Today we assess the offensive improvements and compare the data to previous 49ers teams since 2011. We’ll discuss what, if any, improvements were made.
One constant theme among the media and fans is that former head coach Chip Kelly runs a “college offense” not suited for an NFL team. The criticism is an unfair one to make. Even Chip himself said at an Eagles 2014 training camp press conference:
"I’ve said it since day one: We don’t do anything revolutionary offensively. We run inside zone, we run outside zone, we run a sweep play, we run a power play. We’ve got a five-step [passing] game, we’ve got a three-step game, we run some screens. We’re not doing anything that’s never been done before in football."
It was always an unfair label to apply to begin with. The national media was enamored with the success his uptempo offense had at Oregon and with the two 10 win seasons he had in Philadelphia before being fired after going 6-9. The offensive stagnation in 2015 was more the result of Chip adjusting to his roster talent than Chip evolving his offense (though this was still a problem he overcame, as I have written here).
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Chip came to the 49ers with the expectation of reviving the organization, or at least recovering some of the winning culture that defined the Harbaugh era.
The offensive talent was poor to begin with but just good enough to run Kelly’s scheme. Eventually the 49ers made the switch back to quarterback Colin Kaepernick and appeared to get offensive production similar to the first year under Jim Harbaugh in 2011.
But they would ultimately finish 2-14 and would, whether right or wrong, part ways with Kelly, ushering in a complete reset.
The NFL is a bottom-line league and wins and losses are ultimately the only thing that matters. But that is a poor way to judge what a team has on a coaching staff and it leads to such conclusions as thinking Jim Tomsula was a better coaching talent than Kelly.
In 2015 under Tomsula, the 49ers were 4-2 in games decided by one score or less and 2016, they were 1-5 in the same games, suggesting that the only thing that separates the win-loss record of both teams are games decided by only handful of plays.
Despite the win-loss record, there are areas of clear improvement in the offense over 2015 and even some over 2014. Ultimately, what the data shows is that the 49ers offensive production was not all that dissimilar from the Harbaugh era and was in most every category I looked at, better than 2015.
So what does the data show?
We’ll start with my favorite measure of offensive efficiency, Football Outsiders DVOA. DVOA stands for “defense-adjusted value over average.”
Briefly, it’s a measure of efficiency that places value on an offense or defense on a per-play basis. Offenses that rack up a ton of yards aren’t always the most efficient if they don’t score.
DVOA seeks to add context for situational football. A three-yard gain on 3rd-and-2 is more successful than a nine yard gain on 3rd-and-10.
For more a more in-depth explanation, see here.
This year’s first half offense was vastly more successful than 2015 and statistically better than the former coach Harbaugh’s first year. In fact, in the rest of the stats that follow, the 2016 offense is eerily similar to the 2011 offense, with some big caveats (more on that later).
The key takeaway is that the second half offense was not very efficient in the thir quarter and only average in the fourth quarter as the team tried to rally in several games. However, over the last three years, there is much variance in how the second half offense performed in relation to the first half.
Under Kelly, the running game was the 11th overall in 2016 and the third best the team had since 2011.
However, the height of the Harbaugh era in 2012 and 2013 saw a top five passing game in DVOA. This year? 28th.
A deeper dive into the stats shows that one of the largest contributing factors were dropped passes and an inability for wide receivers to get separation to keep the offense moving. The 49ers were second in the league in dropped pass rate at 4.9 percent, according to Sporting Charts.
Next we’ll get further into the game and drive stats that contributed this season’s offensive performance.
The first thing that jumps out is the almost five point increase in points per game over 2015 and the point scoring per game is about equal to 2014. The 49ers offense has not been known to blow teams out and score a ton of points over the last six years. They are a team built to run the ball.
One of the major criticisms all season was the time of possession and how it puts the defense at disadvantage.
But this is wrong for two reasons. 1) While clocking in at the fastest time of possession per drive (denoted TOP/dr in the chart above), the 49ers average game time of possession in 2016 was 24 seconds longer per game than 2015. That’s only a difference of a few plays over the course of each game but it dispels the notion that time of possession is relevant to winning football games. Several teams in the top 10 in time of possession did not make the playoffs at all, and three teams in the bottom quarter of the league did advance to the post season.
2) Also Using Football Outsiders DVOA, Kelly’s teams in Philadelphia were 15th (25th against the pass, 11th against the run), 10th (18th against the pass, seventh against the run), and 26th (14th against the pass/28th against the run) on 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively. A deeper dive into the defense DVOA by half suggests that each year under Kelly, the defense got better from first to second half as teams struggled to catch them on the scoreboard (ranked 23 to 20 in 2013, ranked 14 to 6 in 2014, and ranked 23 to 14 in 2015).
I also detailed here, using Football Outsiders “adjusted games lost” metric measuring injury rate, the Eagles had some of the healthiest teams under his leadership.
One key difference between 2011 and 2016 is the average starting field position (denoted as LOS/dr in the chart). From 2011-2013, the average starting yard line was their own 30 yard line or greater toward mid field. From 2014-2016 that average LOS/dr was pushed back four to six yards per season. This largely represents the decline of the core of the 49ers defense.
The loss of NaVorro Bowman, Chris Borland, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis and others was a direct contributor to this stat. Per Football Outsiders, the average starting field position (opponent’s own yard line) for the 2011 defense was 23.99 yard line (first in NFL) and in 2016 it was 31.27 (31st in NFL).
The 49ers have never been a team that scores at will. Instead, they’ve been a team who consistently controls the flow of the game by running the ball well and letting the defense do the dirty work.
With the exception of 2012, the 49ers offense was never really the juggernaut it was made out to be. In terms of performance, 2016 was the third best year in the last six years in touchdowns per game.
Although 2016 was also the third best in touchdowns per drive, the lower rank in the NFL says that overall offensive scoring has gone up. But the team was still putting the ball in end zone more than previous teams this decade in franchise history.
They’ve also never been a great team that converts on third down and this past season was no exception, with the worst 3-and-outs per drive among the seasons surveyed and ranking 29th in the NFL. But how bad was the 49ers third-down conversion rate?
The third down conversion rate for this year had the 49ers ranked 29th in the league, although they improved five percent over last season. This season just about splits the difference between their best and worst since 2011.
Getting to third is not necessarily a bad thing if a team can convert a majority of their opportunities. The 49ers could not. Their lack of first downs per game and per drive is a direct result of their lack of third-down success. The higher the third-down conversion percentage, the higher the first downs per game.
However, the when combined with scoring opportunities, Football Outsiders computes what is termed “Drive Success Rate” or DSR in the table above. FO doesn’t give a complete definition on their website of drive success rate but as they outline in their Pro Football Prospectus 2005:
"Drive Success Rate (or more precisely, series of downs success rate), or DSR, measures the likelihood that a team’s offense will get another first down (or a touchdown, which the official NFL statisticians also count as a first down) in a given set of downs. And the equivalent defensive number measures how often a defense will allow another first down."
Basically, it measures the rate per game over the course of the season of how often a team scores a first down or touchdown. With the exception of 2012, the 49ers have been below the league average and were particularly bad this season.
So what contributed to a lack of drive success? Mostly, as I’ve already covered, dropped passes but also turnovers.
This season the 49ers had their worst total turnovers at 25 with 15 lost fumbles, also their worst. A defining characteristic of the 49ers the last six seasons is ball security. However, this wasn’t the season for that. Off 25 offensive turnovers, the defense gave up 107 total points, also a significant factor contributing to lack of success this season.
While the offense resembled 2011 in many ways, the one significant difference is the amount of points given up in this category. A lack of defensive talent only further exacerbated the problem.
The last category we will examine is the red zone. Their red zone performance this season was better than any other year this decade I surveyed.
While their red-zone scoring attempts were on the lower end of the spectrum, their touchdowns per red-zone appearance (TDs/RZ), points per red-zone appearance (Pts/RZ) and red-zone scoring percentage (RZ percentage TD only) were all higher than any other team under coaches Harbaugh and Tomsula.
The 49ers led the league in red-zone pass DVOA, were third in red-zone run DVOA and had the second best overall red-zone DVOA score.
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This represents the one area of the team that saw the most improvement and that they sustained over the course of the season. Compare and contrast their success with the Harbaugh years, and it becomes apparent the 49ers scored more points from the red zone on less trips in 2016.
The biggest takeaway in all this is that the 2016 team was more similar than anyone wants to admit offensively, and with a team that had arguably less talent, to the 2011 team. The biggest difference was on defense, as the core of those Super Bowl and NFCCG teams were put in place over the course of the preceding years.
This season, the 49ers were young, inexperienced and injury depleted on defense with a defensive coordinator whose defensive scheme often left them out of position, causing them to give up too many big plays.
On offense, it cannot be said this team did not dramatically improve and outperform expectations. In the preseason, Pro Football Focus ranked the 49ers with the worst roster in the NFL. It was not hard to see this was accurate. Which makes their performance even more remarkable, considering a large majority of the offensive woes were due to the fact that skill position players were unable to get open or make plays in an offensive scheme designed to get them open, a true testament to Kelly’s offensive philosophy.
Which really makes the Kelly firing all the more puzzling. The improvement was there, but not in the win-loss column. For now, CEO Jed York appears to be committed to a full reset. On offense, it may not take much longer to improve.
For more information on the statistics listed in the tables above, please see the following websites: