49ers Offense: Conservative or Cautious?

No matter how you feel about how the 49ers offense performed in the team’s win against the Seahawks in week one, we walked away with a win against a division opponent.  All of the highlights in the game were from the defense and of Ted Ginn Jr.  Even though a win is a win, my comfort level with the 49ers offense declined instead of staying the same or increasing.  After watching the game the 49er Faithful and the writers covering the 49ers mostly agreed the offense was conservative.  But on KNBR recently Jim Harbaugh said,

“I don’t agree that it was conservative.  We’re playing to win at all times.”

I don’t disagree with Harbaugh that he and the team were “playing to win at all times” but his approach on offense started out cautious and with a 16-0 lead went more conservative in the second-half.  Let’s look at the numbers:

  • 62 percent of the plays on offense were runs, 32 runs vs. 20 passes.
  • Alex Smith completed 15 completions however he only finished with 124 passing yards.  A lot of the completions were short but it is up to the receivers to make yards after the catch.   
  • The 49ers finished with only 209 yards gained on offense which was the lowest since November 2009 and third-lowest in the past 32 games. 

While Harbaugh may characterize the offense as not being conservative I had flashes of Jimmy Raye during the game with multiple runs on third down-and-three or more to go.  I yelled “Jimmy Raye Harbaugh” when the 49ers ran on third-and-five.

Calling an offense conservative is like a four-letter word in the NFL.  No head coach or offensive coordinator likes to be described that way but if it gets you the win, why not come out and say it worked because it was conservative?  The 49ers had no sacks, no turnovers and most of all they did not tip their playbook to other teams by running conservative plays. 

The reality of a conservative offense is it may work from time to time, mostly against teams with a bad offense, but no head coach wants to run an offense this way.  I think Harbaugh’s approach was a mixture of being conservative and cautious.  He started the game running a cautious offense because the 49ers have basically the same players on offense as last season, which was not a good offense.  Entering the second-half of the game with a 16-0 lead Harbaugh went into conservative mode to protect the lead.  The two reasons I think he went conservative is one the offense was, and still is, going through growing pains and two, the 49ers were playing a team on the same talent level.  With defense playing well Harbaugh was not going to take chances down the field on offense to put the game away. 

The Jimmy Raye Harbaugh approach will not work against the Cowboys who are a much better team than the 49ers and the Seahawks.  Harbaugh got lucky with Ginn Jr.’s two returns for touchdowns as the special teams are not expected to win games.   Quarterback Alex Smith was mobile most of the game in week one and looked his most comfortable while passing on the run.  Against the Cowboys Harbaugh does not need Smith to sling passes down the field for the deep play but he needs to show he has confidence in Smith by balancing out the pass and runs plays.  At the start of the regular season a conservative offense will get you the win but success for the rest of the season is harder to come by when you don’t have a balanced offense and you are running on third-and-five.   The 49ers cannot start the game against the Cowboys being conservative on offense because the chances of pulling off an upset will lessen as the Cowboys attack on offense.  I think the 49ers defense can keep the Cowboys offense in check.  But if the 49ers offense is not doing its part and only remains on the field for three-and-outs, the 49ers defense will start to break down like last season and we will see the Cowboys pull away in the second-half.  If the 49ers find themselves down by two or more touchdowns Harbaugh will be forced to throw down the field with Smith, which based on previous times this has happened it did not end well, and probably won’t  against the Cowboys.  Harbaugh will need to run a balanced offense all game against the Cowboys if the 49ers want to a chance to win the game. 


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