The San Francisco 49ers have head coach Kyle Shanahan’s second-down play calling and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s poor third-down play to blame for the Niners’ offensive troubles in 2018.
New head coach Kyle Shanahan and new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo turned the San Francisco 49ers’ offense into the NFL’s most lethal offensive unit over the final five games of the 2017 season. With the benefit of a full offseason together, the duo was expected to do great things in 2018; unfortunately, the 49ers weren’t an offensive powerhouse over the first three games of the season, and after Sunday’s season-ending knee injury to Garoppolo, San Francisco will need to wait until 2019 for the pair’s next opportunity for success.
The 49ers have still put points on the board in 2018 — their 24 points-per-game ranks 12th in the league — but they’ve relied on their running game, which ranks sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, as opposed to their 22nd-ranked passing game. Ironically, their potent rushing attack — and particularly Shanahan’s utilization of it — has played a major role in San Francisco’s passing problems.
During his time with the New England Patriots, one of the most promising aspects of Garoppolo’s game was his success on third downs. Technically, Garoppolo was the most proficient third-down quarterback on the Patriots’ roster, as his 141.3 quarterback rating on third downs topped that of fellow QB Tom Brady.
While Garoppolo wasn’t able to equal his 72 percent third-down conversion rate in 2016 after his trade to San Francisco, the 49ers still converted on 50 percent of his third-down throws last season, which was tops in the NFL. Garoppolo’s ability to extend drives helped the 49ers lead the NFL in points-per-drive, yards-per-drive and scoring percentage during his time with the team in 2017.
Unfortunately, Garoppolo didn’t continue his third-down success in 2018. In the three games prior to his injury, Garoppolo converted just 25 percent of his third-down tries — but more surprising was Garoppolo’s inability to convert on third-and-long:
Digging into the 49ers’ stats over their first three games… The Niners have faced 3rd-and-8+ yards 16 times so far this season. They’ve converted zero. 0/16. NFL average is 25%, and JG converted 38% in 2017. #49ers #GoNiners #49wz
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) September 25, 2018
While Garoppolo certainly shoulders a considerable portion of the blame for the 49ers’ lack of effectiveness on third down, a major reason the Niners were forced into so many difficult third-down situations was Shanahan’s play calling on second down:
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) September 23, 2018
In general, running the ball on second-and-10 is a losing proposition; NFL teams are successful on less than a third of these runs. This season, the 49ers have an 11 percent success rate when rushing on on second-and-10 — and when they’re unsuccessful, they average just one yard per rush, which forces the team into a third-and-long situation that results in a punt or field-goal try on the following down. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped Shanahan from attempting to pound the rock on second-and-10:
On 2nd-and-10, the #49ers run the ball at the NFL's 3rd highest rate, but their success rate on those runs is the 4th worst in the NFL. Meanwhile, they pass at the 3rd lowest rate, yet their success rate on those passes ranks 5th in the NFL. #GoNiners #49wz
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) September 26, 2018
Shanahan ranks among the NFL’s more forward-thinking coaches, but one of his holes as an offensive coordinator is his propensity to continue doing things that don’t work.
In 2017, Shanahan’s 49ers led the NFL with a 45 percent success rate on second-and-10 runs. That’s a fantastic success rate, although it’s still less than 50 percent. One reason why the 49ers were successful on these rushing attempts is they ran the ball on second-and-10 less often than most teams in 2017 — until Garoppolo was named the starter.
In the 49ers’ first 11 games of 2017, they ran on second-and-10 well below the NFL average, and had a 52 percent success rate on those plays. With Garoppolo under center, Shanahan raised their second-and-10 rushing rate dramatically, and the team’s success rate fell to 25 percent.
Why have the 49ers been so successful running the ball on second-and-10 without Garoppolo, and so unsuccessful with him under center? It may be that the 49ers were never that successful in the first place.
Pre-Garoppolo, the 1-10 Niners spent much of the 2017 season playing from behind. Playing with the lead against a San Francisco team with an anemic offensive attack, opposing defenses were happy to trade 5-yard runs for time off the clock, which lead to a 60 percent success rate on second-and-10 runs. But in neutral game scripts or when the 49ers had the lead, their second-down rushing rate jumped to 53 percent — equal to their current 2018 rate — and their success rate plummeted.
Once Garoppolo arrived, the 49ers were no longer consistently playing from behind, which lead to more first-down runs — and fewer incomplete passes on first down — which lead to less second-and-10 opportunities. When the 49ers faced a second-and-10, Shanahan rushed more often, both in an attempt to run time off the clock when the team had the lead, and because he could count on Garoppolo to bail the offense out of potential third-and-long situations.
Fast forward to 2018. The 49ers fell behind early in two of their three games, and their passing attack has been less efficient on first down, which has produced more second-and-10 opportunities. Shanahan has continued to run the ball in these situations, but with defenses knowing the 49ers are capable of putting points on the board, they’re no longer willing to give the team the free second-down yardage that would put Garoppolo in manageable third-down situations.
The 49ers have been able to convert manageable third-down attempts, but their inability to execute on third-and-long has continued to prematurely end drives, which has kept points off the scoreboard. While Garoppolo didn’t impress on his third-and-long attempts in 2018, does the blame fall on the QB, or on the coach who continued to put his quarterback in a position to fail?
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