SANTA CLARA – I would feel confident picking the 49ers to win on Sunday, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman gives me pause.
This is the kind of game he screws up.
Roman has had extra time to prepare for the Panthers’ No.2-ranked defense because the 49ers are coming off a bye week. It’s the extra prep time that gives me pause. Roman may outthink himself against a good defense.
Roman already has one of the biggest playbooks in the NFL. It’s so big and heavy the team stopped printing it and now they give it to players on iPads. And every game, Roman puts more than 120 plays in the game plan, enough plays to play two full games.
In the NFL, when coaches have extra time to study an opponent, very often the coaches make a game plan that’s too big and too exotic. If any coach would make this mistake, it’s Roman.
In the Super Bowl, Roman had two weeks to prepare for the Ravens. His game plan was so convoluted, the 49ers couldn’t even get the first play right – Michael Crabtree lined up in the wrong spot and the offense was flagged for an illegal formation even though Vernon Davis caught a 20-yard pass. Forget that completion.
After the 49ers’ bye week in 2011, they played the Browns and Roman actually called a pass to the Niners’ left tackle, Joe Staley.
Roman loves to call new, exotic plays that make him look creative and daring and I wouldn’t be surprised if this week’s game plan is full of those brain busters.
Roman should forget the brain busters and focus on getting the ball to someone besides Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin or Vernon Davis. Roman rode those three players the first half of the season and didn’t develop any other weapons. Super Bowl teams almost always have more than three weapons. And it may take more than three weapons to score on the Panthers’ defense, which shut down the Seahawks’ offense earlier in the season, although the Panthers lost the game.
I asked Roman on Thursday if it’s a priority for him to establish another threat in his offense.
“We’re just going to run our offense,” he said.
So, in other words, no, it is not a priority for him to establish another weapon.
“You can’t wish people open against this defense,” Roman explained. “They’re too good. They’ve created too many turnovers and their offense has been very opportunistic converting those turnovers into points. So, it’s more of a big-picture thing than just this guy, that guy. If coverage dictates throw the ball to Bruce (Miller), we throw it to Bruce. That’s how you play winning football.”
Call that the Roman Doctrine: Winning football equals taking what the defense gives you.
Maybe that’s true, although Roman tried to take what the defense gave him at the end of the Super Bowl and he came up empty-handed because the defense wasn’t in a giving mood.
I just can’t help but notice that the Roman Doctrine contradicts the Bill Walsh Principle. You may have heard of Walsh. He was a coach for the 49ers in the 1970s and ’80s, pretty good coach.
Walsh always established four or five offensive players as weapons in the first 15 plays of the game. He didn’t let the defense’s coverage change that.
Walsh scripted the first 15 plays, and later he scripted more plays, to get a look at how the defense would respond to each player and each play. Call it a diagnostic. Walsh wanted to be able to accurately anticipate how the defense would react to those plays later on. He was scouting the defense and setting the stage for big plays at key moments.
Roman may disapprove of the Walsh Principle. Roman may consider establishing five weapons early in the game as losing football because it’s “wishing people open.” But Walsh did win three Super Bowls, so maybe he knew something about winning football without wishing.
Walsh would not have made the mistake of overstuffing a game plan after a bye week. Walsh would have spent the off week scouting his own team and analyzing the stats and indentifying his top-producing plays.
He would have eliminated the plays that had not worked. His game plan for the Panthers’ game would be smaller than usual – only the best plays.
If Roman follows Walsh’s approach, the 49ers will beat the Panthers. But I think Roman will be himself and the 49ers will lose a close game they should win. Call it the Fall of the Roman Empire.
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.