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Could the 49ers Use a Decade-Old Idea to Get Back to the Super Bowl?

On Sunday, Kyle Shanahan showed the levels his offense could reach with Trey Lance under center. The effectiveness of the concepts the 49ers deployed—and how the team uses the rookie passer this season—could raise San Francisco’s ceiling to new heights.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You could almost hear the longing in Kyle Shanahan’s voice. It was June 2018, and the 49ers head coach was heading into his second season in San Francisco. A reporter asked Shanahan whether NFL defenses had “figured out” the zone read, a concept the former Washington offensive coordinator had employed to great effect during Robert Griffin III’s rookie season in 2012. It had been years since Shanahan last used the play with any regularity, but it was clear he was still a fan.

“No, there isn’t anything to figure out,” Shanahan replied. “It’s a very sound scheme. It’s how you want to attack it. What do you want to do off it when they 100 percent commit to stop it? … Is your quarterback good enough to run with the football to make them commit to stop it? And once they do, is he good enough to make the passes that he has to that they just opened up?

“It’s tough to find that guy.”

That skeleton key that unlocks so much for offenses is hard to find. Yet the 49ers are confident they’ve found it in Trey Lance, the rookie quarterback who ran for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns while throwing for another 28 in his only season as North Dakota State’s starter. They were confident enough to ship three first-round picks to Miami for the right to add him to their cupboard with the third pick, even with $26.4 million Jimmy Garoppolo at home in the fridge.

The eight-year vet remains the favorite to start Week 1, but that doesn’t mean we won’t get to see Lance play this year. The two traded first-team reps in the preseason finale against the Raiders on Sunday, and Shanahan said after the game that a two-quarterback rotation would be an option for the 49ers all season.

Whether that’s just talk to force defensive coordinators to plan for the possibility, or something Shanahan will deploy remains to be seen. But Sunday’s showcase offered a glimpse into a Lance-led future, and it’s one that should concern the rest of the league. With Garoppolo under center, San Francisco looks like a solid playoff contender. But if Lance gets up to speed quickly enough to start by playoff time, the ceiling could be so much higher.

No matter who starts Week 1, the 49ers figure to be in the playoff mix. They’re the favorites to win the NFC West, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, and Football Outsiders gives them a 58.7 percent chance to make the postseason. But it’s hard to imagine this team being better than the one that blew a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl just 19 months ago. The defense is thinner than it was in 2019, when it finished second in DVOA. And the offense is still led by that same quarterback who was good enough to get the 49ers to the championship game, but not good enough to win it for them.

Garoppolo is a fine enough option at quarterback that the 49ers don’t feel they need to rush Lance into the starting job. But the rookie will likely still play a fair amount of snaps this season, both to get his legs underneath him in the NFL and to add a level of explosiveness to the offense.

Sunday’s game against the Raiders offered a preview of how San Francisco’s run game might look when the 21-year-old is on the field, and ... it was fun as hell. On Lance’s first snap, the 49ers ran a “Counter Bash” play and had all of NFL Twitter pointing at their screens like Rick Dalton.

It’s an objectively cool play design. And, more importantly, it’s ridiculously effective. The Ravens blew defenses away with the concept in 2020, calling it 41 times and averaging 0.56 expected points added per attempt, according to Sports Info Solutions. If you’re unfamiliar with the EPA metric, here’s some context: Last season, Aaron Rodgers led all quarterbacks with 0.36 EPA per play. It’s not often you can find a run concept more efficient than the reigning NFL MVP. And now Shanahan, already one of the league’s best play-callers, has it in his playbook.

That wasn’t the only new trick Shanahan showed off with Lance in the backfield on Sunday. The rookie’s lone touchdown of the day came on a beautifully choreographed zone read design that lured the Raiders out of position, opening a lane for Lance to stroll into the end zone untouched.

The Las Vegas defense looked as if it had never defended a run play before, but it’s hard to be too critical with all that commotion in the backfield. Shanahan had four 49ers going in different directions, and there was no telling which one of them had the ball.

Dealing with the more traditional version of Shanahan’s offense is already tough enough, even with a quarterback who is largely propped up by his scheme and coach. If the Niners put Lance under center, though, we could see a role reversal where the quarterback is propping up the coach—and that’s something San Francisco has had success with before.

Nine years ago, when Shanahan was tormenting the league with his option-based attack in Washington, then-49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were looking to get in on the fun. Alex Smith was the starting QB, and—like Garoppolo in 2021—he wasn’t far removed from leading San Francisco on a deep playoff run. But sitting on the bench was a young, athletic quarterback with the ability to supercharge the offense. Today, it’s Lance in that role. Nine years ago, it was Colin Kaepernick.

As is expected this year, that 49ers team installed a small package of plays that featured the mobile backup in cameo roles early in the season. Kaepernick got to throw some passes in these appearances, but he was mostly used as a runner. The team’s Week 4 win over the Jets was a breakout of sorts for the second-year quarterback. He was given three designed run attempts that went for 41 yards and a touchdown. The next week against the Bills, he got three more designed carries, two of which were zone read plays that gained 31 yards and another touchdown. It was clear Harbaugh and his staff were onto something. The only question: When would Kaepernick be ready to do it full time?

The 49ers dialed back Kaepernick’s usage over the next few weeks, perhaps to keep defenses from catching on, but he was thrust into action again after Smith suffered a concussion against the Rams in Week 10. You know how the rest of this goes. Kaepernick’s mobility added another dimension to the offense, as did his willingness to push the ball downfield. Smith was cleared to play two weeks later, but Harbaugh knew that to get to the Super Bowl, he had to go with the younger quarterback. Speaking about his decision to stay with Kaepernick, Harbaugh said he was riding “the hot hand.” But even after the young quarterback struggled in losses to the Rams and Seahawks, he remained the starter going into the postseason.

There is a big misconception about how things went after Kaepernick was named the full-time starter in 2013, and that’s this idea that his initial success was the product of the option run game, which NFL defenses hadn’t seen much in 2012. San Francisco did employ those concepts in Kaepernick’s regular-season starts that year, but it wasn’t until the postseason that Harbaugh and Roman made it the foundation of the offense. In those seven regular-season games, the 49ers called an option run 29 times, or just over four times per game. In three postseason games, they called 39, or 13 per game.

The increase in usage had a dramatic effect. After averaging 0.03 EPA per run play during the regular season—already the third-highest mark in the NFL that season—the 49ers averaged 0.20 EPA per play during the postseason, per Teams just didn’t know how to defend these option concepts. The Packers let Kaepernick run for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the NFC divisional round. The Falcons and Ravens didn’t want to end up in the record books next to Green Bay, so they told their unblocked defenders to key in on the quarterback and force him to hand it off to the running back. But that’s what these option-based offenses want. They want defenses to account for the QB, which opens up lanes for the running back.

The passing game also got a significant boost by the sudden schematic makeover. The 49ers started throwing off play fakes meant to look like option handoffs, and with defenses selling out to defend the run, there was plenty of space to attack downfield. Kaepernick averaged 11.7 yards per attempt on play-action passes in those playoffs, according to Pro Football Focus, a 3.9-yard improvement over the regular season.

As the game has evolved, defenses have found more effective methods for defending these plays. Back in 2012, all of this was new for NFL coaches, and that was a big factor in the efficacy of the 49ers offense during the Super Bowl run. It’s impossible to say whether Harbaugh had been planning to unleash Kaepernick on the league later in the season before Smith’s injury necessitated the move, or whether he just stumbled into the advantage because of it. But either way, he may have laid out a blueprint for his former team to follow now.

Let’s imagine a 2021 NFL season in which Shanahan brings Lance along on a similar track. The veteran Garoppolo is good enough to keep the 49ers afloat for a few months while the rookie quarterback is given time to adjust to the pro game. A package of plays for Lance will add just enough spice to the offense to keep defenses guessing and give him some live reps to help accelerate his development. Then, late in the season, Shanahan could switch to Lance and unleash this high-tech offense on the league, giving defenses little time to adjust before the playoffs. That sounds like a viable path back to the Super Bowl—far more viable than hoping a lame-duck quarterback elevates his game in Year 8.

It was a risky gambit for Harbaugh to bench a successful starter for his raw backup in 2012, but one that paid off. There is far less risk for Shanahan to make a similar move. Niners fans will be calling for Lance every time Garoppolo throws a bad pass; and even at this early stage in his development, Lance is a far more advanced passer than Kaepernick was nearly a decade ago. Nobody is going to criticize the 49ers for making a change, especially not a fan base that has seen such a move end in a trip to the Super Bowl.

Besides, Shanahan has been waiting nine years to do something like this again. How much longer can we reasonably expect him to wait?