Seattle’s noise makes 49ers’ play-calling methods ineffective

Here is my Thursday column.

SANTA CLARA – Jim Harbaugh must change his offensive play-calling system this week for the 49ers’ game Sunday night in Seattle against the Seahawks. Not changing his system would be an ego-driven mistake.

Harbaugh wants to be perfect on every play. As a result, his system is one of the slowest in the NFL.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman typically calls not one but two wordy plays over the headset for Colin Kaepernick. Then Kaepernick repeats those plays to his teammates in the huddle. Then the players run to the line of scrimmage. Then Kaepernick has to work through multiple pre-snap procedures and shifts and movements and kills to determine which of the two plays is better. This process usually takes between nine and 13 seconds.

If the offense has fewer than 14 seconds at the line, it’s difficult to work through the pre-snap stuff and snap the ball before the play clock reads zero.

Last week at Candlestick Park against the Packers, the 49ers often snapped the ball with just two or three seconds left on the clock. They were flagged for a delay-of-game penalty and burned two timeouts preventing two more delays. They got to the line with fewer than 14 seconds on the clock 19 times, almost a third of their plays. That means Greg Roman wasn’t getting the plays in to Kaepernick fast enough. Don’t blame Kaepernick because it wasn’t his fault.

If the 49ers can’t get their plays off in Candlestick, how are they going to get them off in Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, the NFL’s loudest stadium?

Anquan Boldin doesn’t think it will be an issue. On Wednesday he called the timeouts and delay-of-game penalties a “Week 1 problem.”

Is it merely a Week 1 problem?

Last season, the 49ers called 14 timeouts in the first and third quarters, the quarters in which you don’t want to call timeouts. The 49ers led the league in the category. Boldin may not be aware of that stat because he was a Raven last season.

But Boldin should know this issue may have cost the 49ers’ a Super Bowl victory. Boldin played against the 49ers in that game. When the Niners had the ball at the Ravens’ 5-yard line down five points late in the fourth quarter and it was third-and-goal, Harbaugh had to use a timeout to prevent a delay penalty. The play was going to be a quarterback draw that probably would have been a Super-Bowl-winning touchdown, but the offense didn’t get to the line until there were 10 seconds left on the play clock.

Kaepernick had to send Delanie Walker in motion and then reset the protection scheme and, by the time he snapped the ball, the play clock had expired and Harbaugh already had called timeout.

It’s a 40-second play clock. That means it took the 49ers’ coaches about 20 seconds to choose and call the crucial play of the Super Bowl. It never should take a coach more than 10 seconds to radio the play to the quarterback.

What took 20 seconds? Did Greg Roman not plan ahead? Was he searching through his 200-play call sheet to find the right play at the last second?

The 49ers script the first few series of every game. But does Roman re-script plays between series when his defense is on the field as other NFL offensive coordinators do?

“We’re having constant conversations,” said Roman on Thursday. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you guys think of this, do you like it?’ And then, ‘No, because of this,’ or, ‘Yes, because of that.’ Our staff, we’ve got a good communication flow.”

That doesn’t sound like re-scripting. That sounds like talking.

Roman should quietly re-script between every series. That way he has a list of six or seven plays he can immediately turn to when the 49ers get the ball back. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

The last time the 49ers played in Seattle, Roman couldn’t even get the scripted plays in on time. The 49ers called two timeouts and committed two delay-of-game penalties in their first 20 plays. On the second play of the game, Roman had the offense scrambling to the line with 10 seconds left on the play clock. It was a full-blown meltdown. They got the play off with two seconds left.

Here’s how the 49ers can fix their problem for this weekend’s game: Assign every play a number. Give the quarterback and skill position players wrist bands listing which play each number corresponds to. Skip the huddle. Signal the numbers in from the sideline so the players can read it themselves. The quarterback can yell the protection scheme to the offensive linemen who are close to him, and then the Niners can use a silent count to snap the ball. That way, they cut down on the time it takes to call the plays, and they remove most of the verbal communication which is key in that deafening stadium. Chip Kelly does that right now with a flashcard system in Philadelphia. He would have no trouble getting his plays called in Seattle.

Do I expect Harbaugh to make any of the adjustments I’ve just suggested?

No. I don’t expect him to change his system at all, actually. That’s not the kind of coach he is.

I expect to see Kaepernick struggling to yell wordy plays in the huddle, the players struggling to hear him and the 49ers struggling to snap the ball before the clock expires.

Harbaugh wants to make the opponent adjust to him, not vice versa. And that’s good. What’s not so good is this. He doesn’t want to acknowledge any weaknesses it may have.

If Harbaugh takes that stubborn attitude up to Seattle, he’s asking for trouble, if anyone actually can hear him.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

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  1. Brilliant if I don’t say so myself. Oh yea, I did. Harbaugh is a competitor and if he feels that plan gives him the best chance to win, no stubborn philosophy is going to get in the way. By the way, is Mangini in an undisclosed secure location, and if so, what facet of the offense is he working on to influence the game plan this week?

    1. Mangini is up in the booth with Roman.

      Since Grant has all the answers he should be the 49ers HC.

      He seems to think it’s a pretty easy job to do based on his solutions.

      1. Thanks Grant. Hope Harbaugh shows some flexibility and gets the play calling issues fixed. Dang this has been going on for awhile.

      2. We already know your prediction, “advantage Seattle”, “Seattle win”, then of course you can get tons of cred for correctly calling it and remind us over and over again how you were right, just like your superbowl prediction that seem to NEVER let anyone forget.

  2. We’ll never know what would have happened had that timeout not been wasted in the Superbowl. Kind of stretch to say that he definitely would have scored on the quarterback draw. Still, point well taken. This has been a problem throughout the Harbaugh era. Probably can’t fix it in a week though.

    1. I did recall that play in the SB, when the ball was hiked the defense which was called had nobody at the point of attack Kap would have walked in. It was one of those plays that it wasn’t that the Ravens beat us but the Niners beat themselves by making more mistakes in the game.

    1. That’s when the running game was at its best. Nothing silences a crowd faster than piling up 1st downs and long sustainable drives.
      12 plays, 85 yards, 9:09 off each drive. Perfect game plan for up there!

      1. Based on what I saw last week against the Panthers I think the Niners can move the ball on the ground. Seattle’s D line is not at full strength. After last weeks pass fest it wouldn’t surprise me to see a more run oriented game plan unless Seattle goes with 8 in the box like GB and dictates we throw. I’m not sure Pete will want that after watching the film from last week. I also expect Kap to break a few big runs. And lastly I think JH is saving a few surprises for his buddy Pete.

  3. Just curious, but how often did this happen during the first half of the season with Smith under center vs. Kaep in there during the second half? And before the haters rail on me, understand that I am asking this question because I think that it will help everyone in knowing if it has more to do with Harbaugh’s system or how well Kaep is at getting the play to his fellow teammates on the offense.

    1. Mid maybe they should go back to the Jimmy Raye playbook terminology.
      “Run left”
      “Run right”
      “Run middle”
      “Pass short”
      “Pass long”

      1. Too much detail Prime. I think that the offense was just told to go make a play under Jimmy Raye.
        It didn’t matter if it was 1& 10, 3 & 1, or 2 & 50. The offensive plsn was the same: go make a play.

  4. more hand signals for audibles, line calls and route adjustments.

    they should have a package of hurry up, up tempo and quick hitting plays coded in single words. they could use these plays as back up plays if their regular system isn’t working.

  5. How much of a factor is changing personal?
    It seems to slow down getting to the line abit
    I agree; they need to get to the line with at least 15 seconds on the clock.

  6. These are reasonable suggestions for the Seattle environment. Even the QB being able to hear the call is difficult. Sharing info in the huddle is harder. Hand signals for line calls. Other comm can be via baseball-type signals from the sideline (that could be changed at Halftime), say for the D calls.
    In the larger view, Harbaugh has method in his plodding everyday style, not all of which I claim to understand. It’s not just stubbornness, IMO.

  7. I think it is safe to say that they have a plan on how they will deal with the noise. They know how loud it gets and they know their regular system won’t work. We are just paranoid fans, or blog writers, that think of problems thay can or have happened and then try to sound smart. They will have a solution to the noise problem…right?

  8. I was at the Niners-Saints game last year in the Superdome. Very loud when the Niners had the ball and only Kaps 2nd start. The Niners used a very clever system of hand and foot signals and actual touch signals to get off a silent count between lineman and the QB. With 2+ plays called in the huddle every time there will always be issues with the clock. That is the price we pay for having the best and most creative running and passing schemes I have ever seen in football. There is always room for improvement, however I can live with a few timeouts. We do win these games almost every time, don’t we?

    1. You’re no fun Jerry.

      The 49ers need to redo their whole play calling structure this week or they have not chance, or something like that. ; )

  9. Grant, have you ever coached or even played the game? You sound very sure of yourself, for someone who seems to have gaps in his knowledge base. I have noted before I like the insight you show in your portraits of players, especially when you stay positive. Your strategy, although plausible, isn’t original at any level. Harbaugh, GRo, Chryst, and Mangini are fighting to keep as much of the play book in effect as they can. They missed last week. Think they’ll do better this week. It isn’t just mechanics.HL Mencken observed, “For every complicated question there is a simple answer, and it is always wrong.” Take heed.

  10. Did you not see the difference between the Seahawks game and the NFCCG last season? It was like night and day for Kap and it seemed like he was a whole lot more comfortable playing with a silent count and using hand signals instead of screaming at the top of his lungs. This game will not be a problem in terms of field noise and you can count on that.

      1. Right Chewie,

        And the Falcon fans where sitting on their hands with packaging tape on their mouths in that Championship game.

      2. during the broadcast of the ncfccg they said the noise level hit over 130 db. kap handled it perfectly and didn’t let it faze him. that game he showed me that he had what it takes to play in hostile environments.

    1. I agree. Crowd noise should never be an excuse for losing, especially for a division rival you play every year. Expect it & deal with it.

  11. Good post, Grant. I guess I didn’t know they were still calling two plays in the huddle and then having Kap choose one based on the defensive alignment; it’s not as obvious as last year.

    The rule should be that if the play isn’t called in to Kap by 12 seconds or so, Roman/Harbaugh loses the right to specify; it should then be Kap’s option to call whatever he wants.

    Personally at some point this season I’d like to see them experiment with letting Kap call all his own plays. If he’s unable to do so effectively, if it’s obvious that they’re better with Roman calling them to Harbaugh to Kap, then fine. But I suspect we might be better with Kap making those decisions.

  12. failing to plan is planning to fail–geez what a turn of a phrase grant im going to submit you for inclusion in Bartlett’s Quotations

  13. Ever hear of a silent count? Yeah ,they need to clean it up, but it won’t determine the winner of this game against the Seahawks. So, much ado about nothing, as usual.

    Go Niners!

    1. Good stuff Jack.
      1)I think they can slow Lynch down. The Panthers did I think our front seven is a notch above theirs. The key for stopping the run will rely on Ian Williams and Glen Dorsey. If they can push the center back then it will be a good day for the D. Dorsey is none for being a great run defender.
      2) I don’t think anyone can really contain him. Did you see that throw he had last week where he ran backwards 15 yards, stoppped, spun around and flund the ball to the left sideline where Baldwin caught it? I can’t tell if that was skill, luck or both.
      3) I think they have to come out running the ball hard. Make Gore a workhorse for this week only. Give him 30 carries. He’s had his best games against Seattle including last year, at home thought.
      4) I don’t expect Boldin to have a big impact in the stat sheet. Vernon needs a big game and the other options need to have over 130 yards receiving collectively.
      5) Don’t care much for the noise. The 49ers will be making their preparations for that.

    2. Seahawks are a fundamentally sound team, so planning against them sounds like basic football philosophy: be tough in the trenches, move the chains, first down efficiency, contain the mobile QB, stop the ace RB, etc. This is good advice against any team and has specific applicability to Seattle.
      Get out to an early lead. Definitely. But sometimes your plan needs tweaking, the other team isn’t playing along. In the bummer up there last season, CK, the hero who out dueled Brady, had a bit of the old Deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. He personally has grown from that loss, but he’ll be needing a Plan-B and Plan-C to have in his quiver for this game. “The first casualty in battle is usually The Battle Plan.”

      1. Right on Brotha. That’s exactly what I was trying to get across. I also agree with you on the difficulty with jump out to an early lead, which is why I also included sustained drives on offense.

        In the 2011 game up there they fell behind right away, but the offense put together a good drive and although they didn’t score it stemmed the tide and allowed them to keep the momentum close to even.

      2. Great point BT. There has to be multiple backup plans because chances are the one you think is going to work doesn’t.

        Football still comes down to controlling the LOS. If they keep Lynch to 4 yards a carry and contain Wilson in the pocket, that is the recipe for success on defense imo.

        Offensively it’s just as you said, stay ahead of the down and distance, keep drives going and unlike last year, score TD’s in the redzone. The Niners are the better team imo, but what happens in that Thunder dome is teams get rattled by the noise and can’t equal the intensity the home team comes out with. They have to weather the storm in the first quarter and control the LOS. If they are able to do that, they win the game.

  14. It’s easy money when you’re behind a keyboard, when you have to deal with all the facets of an actual game and keep the integrity of your plays, it’s a little more complicated than that.

    Let’s just see what happens in the game. JH and his staff have proven to be smarter than the average bear, I’m confident they have something up their sleeve to lessen the impact of the amplified noise they have in Seattle.

    Even my [loose term] buddy who is a SEA fan says the difference in noise between a SEA game and the couple of UW games played there that he has seen is HUGE. He believes fully that the crowd noise is run back through an amplifying system of some sort.

    1. The noise is artificially amplified and re-directed onto the red zone by those two “rain flaps.” Perhaps not electronically, but certainly mechanically.

      There is a difference between normal fan noise and an unfair advantage due to stadium design. 8-0 at home, 3-5 on the road speaks volumes. The deliberately re-directed sound has made a farce out of offensive football. The NFL should consider…
      - Having them sound insulate the “rain” flaps
      - Reinstate the Delay of Game penalty when the crowd noise goes above x decibels
      - Allowing SeAdderall’s opponents to amplify sounds equal to CenturyLink Field’s when they are on the road?

  15. This column is confirmation: Grant Cohn is a bona fide sports writer.
    By the end of the day Sunday, we will know whether Coach Jim Harbaw has the potential to lead the Niners to a Super Bowl win this season.
    Up or down, we know we can count on Grant to accurately and adequately evaluate the team and the coaching. Go niners.!

    1. Oh yeah? Grant supported replacing your Love Object with CK last year, remember? How you like him now?
      You’d support the Taliban if they came out critical of JH & the Niners! At least Seahawk Fans are fans. You’re a fan of nothing, you wallow in negativity and self-inflicted misery. So if Sando comes out favoring the Seahawks are you going to nominate him for a Pulitzer? Cowboy up, DS, this s#*# is weak.

      1. BT,

        Don’t take the bait. This miserable clown doesn’t deserve a response. If he’s ignored he’ll go away eventually.

  16. “Harbaugh wants to make the opponent adjust to him, not vice versa. And that’s good. What’s not so good is this. He doesn’t want to acknowledge any weaknesses it may have.”

    Why do sports journalists always act like a coach needs to forthright and tell them how everything is. Jesus. Roman came out and acknowledged it was something they were working on cleaning up. You want Harbaugh to go on at length about it in a presser?

    This article is stupid. Yeah, we know they have a complicated scheme and playbook and this is the tradeoff of that. Its Kaepernicks 13th start in the NFL.

  17. Note to Brotha Tuna:

    These email pseudonyms are just that – nothing more.
    I think that you may already grasp the concept.
    A love-hate relationship with Coach Harbaw plays out as follows:
    If the niners beat Seattle, then he wins the Pulitzer and Grant is a goat.
    For week #2 only. The team will still be carrying the Super Bowl monkey on their backs….. all season long. That game with the Ravens was so winnable! But we threw it in the toilet. We choked, okay?

    1. Carefull, Anonymous, you’re flirting with lucidity today! Do I detect a self-awareness about the Love/Hate with coach? Maybe progress. In some respects the Monkey is your own construction. In others it rides on 32 HC’s backs; if you’re not in it to win it, you’re just treading water. What do coaches say at Pressers about why they played a guy? Inevitably: “He gives us the best chance to win.” Nothing guaranteed.

    2. Exactly. It’s not Jim Harbaugh’s job to assuage each and every sports writers concerns about each and every facet of his team. It’s his job to win games and he has. Impressively so. Deal with it.

      Unfortunately (or not) sports writers rate close to zero on Harbaugh’s list of priorities and Grant can’t seem to stand it so he sits behind a keyboard and takes pot shots at him like a true pro.

      Preseason is over and this blog has officially entered the toilet. The writer no longer has any pertinent news we can’t get anywhere else so it’s strictly fan baiting and self congratulation from here on out.
      Seriously, the only good info here now comes from informed readers and even those are dwindling. Grant should just post headlines and let the commenters do the analysis. You might get a column written by actual grown ups.

  18. Grant,

    I give you grief about some of your articles so I’m also going to give you praise when it’s due. This was well thought out and while you finished with your usual style of taking a round about shot at Harbaugh, you did bring some ideas to the table. Good article today.

    While I don’t think Harbaugh will overhaul the play calling methods, I do think they will shorten the play sheet a bit, and will use hand signals at the LOS. There is validity in the idea of a wristband system when going into places like this. Makes a lot of sense, but then there is also the issue of making sure everybody is paying attention with no huddle because it is up to the individual to watch for the hand signal, read his wristband and know what to do without verbal confirmation from Kap in the huddle. I’d love to see them try it but Harbaugh is probably not the type to change his system for individual games too much.

  19. Dramatically changing your system for one game sort of suggests a bit of fear/panic and a sign of weakness. I’m confident JH & crew has a plan to overcome the noise within their system. At the end of the day it comes down to who plays better. You know, good old blocking & tackling.

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