Grant Cohn: 49ers victims of identity theft
Who are these guys?
The 49ers’ offense used to have an identity. It was a power-running offense. It was a rhinoceros. It had a metamorphosis last week and now it’s a bug.
The 49ers rode the rhinoceros to three consecutive NFC championships and one Super Bowl appearance. Twice, the rhinoceros trampled the Arizona Cardinals last season – 49ers halfbacks carried the ball 48 times in those games.
The 49ers didn’t bring the rhinoceros to Arizona this past Sunday. Brought the bug instead. Handed off to tailbacks just nine times. Handed off once to a 197-pound wide receiver, Bruce Ellington, a “vonce.” The 49ers lined him up at tailback, 7 yards behind Colin Kaepernick. Like there was a chance the vonce would gain yardage up the middle. Right.
Kaepernick pitched the ball to Ellington, who ran a sweep around the right side, as expected. Bugs don’t run up the middle. The Cardinals squashed him after a 1-yard gain. Ellington looked like a dead locust on the ground, flat and twitching.
What we saw on Sunday, call it the Dead Locust Offense. The 49ers scored 14 points. Colin Kaepernick threw 37 times. Out of 62 plays, the 49ers used four-wide-receiver formations and five-wide-receiver formations 30 times and called 26 passes. Huh?
Where were the plays that made the Jim Harbaugh 49ers so successful the past three seasons?
It’s like Harbaugh wants to be the polar opposite of himself. It’s like he has multiple personality disorder. Like he showed up to work last week talking in a different voice, using different handwriting when he made out the game plan.
Monday in Santa Clara, the afternoon after the loss to the Cardinals, Harbaugh spoke to the media without wearing his hat – a first. Maybe he was stuck in Personality No. 2, Little Jimmy with the hat hair.
Someone asked him if injuries to the Niners’ top-two tight ends, Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald, both of whom didn’t play, was the reason Harbaugh went with the Dead Locust game plan.
“Yes, most of it,” said Little Jimmy. His voice was soft.
Weak. Losing a couple of tight ends is no excuse to abandon the halfback running game. There are a myriad of halfback runs that don’t involve a tight end blocking at the point of attack. You can run to the other side of the offensive line, the left side, the side without the tight end, the side with Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, two of the best run blockers in football. The 49ers do it all the time.
You can run power runs to the left. They’re called weak-side leads. You can run toss-sweeps to the left. You can run draws to the right when you want to switch it up. These plays set up play-action passes, the foundation of the 49ers’ passing game.
These plays are basic. Harbaugh knows this stuff, has called these plays his entire coaching career. Frank Gore was so upset after the Cardinals game, felt so unappreciated, he prematurely cut short his postgame interview. He didn’t know what to say. Maybe he was concerned his coach had switched personalities.
Harbaugh should have called running plays and stuck with them on Sunday. He should have stuck to the 49ers’ identity, not given up on it so casually. Instead, he asked Kaepernick to win the game by himself.
Kaepernick was the 49ers’ leading rusher, rushed 13 times for 54 yards. Accounted for 92 percent of the 49ers’ total yards. Attempted just three play-action passes. Threw more than 15 yards downfield just four times.
The game plan had no cohesive theme throughout the game. One drive the 49ers would use five wide receivers. The next drive they’d use four. Next they’d use three. Then back to five. Like the 49ers’ offensive coaches were searching on the run for something that would work and found nothing other than Kaepernick’s ability to make plays on his own.
Changing the team’s identity before a game is a sure way to fail. It’s guaranteed. It makes players lose confidence in the coach. When you keep changing your identity you no longer know who you are. The Broncos aren’t suddenly going to be a run-first offense.
A coach has to believe in who he is, in who his team is. James Joyce didn’t all of a sudden say, “Screw it, I suck at writing,” and become Jimmy Joyce the painter.
Jimmy Harbaugh the head coach has to go. The Niners need Regular Jim.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.