Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

12 Oct 2011

Harbaugh and How the 49ers Were Built

Jim Harbaugh's coaching resume is given the profile treatment by Chase Stuart over at the New York Times' Fifth Down blog.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 12 Oct 2011

18 comments, Last at 14 Oct 2011, 3:58pm by Dean


by Nathan :: Wed, 10/12/2011 - 4:00pm

But the 49ers continue to stick with the running game and have no doubts about their identity: they will be tough and physical, and are committed to running no matter what.

Gosh, what a change from the Singletary era...

by navin :: Wed, 10/12/2011 - 4:45pm

I believe that the high volume of runs were due to Harbaugh still installing his offense over the first 5 weeks of the season. Also, SF has had 4 close games until this past week's win over TB, so Harbaugh doesn't want turnovers resulting from the passing game.

If you watched week 5, the team ran a lot more WCO plays, slants, screens, traps. I think as the season goes on they'll settle into passing 50-55% of the time. Also, the dirty little secret of the older WCO offenses in SF were that they ran quite a bit. For example, the 1994 team that has the franchise record for points passed 511 times and ran 493 times. A team less involved in blowouts, the 1998 team (point differential of 75), ran 527 times and passed only 502 times.

by greybeard :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 2:20am

Actually in Singletary era 49ers run plays were 42% in 2009 and 45% in 2010. So Singletary talked the talk but did not walk the walk.

Having said that, Singletary did run the ball a lot on first downs. Everybody and their mothers knew that a run was coming.
On top of that 49ers had only 3 types of runs. Run behind the fullback between the tackles, run behind pulling Iupati between the tackles, line up Morgan as a receiver, then pull him behind LOS behind the guard and tackle and make him line up looking towards sideline to block the end and run between and tackles.

Harbaugh not only actually runs the ball as opposed to Singletary who wanted to run the ball but could not, but he can afford to run the ball. 49ers did not play much from behind this year (there were 22 snaps in eagles game where 49ers were behind by 10 points to make them pass more than run).

On top of that Harbaugh's running plays have much more variaty, he pulls Snyder, Davis, Staley and Iupati. They run to outside the tackles (14 times in Tampa game, I believe), they send the fullback to one side and run the RB to the other side so the defense cannot key on the fullback to know where the running back is.

Besides those differences it is exactly like Singletary era.

by Independent George :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 11:43am

Besides those differences it is exactly like Singletary era

Plus, people keep their trousers on longer.

by Jimmy :: Fri, 10/14/2011 - 7:27am

In retrospect Singletary got way too much of a pass on that one. HOF player everyone remembers so it was 'passionate' and not 'really, really dumb' or 'a shockingly poor way to motivate professional athletes'.

by Dean :: Fri, 10/14/2011 - 10:19am

I disagree. He got a pass because it was funny. I think it's safe to say that the motivational enviornment of an NFL locker room - especially on game day - is significantly different from that of, say, the typical corporate office. When your audience is 50 men under 40, you can lighten up... ...your belt.

by BaronFoobarstein :: Fri, 10/14/2011 - 2:32pm

I'm sure I'm missing some key piece of data required to understand what you two are talking about.

by Dean :: Fri, 10/14/2011 - 3:58pm

We're talking about Singletary dropping trau at halftime of a game. It's not like it was a board meeting or anything.

by Fargo :: Wed, 10/12/2011 - 5:16pm

I think before we all jump on the Alex Smith bandwagon too quickly, you have to point out that his improvement this year has been in terms of efficiency and limiting mistakes. He's not exactly passing for huge yards at the moment, but he's completing 66% of his passes and not getting picked. So he's really playing the perfect kind of football to complement a strong rushing attack, which after a couple of false starts in the first few weeks, we seem to have again (although who knows, maybe it's just the run D's of the Eagles and Bucs).

I think wanting to be a running team primarily is good sense from Harbaugh (when you look at Gore, Hunter and our highly drafted O-Line vs Smith and his rotating cast of #2/#3 WRs), rather than an abandonment of his supposed WCO origins.

It's better to be lucky than to be good.

by Boo-urns (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 7:57pm

Without sounding hyperbolic, this team reminds me a bit of the first Brady Pats team. QB was mostly conservative by design, but occasionally opened it up, good defense, mistake-free football, good special teams, and a lot of field position battles.

I would point out that Alex Smith has played that role pretty well so far (including throwing for yardage as needed). but go back to that season, and you'll see some really amazingly low passing totals for brady. i think he may have even had a game under 100 yards, iirc.

by therealjasonb (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 11:43am

Also, while I do think the 49ers are easily the best team in the NFC West, until Ginn blew the game open with his returns this was a team that had a very good chance of losing to the Seahawks--who actually had more yards than the 49ers.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 12:37pm

Yes, it kind of creeps me out how much attention the 49ers are getting all of a sudden. They played 14 mediocre quarters of football, or so it seemed, and then 6 good quarters, and suddenly everyone is talking them up, even DVOA.

Et tu, DVOA?

Maybe the offense was so shockingly meager to start because of the lockout and Harbaugh still installing things &c., or maybe they're just not that great of an offense. Some of the defenses they played against are starting to look pretty good, though -- Cincinatti and Dallas in particular. Still their o-line has looked horrible for most of the season.

Maybe their defense is pretty good or maybe they just haven't played any good offenses. The only one that even cracks the top half of the board is Philly's.

I think it's way too soon to be pushing them into the top 10. Or mabye I've just been beaten into pessimism by 8 straight years of horrible football. How in the heck are Detriot fans able to be this happy about their team?

The game in Detroit will tell a lot, that's for sure. Hope Iupati can play...they'll need him this week more than most.

by AnonymousD (not verified) :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 4:03pm

I'd say Dallas has a good offense as well. Their DVOA isn't that good (2.1%, 19th), mainly because the run DVOA seemingly accounts for a disproportionately large piece of the offensive DVOA. The ability to pass effectively is much, much more critical than the ability to run so I take their ranking a bit with a grain of salt (for instance they're 2nd in offensive efficiency by Brian Burke's metrics).

I don't have the DVOA splits for that game, but Dallas had some impressive numbers. 7.2 yards per play on 66 plays, 9.7 net yards per attempt (for reference New England leads the league at 9.2 NY/A). They did that while Romo was ineffective most of the first half because of injury, and with Dez Bryant unavailable.

With all that said I think their D is legitimately good, especially the front 7. I've seen 2 1/2 of their games - Dallas, @Philadelphia, first half against Seattle - and J. Smith, McDonald, Willis, and Bowman were all impressive.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 8:30pm

Brian Burke has Dallas as the best team in the league, right? Houston is also high, like #4, and Tampa Bay and Atlanta are the worst teams in the league by his metrics.

I'm suspicious -- I haven't spent the time to get my mind around his methodology, but I can't find special teams anywhere, for instance.

by greybeard :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 5:11pm

People keep repeating this and it makes no sense to me. There were 4 minutes left before the first Ginn TD when the score was 17-19. 4 minutes is a very short time especially if the opponent has the ball.

After that point Seattle had two more possessions before the game ended and did not score once. How is in this alternative world Seattle is so good that there is a "very good chance" they they would win the game? They could not score in two drives, they went 3 and out on the first and and then gained 5 yards in 8 plays (+15 in penalties and lost a fumble) on the second. And they had the chance for the second driver since 49ers could not run the clock down because their offense never got on the field.

The estimated win percentage for Seattle was 25% when they scored that touchdown according to advancednflstats.com. That is not a very good change, or even a good chance. And that is with not considering how inept they were at the end of the game.

by greybeard :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 5:15pm

Also Seattle had 10 more yards but also had one extra drive.

by Joseph :: Thu, 10/13/2011 - 4:10pm

Okay--I've barely seen any of the 49ers, although I'm glad they manhandled the Bucs. But if Alex Smith is completing 2/3 of his passes without throwing picks, I would say this is a lot of improvement. First, a completed pass is almost always better than an incomplete pass. Second, an incomplete is almost always better than an INT--worst case scenario, you get to punt (which with Lee is not a bad thing). Third, if the offense is at least moving the ball a little bit (even without scoring), this gives the defense more rest and better field position--which results in better defensive play, which gives better field position so that the offense can score, etc.
I mean, look how (a lot of) QB improvement has helped the Panthers team in general. Last year, if you could put 17 points on the board, you had a victory. Now, 24 points probably means a loss.
Better QB + better coach=better team all around. Sometimes it really can be that simple.

by Anonymous(not that one) (not verified) :: Fri, 10/14/2011 - 3:50pm

49ers started 3-1 in 2009, right?
Pro athletes need motivating? Name one who says that. Brett Favre, Jason Taylor fling arrows at that junk.
Seriously, somebody find a pro athlete saying I need a coach to motivate me.