For the last two seasons the 49ers have finally enjoyed continuity at the position of offensive coordinator. Most 49ers fans considered themselves lucky to have Greg Roman stick around last year, especially after his flirtations with Penn State.
2013’s coaching carousel is now churning and Roman’s name is in the hat again, this time being tied to several different head coaching jobs, including most recently the Jacksonville Jaguars:
If Roman ends up leaving, would it change the fortune of the 49ers’ offense? In 2011 he was a messiah with his fingerprints on Alex Smith’s revival, but things have not gone as smoothly for Roman this season. In fact, several of his decisions have ended up as considerable question marks, the most criticized probably being the botched Ted Ginn pitch against the Rams.
While that may be the play people point to most in explaining their willingness to move on from Roman, it’s not the only gaff he’s made. The 49ers have done quite a bit of midseason experimentation this year, and though some of it worked, some moves also proved detrimental:
- Roman seemed to lean heavily toward using the pistol offense, only to all but abandon it last Sunday against the Cardinals. Was this a failed experiment? Frank Gore told the Monterey Herald he “can’t hit the hole that fast in the pistol.” Perhaps that has contributed to Gore’s recent rushing slump.
- The in-huddle play-calling design, which features long-winded wording containing two different plays, has caused some play clock issues with the 49ers this year, something I documented.
- The jumbo formation destroyed defenses early in the season, but doesn’t seem to be fooling anybody now.
Did all of these new wrinkles hamper the 49ers’ regular season offense?
The answer is no. Even with the ever-changing philosophies and the mid-season quarterback switch, San Francisco’s offense improved from 2011 to 2012. First downs, yards, completion percentage and red zone efficiency are all up. Their third down conversion rate is also up six points to 35%; obviously better than last year, although it still leaves them ranked 25th in the league. Nevertheless, the 49ers improved in their second year with Roman as offensive coordinator.
The question that will remain unanswered is whether Roman has affected the progress or (as Tre9er pointed out to me on Twitter) if it’s more the result of personnel improvements. Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith both turned out to be highly efficient passers this year. In Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, the 49ers have three running backs who can move the chains. While the run game’s improvements may also speak well of the offensive line, the decrease in sacks allowed points to improvements in pass blocking as well. These factors produce a chicken and egg situation when it comes to Roman: are the 49ers playing well in Roman’s system or are the 49ers making Roman’s system look good?
Ultimately, the 49ers found more than offensive success with Roman as the play caller: they continued to trend upward in his second year, despite some major mid-season alterations. With Harbaugh staying put and quarterback coach Geep Chryst likely taking over coordinating duties, the 49ers would presumably be in good hands if Roman leaves. But by no means will the 49ers be happy to see Roman go. He may have gotten a little too much credit early this season, and he has probably taken too much flack recently. Regardless of the ebb and flow in terms of public opinion, the optimal result would be to keep Roman in a coaching role where the 49ers have had so much trouble maintaining continuity over the past decade.