Alex Smith

49ers refuse to throw the ball, win anyway

As we all know, the 49ers aren’t passing a whole lot. It’s one of the reasons why they’ve been able to limit the number of interceptions they’ve thrown, why Frank Gore has ran for 100 yards in five straight games, and why the next NFL copycat craze is going to be really crazy. Are you ready? Brace yourselves…


It’s going to be revolutionary. Only the most brilliant minds in coaching are confident enough to risk their jobs by moving in this direction. Here’s the 411: if you run the ball (hold on, stay with me), even if the play is a total failure yardage-wise the clock keeps running! The true football gurus are figuring this out before everyone else, but pretty soon it’s going to be all the rage.

If I was on one of those NFL studio shows I’d say “BUY BALANCED OFFENSES,” before bulking up my tie with another windsor knot or two. Quadruple windsor, kid. Eat it, Merrill Hoge!

If the NFL was truly going to become an Arena-esque passing league, personnel had to change with it. And with these lighter safeties, along with linebackers (and sometimes even defensive linemen) who were judged more on their coverage abilities than ever before, defenses aren’t built to stop a bunch of huge offensive linemen and tight ends blocking for an elite running back with a chip on his shoulder.

Fewer than 30 passes per game

One of the fun things about caring about the halfway point of the season is projecting stats is really easy. Multiply by two!

The Niners have thrown 209 passes this season, good for 32nd out of 32 teams. They’ll almost surely end up throwing the fewest passes in the NFL over the course of the entire season if they end up with 418 (that’s right, no calculator required — don’t act like you’re not impressed).

But the 49ers have had a pretty conservative offense for a while now, right? Jimmy Raye didn’t know he was fired last year until he received a telegram. However, the 49ers were a run and shoot team last year compared to how what they’ve done in Greg Roman’s first season as the team’s offensive coordinator, as the 2010 49ers attempted 500 passes, good for 22nd (the Bears attempted the fewest passes with 466, and finished with a record of 11-5).

The 49ers are attempting 26.1 passes per game this season. Since 1979 (Bill Walsh’s first year as 49ers head coach), they’ve thrown fewer than 30 passes per game only three times:

2006: 27.8 per game (Norv)

2005: 24.3 per game (Alex Smith’s rookie year, which also included heavy doses of Ken Dorsey and Cody Pickett, when Tim Rattay led the team in QB rating at 70.3, unless you count Arnaz Battle completing 2-of-2 passes for a rating of 118.5)

1997: 27 per game (when their defense was No. 1 in yards allowed, Jerry Rice was lost for the season in Week 2 and Steve Young suffered multiple concussions)

This isn’t to say that passing less means a team will win more. That said, there are several reasons why how the Niners are running their offense this year makes sense.

1. Smith’s in his first year in this offense. All week I’m covering the lead-up to the Stanford/Oregon game for Comcast SportsNet Northwest, and in the process of writing a story about Andrew Luck I learned that in his first season (2009) Luck only attempted 30 or more passes in four games — all Stanford losses — as Luck went 8-4 that year as a starter. Harbaugh opened things up quite a bit in 2010, but Luck still only averaged 28.6 attempts per game (Luck has thrown 32 passes per game this year, and he’s also running less).

2. The Niners were without Braylon Edwards for several weeks and Joshua Morgan was placed on Injured Reserve right around the time it looked like his career might take off. And because the running game is paramount and the 49ers don’t have 15 tight ends who weigh more than 250 pounds like Stanford does, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are often needed to block.

3. The 49ers have enjoyed leads of at least 14 points or more in five of their eight games.

4. They’ve allowed the fewest rushing yards and touchdowns in the NFL, leading opponents to rush less against the 49ers than any other team. Teams don’t even try to run against San Francisco in the fourth quarter. It’s kind of ridiculous, how few rushing attempts the 49ers have faced this season. If the Niners themselves don’t run the ball, their games would never end.

The Niners might become more of a passing team by the end of the year as Edwards breaks in and Harbaugh and Roman become more comfortable with letting Smith take some chances. But if they make the playoffs (and with their magic number to clinch the NFC West currently at an extremely absurd 4, it looks rather likely), their first postseason game will probably feature a contrast of styles — regardless of who they face.

One of those teams that could be fighting the 49ers for a first round bye is the one coming to San Francisco this Sunday. For what it’s worth, the New York Giants are on pace to throw 560 passes this season (35 per game). The health of Hakeem Nicks is going to be a big story this week, although even if he doesn’t play the Giants will probably attempt at least 8 or 9 more passes than the 49ers. For the 49ers, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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