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Gold Standard: Why does offense look so hard for the 49ers?

Outside of the first half against the Detroit Lions, offense has not come easy to the San Francisco 49ers. San Francisco is 19th in total yards and 16th in both passing and rushing yards through three games. They are also 10th in points per game, mainly buoyed by their 41 point outburst against the Lions in Week 1. In addition to the statistics, anyone watching the game can see this offense methodically has been so far in 2021. Aside from the struggles of individual players that have been talked about, I wonder if the so-called Shanahan System has reached an inflection point. In today’s Gold Standard Podcast with Levin Black, I explained why the offense might have to evolve or die.

Every offensive scheme, no matter how successful, eventually becomes a victim of its own success. The cycle usually goes something like this. A coach creates something innovative and new that takes the league by storm. When that coach has success, their assistant coaches get jobs of their own over the years, and they bring that system with them to their new destinations. Defensive coaches then spend their days studying the system and creating ways to counter it. At that point, the offensive system either continues to evolve (like the West Coast Offense) or it dies (like the Wildcat).

Could we be at that inflection point with the Kyle Shanahan offense? This is now Kyle’s 5th year as the head coach of the 49ers. Shanahan’s former assistant coach, Sean McVay, is in his fifth year as a head coach as well. Shanahan’s former quarterback coach, Matt LaFleur, is in his third year as a head coach in Green Bay. Shanahan’s former passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur is the offensive coordinator of the New York Jets. The tentacles of the Shanahan system are spread out in the league and have been for some time. As the saying goes, defensive coaches get paid, too, and they’ll eventually figure out how to stop any offense if it keeps doing the same things.

Over the last two weeks, the 49ers have had to grind out long possessions to work their way down the field. The ground game has been sluggish without Raheem Mostert. Just about every pass reception has been contested, with little room to gain yards after the catch. We haven’t really seen the wide-open plays that have defined Kyle Shanahan’s tenure.

And the 49ers aren’t the only Shanahan System team that’s struggling offensively. The Packers (18th) and Jets (32nd) are both below average when it comes to points scored this season. As Levin pointed out on Twitter, all four of the offenses mentioned above are averaging less than four years per carry.

It’s entirely possible that all of the teams adjust, and their offenses begin to get back on track as the season goes along, but it’s also possible that defenses have largely evolved to counter a system they’ve now seen frequently for half a decade.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying that Kyle Shanahan and his system can’t be effective in the NFL anymore. I’m simply saying the cat-and-mouse game of adjustments between offense and defense has progressed to the next phase.

I also believe the 49ers themselves saw this coming and tried to proactively make changes. They drafted two bigger offensive linemen in Aaron Banks and Jaylon Moore. They traded up to take a powerful inside runner in Trey Sermon, and they mortgaged the farm to draft a quarterback that could execute designed run plays to both the edge and the interior of the defense. All of those moves seem to suggest a shift from an outside zone to an inside run game, which would be a significant change to the scheme.

While Trey Lance has been effective in the red zone in limited action, the 49ers don’t seem to be implementing those potential tweaks to the offense on a wide scale so far this year. If the offense continues to sputter, San Francisco may have to consider making those changes.

Other topics in today’s episode

  • What adjustments should the 49ers make for this week against Seattle?
  • Whatever lesson Kyle taught Brandon Aiyuk is working
  • Why the defense isn’t as bad as they looked Sunday night