There was a time not long ago when everyone in the stadium — opposing defenses included — could reasonably assume that a 49ers’ first-down play would be a handoff to Frank Gore.
But with Jim Harbaugh and his pair of savvy coordinators at the helm, the 49ers aren’t just outplaying teams during their 3-1 start. They’re also outsmarting them. The head coach who keeps a photo of Bill Walsh taped to his office computer has restored the art of the chess match on both sides of the ball.
Far from the smash-mouth simplicity of previous regimes, the 49ers are tormenting opponents with frequent personnel substitutions, complex schemes and an offense that features more wrinkles than a retirement home.
Consider the game film the Buffalo Bills (2-2) must study in advance of Sunday’s game at Candlestick Park. The tape will show that against the Jets last week the 49ers unleashed backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a runner, passer and receiver.
The 49ers ran not one but two quarterback read options, gave the ball to Mario Manningham on and end around and faked the ball on an end around to Ted Ginn Jr.
And that was just in the first half. What new tricks will the 49ers have in store this week?
“I don’t look at them as trick plays — they’re football plays,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman explained Thursday. “I call ‘em ‘mixers.’ You mix ‘em in from time to time”
In the least, the 49ers are mixing up their opponents.
“They have different wide receivers in almost every package. It’s hard to get a bead on any one thing,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz in the days leading up to a Week 2 visit to Candlestick Park. “A lot of shifts, a lot of motions. It definitely spreads your attention to different places, which I think is what it’s all designed to do.”
Take the 49ers’ opening drive against the Lions: As the play clock ticked down on a first-and-10 from the 21, a national television audience heard Alex Smith barking, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” The quarterback was changing the play at the line of scrimmage.