SANTA CLARA – The 49ers face a version of themselves this Sunday.
If the 49ers are a “Bob,” the Panthers are a “Roberto.”
For the most part, the 49ers and Panthers are the same team: Excellent, hard-hitting defenses. Quarterbacks who run and throw. Offenses built around running the ball. And coaches who are the sons of coaches – football brats. Jim Harbaugh is the son of Jack Harbaugh, the former college coach. And the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, Mike Shula, is the son of Don Shula, the Hall of Fame head coach.
The difference between Bob and Roberto – the “erto” – is the difference between Jim and Mike. Jim and Mike coach the passing game differently. Jim coaches a simplified passing game and Mike coaches a complicated passing game. The “erto” is a synonym for complicated.
Trent Dilfer, who played for Shula when Shula was the Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator from 1996 to 1999 and currently is an analyst for ESPN, recently told a Bay Area radio station there are no progressions in the 49ers’ passing game. “They’re calling a play for a defense, for a player and, if that play is called wrong, that second, third, fourth option isn’t going to get the ball very often. They don’t have the type of offensive structure and Colin isn’t the type of quarterback that there are five eligible receivers and anyone can get the ball.”
This style of passing offense allows coaches to do most of the thinking, and it makes quarterback, the most difficult position in sports, much easier to play: Just fire the ball to the primary receiver if he’s open and, if he’s covered, run for your life.
When the 49ers’ passing game is clicking and Kaepernick is hitting wide-open receiver after wide-open receiver, that means Greg Roman is guessing correctly. He’s calling plays designed to get one player open against the type of coverage he expects the opposing team to use on that play. When Roman guesses incorrectly, you don’t see Kaepernick reset his feet and find his second and third targets. There are no second and third targets. Those guys are decoys clearing space. When Roman guesses incorrectly, Kaepernick has to flip the ball to a running back in the flat, or scramble, or get sacked.
Sometimes Roman guesses correctly and the play fails anyway. This happened against the Packers last Sunday. Roman called a pass for Vernon Davis, who ran deep and out toward the right sideline and beat his man. Anquan Boldin was supposed to sprint to the end zone and clear space for Davis, but Boldin stopped sprinting 10 yards into his route and started jogging. Boldin knew he wasn’t getting the ball. He was a decoy, and receivers don’t run as hard when they are decoys. It’s human nature.
Tramon Williams, the Packers’ cornerback covering Boldin, saw him start to jog and stopped covering him. Williams saw Kaepernick wind up and throw to Davis. Williams broke on the pass and easily intercepted it.
Shula’s passing game does not work that way.
The success of Shula’s passing game does not depend on Shula guessing right. It depends on his quarterback, Cam Newton, making good decisions. This is the essence of the “erto.”
“A good decision means (Newton) is getting the ball out there on time, his feet are set, he’s going to the right guy,” Shula told the Charlotte Observer. “When he’s making those good decisions, we’ve won games.”
“I don’t think he’s just throwing to one particular guy anymore based on the pre-set,” Panthers’ tight end Greg Olsen said about Newton to the New York Daily News. “He’s letting the play kind of unfold the way it’s designed and goes bang, bang, bang. It takes him to the right guy more times than not. That’s when you’re playing quarterback at a high level.”
You never hear Harbaugh talk about Kaepernick that way.
Last Monday before the 49ers played the Packers, a reporter asked Harbaugh where Kaepernick has made his biggest strides this season. “Been durable,” said Harbaugh. “Been there for every snap. Makes the throws when the throws need to be made.”
In other words, he did what we asked him to do.
The 49ers have had success playing it simple. Kaepernick makes fewer mistakes than Newton. Kaepernick threw just eight interceptions, and Newton threw 13.
But complex has its advantages, too.
Newton converts third downs more often than Kaepernick does. Third down tends to be a passing down. Passing downs are easier to convert if there are three or four different receivers a quarterback can throw to.
And Newton doesn’t need great receivers – he doesn’t have any. Kaepernick does. Kaepernick needs Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, or else the other team can double-cover Kaepernick’s primary receiver, and then Kaepernick is out of options.
Newton can make ordinary receivers dangerous because of Shula’s offensive scheme. Ted Ginn Jr. is the perfect example. He was on the 49ers last season and caught just two passes because Roman almost never called plays for him. This season, Ginn is a Panther and has caught 36 passes and 5 touchdowns because whenever he’s on the field, he’s part of a progression. He gets the ball when he’s open and Newton decides to throw it to him.
I’m not glorifying Shula’s passing game. If Newton throws three interceptions on Sunday, it won’t look so good. On the other hand if Kaepernick converts just two third downs, Harbaugh’s passing game won’t look so good, either.
Which is better, simple or complex? That’s what this game will determine. It’s about the value of added “erto.”
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.