SF 49ers Lesson No. 5: Pplay-calling needs to dictate the flow of the game
In his position grades, Jeremy Wohlfart gave the coaching a D- grade, citing a poor plan against the Cardinals on both ends. I think he was too kind. The single biggest issue the Niners had, one that permeated everything else, was a lack of force from their coaching.
Not that they didn’t yell enough or scream at people, but that the coaches were too willing to sit back and work with what Arizona did rather than set the flow themselves.
On defense, the prevent nature that the Niners carried clearly did not work. It was a feeble passive attempt that only allowed Kyler Murray to deal to his star wide receiver and build a rapport. There was no aggression, no attempt to force Murray to make a play. There was always something available. This failure to dictate the flow of the game on defense made it easy for the Cardinals to hurry up, throw a ball to Hopkins on a 12-yard out, and repeat to the end zone. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s attempts to corral Murray were not much better.
Overall, the defensive game plan made it nearly impossible for the defense to play up to its standards, and that contributed to the defense’s failures.
Now regarding the head coach and offensive play-caller, Kyle Shanahan, things were a bit different. Shanahan has been able to pull magic out of a hat on several occasions as a play-caller, and his talent base for this game was less than ideal.
But the passivity of his play-calling left much to be desired.
The Cardinals, by hurrying up, dictated the flow of their offensive possessions. They forced the Niners defense into certain looks and in a certain mindset. The Cardinals defense did much of the same. With the issues the Niners had illustrated before, they essentially dared Shanahan to beat them with his backup receivers. Shanahan did not.
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The play-calling was designed to limit the risk of Jimmy Garoppolo’s throws for the majority of the game, a decision that stalled any momentum and took away a chance of asserting control. By not trying to use the receivers, Shanahan played into what the Cardinals wanted, and it made his offense struggle. Shanahan was considerably passive on Sunday, and by doing so, he allowed the game to get away from his team. While trusting your defense to hold tall is OK, a coach can’t play his offense not to lose.
His one aggressive decision, to go for it on 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line, was a good one despite the outcome. Was the play call right? Perhaps not, but the intent and the pressure it puts on a defense, plus the field position, gives extra value. But that was the only time he tried to press the Cardinals with his decisions. A long field-goal kicker Robbie Gould makes is a solid three points, but with a 4th-and-3 at the Arizona 34-yard line, going for it is a perfectly logical decision that can lead to big rewards.
At the end of the half, the Niners had a 4th-and-short right in the red zone, and Shanahan kicked again. The Cardinals got those points right back with aggressive play-calling to end the half. If Shanahan goes for it, worst case, the Cardinals get the ball in terrible field-position with fractionally more time than before. The worst-case situation from going for it (an Arizona score) happened anyway; being conservative did not help.
The Cardinals tying the game versus being three points down would be a smaller deal than the Cardinals being potentially a full touchdown behind.
It’s easy to look back and say the 49ers should be more aggressive like they’re playing a game of EA Sports’ Madden. It’s easy to see them lose by four and think, “If they had taken that field goal on 4th-and-goal, they could have won the game.”
But the ends do not justify the means.
By being aggressive and trusting his offense, Shanahan would not only end up freeing his defense more, but he would also be maximizing his points and setting up his offense in the best position to succeed. The SF 49ers lost because through all their sloppy play, they failed to take control and seize the momentum of the game. That falls on the coaching as much as the players.
There were a lot of things that went wrong with the SF 49ers, but the one thing that is true is that many of these issues can be fixed with time and with health. These lessons from the first week aren’t a sign of the end; rather they are proof that the Niners can and likely will improve.