Immediately after the victory over the Rams on Monday Night Football, the Next Gen Stats Twitter account dropped a fascinating tidbit about the 49ers' offense. Jimmy Garoppolo only had one play-action dropback and one drop back from under center all night, which is a career-low and tied for a career-low, respectively. Furthermore, Garoppolo has taken 89 snaps in shotgun out of his 93 dropbacks since Week 8 against the Bears.
For anyone familiar with the Shanahan system and how much it values the quarterback’s abilities to play from under center and with their back to the defense on play-action, this was a truly shocking statistic. I mean, who could forget the unending draft saga of determining not only the most “pro-ready” quarterback but the one best suited for Kyle’s offense? It was all so exhausting.
Yet, here we are. Garoppolo topped PFF’s list of QB ratings for two weeks in a row before dismantling the Rams defense, and the run game looked as devastatingly potent as ever. So, how could this be? What could compel Shanahan to make such a drastic change to his precious philosophy?
OC Mike McDaniel shed some light on this when asked about the usage later in the week. First, he noted that the coaches understood that Jimmy’s quick pass skillset meshed well with shotgun right away. For balance’s sake, this inspired the staff to take a hard look at how to best run the ball out of the formation, which had been under-examined up until then.
McDaniels continued, “...It’s something that we really evolved to implementing a ton of [shotgun] in the 2019 season and in training camp, almost every play we have under center or in gun.” The numbers on this check out.
Even though this 3-game stretch is particularly shotgun heavy, Garoppolo’s at 66% in the shotgun for his career in San Francisco. Compared to the 39% of Matt Ryan in Atlanta during his MVP season under Shanahan, and the difference becomes crystal clear.
To put it plainly, this is what smart head coaches do. Kyle assessed the strengths of his player and adjusted his offense accordingly. Beyond that, he used this as a chance to expand and strengthen his own playbook so as not to offer a tell to the defense based on formation alone. In the above quote, McDaniels explains that they can execute every play concept either from under center or the gun in equal measure. That’s some serious versatility.
That all sets the table for the recent surge of shotgun snaps, but it doesn’t quite explain the why or the why now. The most obvious reasoning was the rather disjointed and unfruitful stretch of games that saw the Niners offense unable to convert 3rd downs or score with any regularity. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and this moment would definitely qualify.
Severely limiting under center and play-action simplifies the game significantly for the quarterback. Simplicity helps slow down the game for players, and in Jimmy’s case, that means more time to see throwing lanes and tight windows. Giving him a split-second more to assess can be the difference between a ball getting batted down or hauled in for a reception over a crowded middle of the field.
That crowded middle of the field might deserve as much credit as anything. Over the season, the 49ers have faced many 8-man boxes, which serve the main purpose of stopping the run. However, by dropping that many players that close to the line of scrimmage, it serves a dual purpose of also clogging up the area of the field that Garoppolo favors most. With that many defenders to account for, it should be no surprise that the extra time is helping the whip-release quarterback thread the needle.
McDaniels added more context as to the increase that might not just directly relate to Garoppolo. “...It also has to do with the running backs. We’ve been playing with younger backs lately because of various circumstances. And the one thing about college football is a lot of it’s out of shotgun…”
So, on top of providing Jimmy extra time, this shift might very well have contributed to the recent Elijah Mitchell revelation. Early in the year, when Mitchell first started filling in for Raheem Mostert, he showed his burst and power but often seemed to miss running lanes and lack vision. Perhaps, along with his continuing familiarity with the offense, his comfort of running out of the shotgun aided in his ability to read holes and trust his eyes.
Put these elements together with Shanahan’s usual prowess for dissecting defenses, and you can start to see how an offense that couldn’t get out of its own way managed to find a rhythm and start steamrolling defenses again. In football, adjustments separate the best from the rest, and it’s time to remember that when it comes to running an offense that Kyle Shanahan is still one of the best.