Many moons ago, Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh were better known for their successes on the field rather than the attention they draw off of it. In 2012, the two teamed up to win the NFC and take on the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl. They lost, but the 49ers were probably the most feared young team in the league: they had studs like Patrick Willis anchoring the defense and an athletic quarterback who had flipped the league on its head.
Between 2012-14, Kaepernick made 45 starts and put up 60 touchdowns to 26 turnovers. San Francisco made the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, reaching the NFC Championship game both times. In six career playoff starts, the Harbaugh/Kaepernick duo averaged 229 yards per game at a 58 percent clip with an additional 84 yards per game on the ground. The Niners went 4-2 and averaged 27.8 points per game — which would have ranked fifth in the NFL in 2017.
The creme de la creme of the Harbaugh/Kaepernick era is his destruction of the Packers in the 2012 Divisional Round. I’m embedding the carries, but I’m going to link to two other highlight packages here and here because the NFL doesn’t allow you to embed their videos.
Out of 16 carries against the Packers, seven appeared to be designed runs. The rest were broken plays and scrambles. Admittedly, the designed runs were the least effective of the bunch besides the game-breaking 60-yard score halfway through the third. But what I want you to focus on is the looks and the different blocking schemes used here and how they open things up.
In the linked videos, look how many 5-wide formations there are. Yes, the 49ers’ offensive line was monstrous during this time, but these plays aren’t Kaep sitting there with tons of time. They’re quick decisions. If the route isn’t there but the field opens up, Kaep takes off. He recognizes the defense has its back turned and makes them pay. Michigan could benefit greatly from these super-wide formations that force the defense to make quick decisions. Screen, slant, take-off. Shea is not as athletic as Colin, but he’s still incredibly quick. He can make these quick runs and has more than enough arm to make the throws.
A second thing I would like people to look for in these packages is how often the shotgun play-action is used. The offense almost looks like Auburn’s or Ohio State’s with sweeping misdirections and play-action built into the play. Handing it off to the back or keeping it appears designed into most of the pre-read action. It’s a college offense. You’re adding one more level of decision making to the defense while the offense simply repeats an action it’s comfortable with.
The thing with pro-style offenses is that they can become quite complex. There’s a reason that the NFL has only limped towards full-blown spreads (QB injuries do play a large part). It’s because elite NFL talent like Tom Brady can shred a defense when his offense is running option routes, complex blocking schemes, and exotic motion that creates unique formations. College quarterbacks and skill position guys have proven mostly incapable of this, which seems obvious since they’re 18-21 years old.
They can’t handle the complexity of this offense. They’re not ready yet - as a unit - to take advantage of the subtle complexities in safety movement when a tight end moves from on-the-line to off... as an example. Harbaugh’s offense at Michigan has repeatedly confused its personnel in efforts to confuse the defense. This leads to a dumbed-down, vanilla pro-style that hasn’t averaged four yards per carry against a team with a pulse in three years.
Many of us have been looking for a simpler, 49ers-style offense for a couple years now, though this may be the first time Harbaugh has the quarterback. Neither Jim McElwain nor Pep Hamilton have the background to successfully incorporate these type of things, but Harbaugh does. He could do it this week, against a Western Michigan team who made Eric Dungey look like he was wielding the Infinity Gauntlet.
I want to see some creativity in the home opener, but history suggests Michigan comes out and runs 40-50 I-formation dives with Higdon and Evans for the next few weeks (while racking up 300 yards against overmatched teams) until Wisconsin and Michigan State stifles it.
Six years ago, Harbaugh made a bold decision to insert Kaep and rebuild his offense around a mobile quarterback with a big arm. It’s probably time to unleash Patterson in the same way.