With Alex Smith completing 68.9% of his passes, Frank Gore healthy, and Kendal Hunter filling in the gaps, the team is playing a level above the 49ers of the last several years. Jim Harbaugh’s game plan and play calling is keeping the ball in the 49ers hands an average of five extra minutes a game, when compared to the last several years. With so much improvement, the question is what is holding back the 49ers from the amazing success from playoff and super bowl predecessors?
The answer is simple, and has plagued the 49ers since Erickson. Despite the best efforts of our players this year, we are only converting about 30% of our third downs. This has been the team’s average since 2003. During the teams highlight years the 49ers would convert an average of 50% of third downs. Up to now the defense has been the crutch keeping the team’s forward progress.
Jim Harbaugh wants to make this team great again and thus far has performed admirably. However to complete the teams turn around, he will have to deal with third downs head on. Over the last few games, we have seen a variety of variations between plays and personnel packages on the field during third downs. This tells us the Jim is working overtime to solve this one conundrum. At one time the team could rest on Frank Gore, however recently his eight yard scrambles have turned into six. The combination age, prepared defenses, and an offensive line still trying to gel, Jim must find the right mixture.
I believe Jim is on the right track by mixing the types of plays, and varying the personnel packages on third down. However the most effective thing Harbaugh can do to quickly change the third down dynamic and that is to open the playbook. It’s been good to see Jim focus on the basics, and instill confidence in the offence with high percentage passing, and west coast style movement with the receivers. Right now we have only seen a fraction of the playbook, and only half of what the west coast style offence can do. It will be tough with the complications Edwards and Crabtree injuries have posed, but it can be done, and needs to be done now. One thing is clear; Jim is defiantly working on it, but will the answer come before this season is lost.