SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The 2014 season was supposed to be Jim Harbaugh and former offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s masterpiece.
An offense that had come so close to supplementing the San Francisco 49ers’ elite defense was going to be complete. The receiving corps was finally healthy and deep, the offensive line was still one of the best in football, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick was entering his third full season as starter, promising to correct the mistakes that prevented him from beating Seattle in that January epic of a conference title game. San Francisco was poised to get over the hump and win that elusive title.
That was the plan last summer. But, obviously, things didn’t work out.
Ten months later, the 49ers have undergone a total regime shift. It came after Harbaugh’s offense failed to hit its stride after being burdened with those sky-high expectations. Of course, far more went into splitting from Harbaugh than just the regression of his offense. But it was a significant part of it.
And now, former quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst is tasked with remaking Harbaugh and Roman’s offense. This time, the expectations aren’t weighing down the boat. Chryst is playing with house money. But, more importantly, he’s using his experience working underneath Harbaugh and Roman to correct the mistakes he saw first hand.
Perhaps that was the appeal of promoting Chryst from position to coach to offensive coordinator. And perhaps general manager Trent Baalke and new head coach Jim Tomsula thought the best way to correct an offense that finished 25th in scoring was find a coordinator that knew all the parties involved. Chryst could use his familiarity with everything that went wrong in 2014, and do his best to correct an underachieving offense.
Through the truncated scope of the 49ers’ offseason program, it looks like Chryst is targeting two areas to improve, as mandated from the head coach and GM. The offense has been working on its tempo and aggressively pushing the ball down the field. Those points have been made obvious.
"Jimmy T, he knows more offense than he wants to give himself credit for,” Chryst said of his new boss, who used to coach the 49ers defensive line. “The offenses that have given him the most problems, are those that can create tempo.
"…But I think we’re trying to put together good plays back to back. And once you string plays together, first downs will follow, and eventually you’ll get into scoring territory… All athletes want to get into rhythm. Kap’s a great rhythm athlete. So one of the ways we can help him get into rhythm, and there’s no doubt that one of the easiest way to do it is to get in and out of the huddle with some tempo, and allow him to see what the defense is trying to do to take him away. And he’s bright enough and experienced enough and veteran enough right now, I think he’s embracing that."
Throughout the practices open to the media, the offense has routinely broke the huddle with at least 15 seconds left on the play clock. After a play ends, players quickly scatter all over the field. Offensive substitutions sprint from the sideline to the huddle amid coaches screaming for pace and calling out any loafers. You don’t want Tomsula to catch you walking between the lines, because he will make an example out of you.
The cause for the change in speed? The 49ers led the NFL in delay of game penalties in 2014, and found themselves constantly trying to push the limits of the play clock, to no avail, during Harbaugh’s tenure. That’s because the offense was designed to be deliberate. The running game was meant to dictate the tempo, which meant bleeding clock and demoralizing defenses. Harbaugh wanted to punch defenses in the mouth - with a big wind up.
Roman’s scheme often included calling two plays in the huddle, motioning players around before the snap to see if the defense was in man coverage or zone. Then the quarterback would check to the proper play or let the first play run. It was a timely and, at times, costly process.
It did not lend itself well to high-stress situations, like playing in Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, or trying to complete a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl. Perhaps being unable to finish off the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII was the first major stitch to come undone in the dynamic between Harbaugh’s staff and CEO Jed York’s front office.
San Francisco should have won that Super Bowl, which likely would have scored Harbagh a contract extension - and the equity to coach the team as he saw fit without executives weighing him down. His team was 4.5-point favorites to win that championship in New Orleans.
Getting to the line of scrimmage faster during the offseason program should promote quicker thinking when the season starts, which is football’s equivalent of swinging a weighted bat in an on-deck circle. The process might be heavy now with things sped up, but when the season starts, working quickly will be second nature.
"It allows us to put more pressure on the defense," Kaepernick said during minicamp. "Going along with that is cleaning up a lot of the offense so we aren’t in the huddle as long. We do a lot of studying during the week to make sure you know what the defense is doing and how they’re going to react to things. That gives you the ability to go up there and use that information."
It’s unlikely Chryst and Tomsula decide to turn the 49ers into Chip Kelly’s high-speed Philadelphia Eagles and play with a fast pace exclusively. But it’s clear San Francisco is trying to avoid playing catch up with the game clock in 2015, and would rather dictate the pace, fast or slow, to the opponent.
"You’re on offense, you’re on the offensive. You want to be able to do it on your terms," Tomsula said. "So, if we want to go faster, we want to be able to go faster. If we want to slow it down, we want to be able to slow it down…You want to be able to move at the speed in which you want to move for that particular time in the game or that situation, and if we see a defense that’s struggling getting people on the field, can we speed up. That’s simply what we’re working on."
New quarterbacks coach Steve Logan has been quick to champion the idea of pushing the ball down the field. And the 49ers should be much better at doing so, replacing Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson with pricey free-agent Torrey Smith and low-risk signing Jerome Simpson.
Both Smith and Simpson have shown their speed and knack for the big play during minicamp, giving the offense a dynamic it hasn’t had at the receiver position in recent seasons. Crabtree had average speed before tearing his Achilles in the offseason leading up to 2013, and was not the explosive player in and out of his cuts he was in the Super Bowl season when he had 1,105 yards - his only 1,000-yard season during his six in the league. Crabtree signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders this spring.
In fact, during the team’s three years of championship contention under Harbaugh, the offense got away with having just one explosive player to stretch defenses: tight end Vernon Davis.
Davis struggled with his health in 2014, and it impacted the offense greatly. Teams continued to stack the box to jam up San Francisco’s running attack, and didn’t have to commit extra resources to prevent Davis from speeding down the seam. Davis sustained knee and back injuries that forced Roman to come up creative ways open space, which meant more spread formations with multiple receivers, taking away some of the physicality of the running game.
It led to the 49ers being one of the least explosive offenses in football in 2014, which Logan hopes to change by emphasizing the use of Kaeperncik’s big arm.
"Explosion plays, that’s where you making your living," Logan says. "Go look at any touchdown drive. Well, every now and then, you’ll get a 16-play touchdown drive, or a 12-play touchdown drive, it’s first, second, third-down, and you convert. But most touchdown drives are made up of first down, second down, third down, first down, explosion play, touchdown. That’s where we want to live. And Colin, he can give you that."
"We’ve got some new toys to play with in Torrey Smith and Reggie (Bush) and get Vernon Davis up and running again. We’ve got a wonderful cast of characters for Colin to work with. He’s still, for instance, getting to know Torrey Smith. What’s Torrey Smith’s body language? What is his speed? We’re finding out he can run exactly as fast as he needs to at any given moment."
Smith had 11 receiving touchdowns last season, despite averaging a career-low 48 yards per game. His best season, yardage-wise, came in 2013, when he amassed 1,128 and averaged 17.4 per catch. He compliments fellow starter Anquan Boldin far better than Crabtree, whose skill set was more of a replication as a possession receiver.
Through their work together this offseason, it’s clear Smith is becoming one of Kaepernick’s favorite targets, particularly on plays deep down field. Smith’s speed has been apparent, and a welcome sight considering how the receiving corps lacked that extra gear. The same is true of Simpson, who has shown a knack for winning jump balls against smaller defenders thanks to his outrageous leaping ability, which has been a trademark throughout his six years in the NFL.
The 49ers averaged 19.1 points per game last season, after averaging 28 points in Kaepernick’s six playoff games as the starting quarterback in the previous two winters. With training camp set to start at the end of July, the hope around the team’s headquarters in Santa Clara is the struggles of 2014 become a correctable blip on the radar, and not a sign of an offense - and quarterback - that have been figured out.