Grant Cohn: It comes to pass for 49ers

  • San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) hugs Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton after an NFL football game in San Francisco, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

This style of passing offense allows coaches to do most of the thinking, and it makes quarterback, the most difficult position in sports, much easier to play: Just fire the ball to the primary receiver if he's open and, if he's covered, run for your life.

When the 49ers' passing game is clicking and Kaepernick is hitting wide-open receiver after wide-open receiver, that means Greg Roman is guessing correctly. He's calling plays designed to get one player open against the type of coverage he expects the opposing team to use on that play. When Roman guesses incorrectly, you don't see Kaepernick reset his feet and find his second and third targets. There are no second and third targets. Those guys are decoys clearing space. When Roman guesses incorrectly, Kaepernick has to flip the ball to a running back in the flat, or scramble, or get sacked.

Sometimes Roman guesses correctly and the play fails anyway. This happened against the Packers last Sunday. Roman called a pass for Vernon Davis, who ran deep and out toward the right sideline and beat his man. Anquan Boldin was supposed to sprint to the end zone and clear space for Davis, but Boldin stopped sprinting 10 yards into his route and started jogging. Boldin knew he wasn't getting the ball. He was a decoy, and receivers don't run as hard when they are decoys. It's human nature.

Tramon Williams, the Packers' cornerback covering Boldin, saw him start to jog and stopped covering him. Williams saw Kaepernick wind up and throw to Davis. Williams broke on the pass and easily intercepted it.

Shula's passing game does not work that way.

The success of Shula's passing game does not depend on Shula guessing right. It depends on his quarterback, Cam Newton, making good decisions. This is the essence of the "erto."

"A good decision means (Newton) is getting the ball out there on time, his feet are set, he's going to the right guy," Shula told the Charlotte Observer. "When he's making those good decisions, we've won games."

"I don't think he's just throwing to one particular guy anymore based on the pre-set," Panthers' tight end Greg Olsen said about Newton to the New York Daily News. "He's letting the play kind of unfold the way it's designed and goes bang, bang, bang. It takes him to the right guy more times than not. That's when you're playing quarterback at a high level."

You never hear Harbaugh talk about Kaepernick that way.

Last Monday before the 49ers played the Packers, a reporter asked Harbaugh where Kaepernick has made his biggest strides this season. "Been durable," said Harbaugh. "Been there for every snap. Makes the throws when the throws need to be made."

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