This is my Saturday column.
Of course, we saw the 49ers win Week 1. But what did we really see? Who really mattered, and who really didn’t?
Like Anquan Boldin, did he matter? Is he still the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver and go-to guy on offense, or is San Francisco beginning to phase him out? He certainly seemed like an afterthought when he caught just four passes for 36 yards against the Vikings.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about the people who figured prominently in the victory Week 1. Let’s talk about head coach Jim Tomsula and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst. What did we see from them?
We saw them discover a competitive advantage. On the first play of the game — a run play, during which running back Carlos Hyde gained 9 yards — the Niners used three tight ends.
Offenses almost never start games with three tight ends. Teams usually start with one tight end, two running backs and two wide receivers—that’s standard. What Tomsula and Chryst did to start Week 1 was unusual and creative, maybe even revolutionary.
And then they did something even more radical. They kept using three tight ends, used them 33 times — more than any team has used three tight ends in one game the past 10 years — and averaged 6.3 yards per play with those formations, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That’s an outstanding average.
The rest of the NFL is not prepared to stop the Niners’ three-tight-end sets. Tomsula and Chryst found a personnel grouping that works, a personnel grouping that no other offense uses extensively.
The Niners have to keep using it until some team stops it. And that’s what the Niners did Week 1. They shoved their three-tight-end formations down the Vikings’ throat. “Give us one reason to stop using it.” That was the message. The Vikings had no response.
“Maybe (we) didn’t have to get to other parts, other corners of the call sheet because we were having success with that,” Chryst said Thursday morning.
In other words, he called what was working. He didn’t outthink himself. He kept things simple.
His predecessor, offensive coordinator Greg Roman, was the king of outthinking himself. If he were calling the 49ers’ offensive plays Monday night, he probably never would have used three-tight-end formations. Or, if he did, he would have used them two or three times so he could save them for Week 10. Or he’d forget about them altogether. That was his style. He’d let opposing teams off the hook by not sticking to his most successful plays.
One quick example: Week 9 last season, the 49ers played the Rams. During that game, San Francisco’s offense averaged 8.6 yards per rush on “Counter” runs. But Roman, strangely, called only three of them, and the Niners lost 13-10.
A few days later, I asked Roman why he didn’t call more counters.
“That’s something you can always look back at and ask,” Roman said. “I’d say, generally speaking, down-and-distance situations may have taken us out of exactly what we wanted to do. But the point is well taken.”
The point was so well taken Roman is now calling playing in Buffalo.
Down-and-distance situations didn’t stop Chryst from using his best formation Week 1, whatever down-and-distance situations are. Isn’t every play a down-and-distance situation?
But enough about Roman and the past. Let’s get back to people who matter, like Garrett Celek, the third-string tight end who hardly played the past few years. Now, he’s an integral member of the offense.
“He’s a really good player,” Tomsula said Friday morning. “He runs. He catches. He’s smart. You can use him in a lot of ways.”
Celek’s playing time comes at the expense of fullback Bruce Miller, who used to be an essential member of the offense, but not anymore. He played just 11 snaps Week 1. He was an afterthought.
Miller is a fantastic fullback, but he doesn’t make catches downfield and the Niners can’t use him in multiple ways. He’s a lead blocker who makes an occasional catch in the flat. He’s highly specialized, and his specialization no longer fits the Niners’ varied offense.
Same goes for Boldin, perhaps a future Hall of Famer. But he is highly specialized, too. He is not downfield threat, not a fast runner. He’s a possession receiver. He’s a third-down go-to guy. He may be an anachronism in the new 49ers way of doing things.
His skillset doesn’t complement three-tight-end formations. Those are heavy running formations which invite opposing defenses to load the box and play close to the line of scrimmage. A possession receiver invites defenses to play even closer to the line of scrimmage, because he can’t beat anyone deep. Extensive use of Boldin could be counterproductive.
Niners’ No. 2 receiver Torrey Smith, an extremely fast runner, is a much better fit for three-tight-end sets, because can catch the long touchdown pass if the defense overcommits to stopping the run. Smith may become the No. 1 receiver as the season progresses, while Boldin may become the guy who plays just on third down.
What I’ve outlined could be the template for San Francisco’s three-tight-end attack. It is interesting and bold. The Niners certainly need to see where it takes them.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.