Revisiting 49ers' offensive philosophy

The 49ers have done nothing to dispel Steve Young's strong words about their offensive approach.

"It’s great, it’s great," Young told KNBR last week, "but Frank Gore needs to be traded. You can’t run the spread with Frank Gore being effective. He’s not the guy that is going to catch the ball [like] Marshall Faulk and slash and burn [like] Joseph Addai and different guys who have thrived in the spread."

The 49ers' spread offense is not a literal spread offense, just as Young was not literally calling for the 49ers to trade one of their best offensive players (tight end Vernon Davis might now be the best). But the 49ers have become largely a shotgun passing team instead of a power running team. Tight ends are serving as receivers. Gore has been left out.

The 49ers say they want balance. The Seahawks loaded up against the run Sunday, 49ers coach Mike Singletary explained, and that was why San Francisco threw nearly 75 percent of the time on first and second down. This sounds logical. It might take a while for opponents to decide against keying on Gore. The Seahawks, having watched Gore rush for 207 yards against them in Week 2, had reason to fear the run more than the pass.

The 49ers were most successful Sunday throwing from run-oriented personnel. The more wide receivers San Francisco put on the field, the less effective Alex Smith became. The 49ers' personnel choice, not the effectiveness of their ground game, dictated to what degree the Seahawks had to respect the run (download full personnel breakdown here).

49ers and the pass

The chart shows how many yards per attempt Alex Smith averaged against Seattle, contingent on how many wide receivers the 49ers had on the field.

Smith attempted four passes from run-oriented personnel featuring two backs, one wide receiver and two tight ends. The 49ers averaged 18.8 yards per attempt and scored their only touchdowns on these plays. One of these plays produced Davis' 33-yard scoring reception on fourth-and-1. Another produced Josh Morgan's 22-yard scoring reception on first-and-10.

These explosive pass plays probably worked in part because the personnel groups forced a Gore-fearing defense to account for the run. The 49ers could have more difficulty passing if opponents realize the run poses little threat. This might partially explain recent struggles on third down, when teams are more certain the pass is coming.

More broadly, the 49ers have provided little evidence suggesting Smith and Gore can flourish in the same offense, or that the 49ers can win consistently as primarily a running or passing team. Smith is improving and that is important. How this all might fit together remains undetermined.