Roman holiday or horror story?

Here is my Friday column on the 49ers’ upcoming game against the Panthers.

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 grantcohn@gmail.com.

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      1. Grant : That is like saying I would pick Grant to be the greatest authority but I can’t stand his dad so he is sorry. Oh I forgot that is pretty much the truth.

    1. Grant,

      I was with you until your statement of getting others involved on offense. Is this the game to do that? Roman should not out smart himself? Yes. But, why not stay with what has worked the past 5 weeks? Carolina might believe they can stop the 49ers run attack with their front 7. Bring it on if they do. This will be a bludgeoning and the Niners will roll to a 38-13 victory.

  1. If the 49ers offense does poorly Sunday I think it will be because of the Panthers excellent defense. A better measure might be when the 49ers play a mediocre defense after a bye.

    It may even look like Roman over-reach, but against good defenses yardage sometimes has to be painstakingly manufactured when the bread n butter plays get shut down.

      1. That he was right about who would win and that his premise was wrong. There were no exotic plays or overthinking. The Niners just lost a game because they couldn’t come up with anything to counter what they had thrown at them.

  2. I will have to agree with Grant on this one, Roman can be his own worst enemy at times. Consevative play calling, lack of imagination at the wrong time as well as inability to do anything with less than a first rate receiver.

  3. Grant, I think you’re mistaking “taking what the defense gives you” with strategic and tactical advantages. Remember that philosophically the Harbaugh /Roman offense is a ground and pound flavor of the West Coast Offense.

    So while I agree that Roman has a tendency to always zig to the opponent’s zag, I think he still tries for strategic and tactical advantage. The problem is that I don’t think he adjusts well.

    Like many of the WCO disciples, Roman scripts his first 20 or so plays. Scripting is done to see how a defense will respond to a certain kind of attack. When things don’t go as Roman plans, I think he has a hard time adjusting and going back to what the Niners do best. Sometimes the best match up or strategy is to dictate and do what you do best if other things aren’t working.

    I’m guessing the play calling might start with attempting to run against the Panther’s 7 man front with 2 deep safeties (which is I think their base defense). I don’t think they’ll pass much unless they can draw that 2nd safety towards the box with successful runs. Maybe we’ll actually see some LaMichael James and some swing passes and some screens?

  4. Grant sez:
    “… It’s the extra prep time that gives me pause. Roman may outthink himself against a good defense….”

    He might .. then again ..
    he might not !

    It’s been my experience, Grant, if you spend too much
    time worrying about worse case scenerios … sometimes ..
    you end up directing that energy toward fulfilling your fears ..

    I think GRo will surprise you this week …

    30-10 Niners … (sticking with my earlier prediction)

    The name of the game, here is “weapons” !

    Mario.. Vernon .. Boldin .. Frank … Kendel ..
    and to a lesser extent .. VMac and our favorite
    red-headed stepchild .. Bruce “Big Sleeper” Miller …

    (see what I’m gettin’ at… here ?)

    I think these guys may qualify as bonified “weapons” …

  5. In the Browns game you reference they completed the pass to Staley, but you forgot to mention they also completed one to Sopoaga. That game was almost a carbon copy of what they’ve done the last 5 weeks.

  6. Pretty much sums up a concern I raised earlier in response to Jack. Will Roman lay an egg by trying to get too cute, and get away from what has been winning them games? Definitely a possibility – as Grant points out he’s got a history.

    There is no problem with attacking an opponent’s weaknesses and taking what they give you. But at some point good teams need to impose their will on the opposition to win games. For the 49ers that is about running the football. Sometimes Roman seems to forget that.

  7. Unless I didn’t read it close enough you don’t actually describe what it is that Roman needs to do on Sunday to pass your test. Does all he have to do is win? Winning means he played the game the way you think he should? Really? Pretty arrogant don’t you think? It sounds like even if he wins you’ll still try and give credit to someone else, in this case probably Bill Walsh. You go on and on about scripted plays and not taking what the defense gives but what specifically does the game plan need to contain for Roman to do what you think he should? If the first 15 plays are scripted how will you know?

    Sounds more like you’re airing out a petty grievance then outlining how the offensive coordinator should game plan for a win.

  8. I think the outcome of the game will depend less on Roman’s play calling tendencies and more about Fangio’s lack of blitzing. The Panthers have a big problem at right guard. Chris Scott is out and they have a converted defensive lineman, Nate Chandler, making his first start in his place. Will Fangio take advantage? Cam Newton’s QBR is around 91, but drops to the low 60s when blitzed. His interception numbers double when blitzed. It’s obvious what the Niners need to do, I just don’t think Fangio will do it.

  9. Grant, you are entitle to your opinion and thank you for sharing it. Yes 49ers will be facing a challenge this week and it will require a good game plan and execution for us to win. By the way, this is the NFL and every weekend is a challenge. I know you are not a 49er fan based on your constant negativity about this team or coaches which is just fine but at least use facts to justify your statements. I would prefer articles with more substance rather than cheesy statements that you would hear during a discussion between a few football fans. Come on man, you are better than this!

    1. The author seems like he has a better grasp of realism than all the Niner fans do. Granted, most of the people commenting on this article with outlandish BS probably became fans in 2011.

  10. Interesting angle, Grant…however I would offer that on every play Roman calls, our #2 WR actually goes out for a pass, and invariably Kaep does not throw to them. I think Kaep knows how hard he throws the ball, and he values hands far more than most qbs. I think this is why Crabs went from “serviceable” under Alex to a budding superstar under Kaep – Crabs has modest (by nfl standards) athletic talent, but he has the stickiest hands since Cris Carter. Roman can’t make Kaep throw to the #2 receiver, but undoubtedly the OC is a huge component in the offense. Interesting angle, food for thought.

  11. For someone who loves to poke at reputations and herd mentality, Grant sure has become a devotee of BW’s. Golly, did BW ever lose a game? Some of those losses came after Bye Week, others came after a Bye in the PlayOffs. Bill absolutely outsmarted himself sometimes. You thought Frazier/Ali was a great rivalry? Try Parcells vs Walsh!
    BW’s playbook was prodigious. So was Tom Landry’s. Too big? (we’ve seen too small; J.Raye). You seemed to push the smug boundaries by accusing Roman of using trick plays for his own aggrandizement. The idea of a trick play is to trick the defense, not impress other coaches or potential employers! And in fact, the play(s) to Staley (and Sopoaga) you mentioned did exactly that. They got key first downs and excited the entire roster and loosened up the defense.
    The key on trick plays is timing on when to call them. IMO, no one was ever better than Tom Landry and knowing when to pull the trigger on something out of the ordinary.
    You’re putting words on Roman’s mouth. We never heard him dis Walsh or Walsh’s system. He is in fact running a hybrid Walsh/Bo.
    How about your scripting assertions? I’ve watched a Hell of a lot more Bill Walsh than you have. To say he’d always get the ball to five different guys in the first 15 plays can not be substantiated; it also wasn’t what he was trying to do with that early game script necessarily. BW attacked different ways with different rosters, because, you know, he was an NFL Coach. Shockingly, he tried to leverage the talent he had. The tactics with Lenvill Elliott as RB were different than with Tyler & Craig or Craig & Rathman.
    To say we (you, I and the great unwashed masses on this blog) don’t always get what GRo is trying to do would be an understatement. He’s trying to keep us and the opposition guessing. We see the good, bad and medicare results and we develop impressions about what we see. The presumption that we know better than GRo is, um, interesting.

    1. It helps to know when NOT to call a trick play too. Ahem: GRo/CK vs Rams 2012! Theismann’s screen on his own 15 in the SB!

      1. BT,

        My family had season tickets from 1952 until 1998 when I moved to Hawaii. Saw a lot of football, saw a lot of coaches. There is a reason why Mr. Walsh is in the Hall of Fame and there is a reason why Mr. Roman will never be in the hall. That said , there is no reason not to enjoy the different styles that coaches deploy to try to get those Ws.
        I reread Grants artical and I do not detect the odor of smug-ness, but thats just me.
        I take it that these articals are written to a wider readership than just this room of snarling 9er fans :>).
        It is important for the average fan to know that there are stark differences in how this game is played and Grant fulfills that need to know, no matter that his descriptions are not completely nuanced for experts .

      2. @Hackman (Hacksaw 46)
        Thanks for thoughtful comments. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m a big BW fan and his accomplishments speak for themselves. I’d also not equate GRo and BW. But check the quote:”Roman l0ves to call new, exotic playsthat make him look creative and daring” <That's what I took as smug. Also:
        "Roman may disapprove of The Walsh Principle." Really? So it's Roman against Grant and Bill…..sure.
        You may remember some of those scripts like I do. Some games the 1st 15 might include 3 checkdowns to the FB, 2 shooots to the HB and 4 targets to X. Bill liked to test (Grants right about that, like 1st round boxer), but he liked to test how a defense protected its weak side because it's revealing of the overall defensive thinking. Bill liked to stress the defense laterally and that's part of why his teams spread it around. It wasn't a dogma about getting it to 5 guys in a certain number of reps, it was about finding where those opportunities that GRo talks about are likely to be found.
        Last thought on this? I pretty much think that if Bill Walsh was Head Coach of the 49ers today, Grant Cohn would find more than a few ways to second-guess him on a regular basis. To Grant's credit, he's never tried to censor any of my criticisms of him.

  12. Roman’s offensive philosophy can be a two-edged sword sometimes. On the one edge is Roman outsmarting himself while on the other is overly conservative Roman. If either show up on Sunday, it could spell trouble.

  13. Roman has played a key role in the 49ers winning 74% of their games. He obviously is too conservative.

    1 loss in their 11 prior games with extra prep time definitely points to Roman getting too creative.

    Harbaugh needs to fire this bum….

  14. This article actually confused me. In one sentence, Grant mentions G-Ro outhinking himself and calling exotic plays.
    In another – he says G-Ro will refuse to establish anyone except Gore, Boldin or Davis.
    So which is it? Will he create exotic plays? Or stick to the tried and trusted – FG, AB and VD?
    Now my head hurts…

      1. Sure. How many more times do you want them to throw the ball to Williams? His ratio of targets compared to Boldin is almost the same as Manningham’s was last year to Crabtree.

      2. “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.”

        Who should they have focused on devoloping? Willisms and Baldwin are short timers and Patton hasn’t played in a month.

        Without looking up the numbers I would venture to say Hunter is a little behind last years pace, but he is coming back from an injury. James hasn’t shown the ability to pass protect so he hasn’t even been active.

        That leaves only Vance McDonald who everyone admitted was a bit of a project, yet he has been involved quite a bit over the last 3-4 games.

        Who did I miss?

      3. All of our wins are because of the wunderchild Kaepernick and all of our losses are because of Roman and Frank Gore in the eyes of the Cohen.

    1. It’s both when you think about it. Roman has a bad habit of either being too conservative or exotic in his play-calling. It is when he finds the middle ground that this offense is successful.

      1. My point is, with the way he wrote the article what does Roman have to do to win and still get credit for the win. It sounds like if Roman does what Grant suggests he’ll say he just followed what Walsh would have done. What if Roman calls the game exactly like Walsh and we still lose? If he doesn’t call the game the way Walsh would have but we still win will you give him credit for it or give one of your typical backhanded compliments about how he would have won by more if he’d called the game differently.

        Also, how do you know that the first plays aren’t being scripted?

    2. So Roman has lost one game ever after having an extra week of preparation and somehow he overthinks it?

      Crabtree lining up wrong on the first play of the SB is Roman’s fault?

      Roman is not a great passing game coordinator and has his moments to question, but the stuff you are trying to pass off in this entry is un-researched assumptions yet again.

  15. 1 loss in 5 games, albeit in the biggest game. They scored 20, 36, 24, 45 and 31 in those games. Not horrible by any stretch.

    1. Sean,

      Since 2011 the 49ers are 9-1-1 in games where they’ve had extrs rest, the loss being the Super Bowl, and the against St Louis when Smith got knocked out.

      In games where the 49ers have extra rest and the opponent does not, which is the case this week, they are 6-0.

  16. My money says Carolina leads from wire to wire.
    And the Panthers will blank the Niners in either
    the first or the fourth quarters – maybe both.
    Unless…. unless we are curiously blessed
    ala the Seattle Seahawks and win in spite of ourselves.

    Yes, it could be a close game, but we may get spanked….
    Cam Newton is more hungry for the win than Kaep, ok?
    Blanked… spanked… a little rhythm for the hip hop fans.

    1. Blanked… spanked… a little rhythm for the hip hop fans.

      That’s kind of how my brain feels after reading one of your posts full of sheer nonsense.

    2. “Blanked… spanked… a little rhythm for the hip hop fans”

      This is the surest evidence that you are an old cray white dude.

  17. We lost the Super Bowl mainly because of bad calls in the final drive and their a reason why Roman can’t get a sniff of a head coaching position in the NFL or divinson one.

  18. Truth hurts brother…Grant puts his garbage in a blog for others to see he heeds to take the good with the bad…too bad for him it’s usually bad he’s so far off…stay in mw…sucks there

  19. Breaking news, the Panthers are so desperate on the O line they have just converted another defensive lineman, Sione Fua, to play guard. Fua will join Nate Chandler, another former D lineman making his first start at right guard. The Panthers have already re-signed Geoff Hangartner to play backup guard after cutting him last year.

    Again, do you think Fangio will blitz against these scrubs? Brooks would have a field day against these guys.

  20. message for MidWestNiner;
    speaking of your brain…
    advise that you not trade it for
    whatever occupies the cranium
    of Vikings WR Jerome Simpson.
    He appears to be following in the footsteps
    of Aldon Smith: Driving Under the Influence.
    Blanked, spanked, and …..what? … tanked???

    Let’s just remember:
    Coach Harbaw “supports” Jonathan Martin.
    Keep talking, Coach, we’re listening…..

        1. The IP lookup says it’s someone in San Diego. It could be a hardcore Alex Smith fan from his high school days or something.

      1. I believe this was his prediction; “But I think Roman will be himself and the 49ers will lose a close game they should win.”

  21. Who the heck is this new Swiss Army Knife?

    SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Francisco 49ers’ coaching staff loves versatile offensive weapons. The team used Delanie Walker as their “Swiss Army knife” — the tight end could do a little bit of everything — but he departed to Tennessee in free agency this offseason. Fullback Bruce Miller has become somewhat of a do-everything player for the 49ers. But they want more like him.

    The team claimed rookie Chris Harper off waivers from Seattle with the idea of using him as a Walker-type tight end. But Harper was released last month.

    By all accounts, Derek Carrier has come along well on the practice squad. Carrier entered the NFL with Oakland in 2012 as an undrafted free-agent receiver. After he was cut by the Raiders, Carrier spent time on Philadelphia’s practice squad, where the Eagles made him a tight end. Now with the 49ers, he is still a tight end. But he is also doing a lot of different things.

    “This is definitely the most different roles and responsibilities I’ve had in [my] time in the NFL,” Carrier said. “The coaches have a lot of different schemes and ideas here, and it’s a lot of fun learning everything. I know this can be a great opportunity for me.”

  22. BIG game tomorrow faithful. In Pacifica warming up the beer tolerance.
    Should be a tough game. I will never forget the beatings they gave us in the late 90′s. never liked this damn team. It’s our turn. Like GB is our **tches again. We shall make Carolina the same.
    Wheeeeeeeeeeew! NINERS!!!
    Have a great weekend faithful and get your good ju ju going.

  23. Mr Cohn,
    Are you secretly Andrew Sharp, getting undercover practice for next week’s #hotsportstakes?

    Roman needs to avoid a convoluted gameplan, while simultaneously avoiding too much reliance on the big 3 of Gore, Davis, and Baldwin?

    So… Don’t use the proven effective weapons Carolina will be prepping for, but don’t get too cute, either. Right.

    The best part is, “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.” Actually, at the end of the Super Bowl, he ran consecutive designed roll-outs, allowing the Ravens to only worry about covering half of an already shortened field. How, exactly, is that taking what the defense gives you?

    This is my first time visiting this blog, and based on the quality of the analysis, it will probably also be my last.

  24. While I don’t appreciate Grant’s negativity here, I do agree this Roman character could learn some useful things from Walsh….and has room to improve. I share a bit of Grant’s concern. Study tape of the dynasty teams Roman. I don’t much care for some of your play calling. Get off the macho way of challenging defenses at their strength, please ……especially close– down inside the red zone.
    The bootleg option nearly always worked, I can tell you, for both Montana and Young……and yes they both had more than a couple options to throw to. They both ran very effectively as well, when the defense gave that, but with no where near Kaepernicks athleticism.

  25. I was nervous about Roman after that game in St. Louis last year.

    Seems to me that the Niners have to pass, since the Panthers’ weakness is their defensive backfield.

    Hope they do well.

  26. BW was indeed a boxer looking for weaknesses especially with the jab. I spoke with him once, when he had time to kill, and he loved the science of boxing. So does Roman. His twist is when he senses a potential weakness, he will hammer it to break it down. He also has never called a single play in his life out of self aggrandizement. Grant, can you say the same about your blog?

  27. Alex (9 – 0 ) Smith asks:
    who else gets to enjoy their bye week being undefeated?
    ….NOBODY..!!! (YELL IT OUT, LOUD AND PROUD)

    Kaep says: We are winning games [plural].
    What we care about: wins [plural].
    Did you somehow take your “eyes off the prize”…???
    Colin, please try and understand; the Niner organization
    and all of the fans will only be satisfied with one win…
    In order to validate/justify/”signify” a successful season,
    beating Carolina is not the end of the road.
    You must bring home the Lombardi trophy.

    That is why Coach Harbaw is so nervous today.
    To simply cover the spread, to score at least 7 points
    more than Cam puts on the board… that is within reach.

    After what the Chiefs suffered through last year,
    Alex will be a very happy camper if they pick up another
    two or three wins this season. You on the other hand
    must take the train all the way into the station.
    The Super Bowl monkey is clinging to your back, fella.

  28. 49er offense has not been consistent or dynamic enough under Roman. Too often it is stopped and it is way too conservative sometimes. Maybe that’s what JH wants and not up to GRo (GRo? Sheesh – Should Walsh have been BWa? How about Lincoln as ALinc or Washington as GWash?). I”ll stop now.

  29. .@JayGlazer on Aldon Smith: #49er have him on a pitch count. 20-25 snaps. By the way, throughout all this, he is still getting treatment.

  30. Arian Foster to go to IR for back surgery. This guy seems destined for a truncated career. Unfortunate because for their fans.

  31. Oh man, Im either gonna make a big leap or fall from the sky like a lead zeppelin(my favorite although disputed origin of the band name) in the pick’em league after today.

  32. Atlanta didnt get the memo. Run at the Seahawks wude. Start in and bounce runs out. Use a quick back. Hope the Niners are watching that.

      1. Bay,

        Just ignore the troll. He does not have a life. He needs you to exist. He’s 18 years old. He’s a teenager. He’s substituting this blog for a girlfiend.

      2. How come Wilson can make Tate and Kearse look like all pros and CK cannot even attempt throws to guys not named Vernon or Q?
        Greatness is defined by making others around you better. Right now Wilson is the best QB in the NFL!

  33. Grant:

    I look forward to the day when you accurately describe Bill Walsh’s offense. He very much was a take-what-the-defense-gives-you game-planner. His offense was designed around the idea. To the extent Roman takes what the defense gives him, he has something in common with Walsh.

  34. Tyrone ..
    did someone neglect their morning constitutional ?

    Here’s a suggestion for ya ..

    Why don’t you take a long walk …
    off a short pier ?

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