of which we had not seen in the 49ers building since the ‘90s. But the similarities do end there. The biggest and most obvious difference between Kyle Shanahan and his notable predecessors lies in the way Shanahan tries to beat NFL defenders.
For comparison: Harbaugh gained traction on offense by using a retro approach to football that the NFL had almost forgotten, and implementing it well. It took teams by surprise but there was no real originality in the play design. Then, by mid-season 2012, he brought in a QB who initially baffled defenders with his ability to run. All these advantages were temporary. The league adjusted, and that fact became painfully obvious by the 2014 season.
For further comparison: Chip brought in his college up-tempo boom-or-bust style that had worked for a couple of years in Philly with a roster stoked with talent (plus an NFL caught unawares). However, in San Francisco the "bust" side of the coin was in full view with the poorer offensive talent, a better-prepared league, and a bad defense making things worse. One is tempted to blame Baalke for personnel but Chip, though brilliant at drawing up plays, was himself quite poor at evaluating talent: to wit, his disastrous stint as GM in Philly and his man-crush first round draft choice last year (Josh Garnett). Moreover, Kelly's reliance on inside zone and zone read is by now well past its sell-by date, not least because his formations tend to give away the direction of his runs.
Now consider the following point: today’s NFL franchises can (and do) hire the analytical expertise to break down plays that have previously advantaged an upcoming opponent. By looking at film of how other teams play that same opponent, the successes can be noted and improved upon. In short, every tactical innovation in the NFL is collectively perishable — it works for (half a season?) before everyone knows how to beat it. That is why Kaepernick looked so mortal so soon after a season of smashingly successful zone read plays.
Compare all the above to this: Kyle Shanahan built the most prolific offense in the NFL last year and rode it to one bonehead play call short of a Lombardi trophy. His success in the league goes back a number of years to Washington and was generally achieved in a way that I think is more sustainable than the philosophies of his predecessors on the 49ers because he does not rely on tricks, per se. Instead, he finds ways to implement familiar plays better. His play design is often conventional, so there’s no obvious adjustment for opponents to make to it. That is probably why he is still successful after a decade of building and running offenses. The league tries to adjust, but there’s little to adjust to. You can’t really adjust to players who are doing nothing original, particularly if those players are winning their one-on-one matchups consistently only because of position-specific athleticism and attention to detail. This is where Shanahan’s emphasis on nothing-fancy, highly athletic, good-hands players who can separate from defenders makes perfect sense. If I look at the TEs, FB and WRs signed by the 49ers this off-season, that’s the thread that I see. And perhaps this is how you beat a league besotten with post-game film analysis: with a fundamentally sound offense.
Scheme and philosophy overlap, of course. Shanahan’s choices of Joe Williams and Matt Breida, running backs with breakaway speed plus the ability to cut, plus the ability to break tackles. In theory they can make the outside zone run, a staple of Shanahan’s game, lethal. The foundation of the Seattle defense is eight men in the box to completely shut down the run. In fact, the success of the Seattle defense has always been predicated on making opponents one-dimensional. New England conceded the run in both Super Bowls yet found a way to win with short passes, over and over again. Shanahan is trying to replicate and then go beyond that: in addition to the short completion game with slot receivers, backs and tight ends, he wants to retain offensive balance against Seattle’s front eight by running successfully outside their strength in ways that are hard for them to defend. The flaw in every 5-2 defense off-shoot is that pressure up front always creates too much space behind it. It was this fact that ultimately killed Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense in the eighties. Remember Jerry Rice’s spectacular catch and run in the NFC Championship Game in 1988? Walsh, who had initially been stumped by the 46, had found Chicago’s weakness, and ever since then aggressive defenses (such as in the Carroll and Ryan traditions) have utilized an athletic high safety and big corners to triangularize the defensive real estate, making the problem manageable — especially when you have an instinctive high safety.
So the philosophy of running outside zone is contextually relevant here. It exploits the very parts of the field (outside the hash marks at short to intermediate depth) left implicitly vulnerable by any pressure scheme that moves an extra defender close to the LOS either by alignment or blitz. This is particularly true when you have speedy outside receivers taking the CBs too far downfield to help out. The bonus of penetrating outside zone runs is that they can also work well against any other type of defensive scheme.
In short, everything about Shanahan’s approach is tailored to beating the best defense in the NFL today but should also work well against almost anyone else.
The thing to watch for early in this 49ers season is how well the OL/FB/TEs execute outside zone runs (look for breakaway runs from Joe Williams outside the hash marks?) and how good blockers like off-season acquisition Logan Paulsen play a role in achieving this. Also, keep an eye on how well those super-quick inside receivers separate from linebackers and move the chains. When looked at through this lens, nearly every off-season move by the new regime so far makes really good sense. I am impressed by Shanahan’s focus and sense of purpose. His team knows what it wants to build and has made a good start in acquiring suitable personnel.
I do see one major failure this offseason that could dog the team early on: with the exception of Zuttah, the team whiffed badly on upgrading the OL. Perhaps the UDFAs can help (we did once find Trent Brown, after all). But I believe the team missed an opportunity with T.J. Lang. For 9.5 million AAV (not very much for a star in free agency, these days) they could have transformed that unit. Ah well, can’t fix everything all at once.
(This is the first part of a series. You can read the second part here.)