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.
With just 5 seconds to go on the play clock, Smith gestured for fullback Bruce Miller to go into motion. When Miller raced to line up as a receiver split wide left, a Lions linebacker followed.
Just like that, the 49ers orchestrated a ridiculous mismatch: Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis was isolated one-on-one against John Wendling, a backup safety who was the field only because Louis Delmas was injured.
Leaving the Lions no time to adjust, Smith snapped the ball with a nanosecond to spare. Davis roared past Wendling and caught the ball in the end zone to complete a breezy four-play drive. Taking up just 1 minute, 12 seconds, it was the 49ers' fastest opening-drive touchdown in eight years.
"That isn't something the 49ers could have done in Week 2 a year ago," NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth marveled after the play unfolded.
Indeed, a year ago, the prolonged NFL lockout prevented Harbaugh and his staff from introducing all of the complexities from his offensive playbook, a system he recently acknowledged can take a few years to learn.
The schemes require constantly changing personnel — and the more unpredictable the better, such as sending 6-foot-6, 355-pound offensive lineman Leonard Davis trotting onto the field as a tight end.