49ers: Kyle Shanahan Offensive Installation; How Close Are We?

After leading the Atlanta Falcons to the number two offense in the NFL last season and helping Falcons Quarterback Matt Ryan become league MVP, Kyle Shanahan takes over the Head Coaching and Offensive Coordinator duties for the San Francisco 49ers. To be successful at either of these roles, Shanahan is going to have to oversee an offensive ranking improvement from last in the league to seeing this offense return to the ranks of respectable and into the top 10.


How Did We Get Here?

The past three seasons in Santa Clara have not been kind to the 49ers offense. After ranking near the top of the league under then Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh, and then offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, the offense under Head Coaches Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly have been downright ugly to watch, and the 2016 offense ranking of almost dead last, 31st, shows just how far this offense has fallen. One could say that learning a new system will have players playing slower, while two consecutive years of changes to personnel and philosophy have heaped more weight on the shoulders of this unit than any one offense should have to bear.

Former starting quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick combined last season for a quarterback rating of 79.5, 21 touchdowns and 10 Interceptions on 3,166 yards passing (with Kaepernick carrying most of the load), and as we all know, just two wins in 16 games and defeating only one team in 2016, the Los Angeles Rams. Last season starting running back Carlos Hyde still had not topped 1,000 yards in his two seasons as the team’s starter. No wide receiver has come close to 1,000 yards, with Jeremy Kerley leading the team with 667 yards on the season. The offensive line opened up rushing lanes for opposing defenders while surrendering 47 sacks, ranking 30th in that category last season.

Needless to say, with numbers that low, changes across the board needed to take place. But as mentioned earlier, changing personnel and schemes is a recipe for disaster. So General Manager  John Lynch teamed with Shanahan to mitigate one of those issues by bringing in players who not only fit the profile of what Shanahan wants from this players, but those that can produce, and have produced, as part of a Shanahan-led offense.

Expediting the Learning Curve with Familiarity

Of the eight offensive free agents brought in by Lynch and Shanahan in the first days of free agency, four had played and produce for Shanahan at previous stops along his career. Quarterback Brian Hoyer threw for 3,326 yards in 2014, his one season with Shanahan. Wide Receiver Pierre Garcon had his best season catching 113 passes for 1,346 yards in 2013, his last season with Shanahan. Aldrick Robinson has been with Shanahan in Washington and Atlanta, having a nice season, and his most productive season for a wide receiver playing in the third and fourth receiver role with 20 receptions for 323 yards. Tight end Logan Paulsen has shown he can do the dirty work for a Shanahan-led offense. While these are only four players, this is half of the offensive free agent haul from the first days of free agency, and these players play positions that will help lessen the learning curve for the other players on offense who have not been with Shanahan previously.

As a quarterback, Hoyer can help the understanding of the offense (which a few NFL Analysts have called the most complicated offense in the league) as well as help others understand the language of the plays being called. When asked about going through the offensive installation for a second time Hoyer said, “It’s easier to call the plays this time around. I remember last time kind of having to think about it. Whereas now, when I hear Kyle start to call a play I can put it together.” Adding, “It’s something I don’t really think about anymore. It comes naturally to me.”

Garcon will be able to use his experience in the league and of this offense to help younger players become productive in their positions and learn to use their natural talents to maximize skills and thrive in this offense. Players like fifth round draft pick Trent Taylor and veteran free agent pickups like Marquise Goodwin, who is one of the fastest players in the entire league.

What the Players Are Saying

We won’t know until the second half of the 2017 season just how well the players have the system down. But from comments made during the recently completed OTA’s and Mini Camps we can gain an understanding of the confidence the offensive players have in the system and how open-minded they are to this system.

One positive came from offensive leader and starting left tackle Joe Staley who mentioned during a recent interview that, “The energy is back in the building – the excitement level and the attention to detail. I’m enjoying football again. I’m excited to come to work every single day. There were days the last few years where I couldn’t honestly say that.” Staley also commented about Shanahan, “(It’s) his overall knowledge of the game, the way he sees the game and schematically how he constructs his offense.”

These comments are similar to the statements made by many of the players on the offense.

In Conclusion: Mini Camps Show the Install is Taking Effect

With Shanahan’s documented knowledge, his attention to detail and the accountability standard he holds his players to, the process of installing the offense is well on its way. Plays such as the back-to-back play action strikes Hoyer completed to Goodwin and rookie tight end George Kittle shows the level of understanding the entire offense is gaining.

When explaining how play-action plays work, Hoyer gives us an idea of how the whole offense must be on the same page for those plays to be executed. “I think the general fan probably thinks it’s all between the running back and the quarterback, and I would say the majority of it is done by the offensive line,” Hoyer said. “When the offensive line comes off like it’s the run, you can see times where the linebackers are reacting to them. They’re not even looking at us. They’re looking at the offensive line’s intention as well as the fullback and the tight end.”

So while these were only two plays in an entire off-season of installation, the fact that on back-to-back plays the offensive unit executed to perfection, shows that Shanahan’s offense is being picked up well by the entire unit. Next stop is training camp where the installation will be put to its next phase, live defenses. Get your popcorn ready.

As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.

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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.comPro Football Focus49ers.comESPN.comNFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Edward Erving  Staff Writer at Niners Live, Co-Author, Editor Niners Live.

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