The scribes seemed particularly interested in Colin Kaepernick and the read option Thursday when Greg Roman hit the podium at 49ers headquarters. They poked and prodded at Roman, trying to get hints from him about his regular season game plan. They wanted to know if the 49ers were planning on utilizing during the regular season the scheme that worked so successfully with Colin Kaepernick in the preseason. Roman had this to say about running read option packages with Kaepernick:
This might be a little bit of the gameplan, so I apologize in advance, but how do you feel philosophically about dropping Kaepernick in for a series or two every game?
ROMAN: I think you definitely discuss it. But we have full confidence in Alex. We like when Alex is out there leading us.
I think Kap gives you the flexibility to be able to talk about that and feel good about it and plan for it. I think it’s just good change of pace and makes the defense prepare for something different. So, it’s definitely a possibility.
Of course, trying to decipher the true from the false in a discussion with any member of the 49ers’ coaching staff is like solving a riddle (what’s red and gold and read all over?). Just for fun, let’s take Roman’s comments at face value for a moment. If the 49ers really plan on using Kaepernick situationally this season, it is yet another parallel that can be drawn to a successful head coach of years past.
To the Delorean!
In preparation for the season I’ve been reading The Genius by David Harris, a Bill Walsh biography. I just recently reached the portion of the book detailing the 49ers’ 1979 and 1980 seasons. The ’79 season was an unsuccessful one in which Walsh finished his first year as the 49ers’ head coach at 2-14.
Walsh had taken quarterback Joe Montana in the third round of the 1979 draft, and though the average fan probably couldn’t tell, he had plans for the Notre Dame alum. Steve DeBerg was the quarterback at the time, but Montana was the quarterback of the future. Walsh wanted to get him acclimated to the speed of the NFL, and this was how he did it:
That first season (1979), Joe saw very limited action after the preseason. Walsh’s plan was to “spoon feed” Montana. “It was a matter of developing his readiness by using him in situations where he had a good chance to be successful,” Bill explained. Walsh had seen a lot of players at the position demoralized by too much early exposure to the NFL pass rush and wanted to avoid that at all costs. Usually, he would insert Joe into games in the second quarter for a series.
Quarterbacks “demoralized by too much early exposure to the NFL pass rush,” eh? That sounds familiar.
“In practice,” Bill remembered, “we worked repeatedly on specific plays with Joe. When he was placed in a game, we called only those plays, because he could be confident that he could execute them.” He was also used in situations where his mobility was called for.
Walsh’s plan to get Montana comfortable carried over into the 1980 season, when DeBerg started a few games before getting pulled in favor of Montana. But Walsh’s coaching philosophy, especially when it comes to quarterbacks, had worked. He got his pupil comfortable at game speed by allowing them to do what they did best first. The more difficult aspects of the game, or Montana’s deficiencies, were address later, after he was comfortable with playing at the professional level.
No two coaches are ever going to take completely parallel paths, but some similarities between Walsh and Harbaugh’s are eerie. Both spent time as assistant coaches with the Oakland Raiders. Both spent time revitalizing the football program at Stanford. Both moved on from The Farm to take the reins in San Francisco.
Beyond that, however, there is little room for comparison: Walsh spent time with the Cincinnati Bengals before going on to coach in the college ranks, while Harbaugh did not. Harbaugh had an extremely successful career as a quarterback, both collegiately and professionally; Walsh’s tenure as a quarterback ended after two years at the College of San Mateo. Harbaugh’s success with the 49ers was immediate; it wasn’t until Walsh’s third year as 49ers’ head coach in 1981 that the team had a winning record – the season that saw the 49ers win their first Super Bowl.
But the philosophy utilized by these men to groom quarterbacks appears to provide an apt comparison. Jim Harbaugh did it with Alex Smith last year: knowing that the strength of the 49ers was ball control, he only asked Alex to take risks in situations “where he had a good chance to be successful.” His patience with Smith’s deficiencies was one of Harbaugh’s most important strengths. Where other coaches had thrown Smith into the fire far too early and found nothing but failure, Harbaugh only asked Smith to put the team on his shoulders when it was truly necessary. Now he may get Kaepernick involved – the same way that Walsh got Montana involved early in his NFL career.
If that is indeed the plan, we can add foresight to the list of similarities between these two men. Because if Harbaugh plays Kaepernick this season, it won’t be with one victory in mind; he’ll really be preparing the quarterback for future victories.