Is the Niners offense evolving?

Greg Cosell just wrote a blog on football theory which I find interesting, and you can read here. He asks why NFL teams don’t structure their offenses around great running backs anymore.

As we know, the 49ers spent much of the last decade building an offense around a great running back – Frank Gore.

Gore rushed 282 times last season for 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns. The Niners offense attempted the third-most rushes in the NFL last season, and this offseason general manager Trent Baalke added two more running backs to the team – LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs.

Under Mike Singletary, the Niners were a run-first team – the antithesis of modern football. Today, Harbaugh wants his Niners offense to maintain a balance between the run and the pass, which means they’ll continue to rank towards the top of the league in rushing attempts because the rest of the NFL has gone pass-happy.

Why has the league gone pass-happy? One theory is the pass forces the defense to defend the whole field, while the run only makes the defense defend the line of scrimmage. In other words, it’s easier to stop the run than it is to stop the pass.

Jim Harbaugh inherited an old-style offense, and he nearly won a Super Bowl with it last season, but he seems to be modernizing it on the fly. Is that the right thing to do? Cosell thinks so.

He says teams that feature the run tend to score fewer points and play a lot of close games. “If your offense controlled the ball, and the clock, but did not score touchdowns, as was often the case, then all you’ve accomplished is shortening the game for yourself,” Cosell writes. “You get fewer opportunities to score and you’re not built to aggressively attack with the passing game. It’s a catch-22 that ultimately fails.

“You will face third-and-long…Make no mistake, third-and-long is the quarterback’s down. He has to make tough throws, often in tight windows, against the best of what the defensive coordinators have to offer. If you do not have a quarterback who can do that, you have no chance to contend for anything meaningful.”

Clearly, these ideas apply to the 49ers last season, particularly the NFC championship game in which the Niners couldn’t convert a meaningful third down against the Giants, and so they lost because of Kyle Williams’ special teams blunder in overtime.

Will Cosell’s points apply to next season’s team? Not necessarily. The Niners signed two wide receivers in free agency – Randy Moss and Mario Manningham – and drafted another one in the first round – A.J. Jenkins. The implication is the passing attack will actually be an attack next season.

It seems Harbaugh and the Niners are evolving along with the rest of the league.

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