Behind 49ers' offense, a creative genius who's always thinking
NEW ORLEANS -- When 49ers players and coaches are asked about the ingenuity of offensive coordinator Greg Roman's game plans, the response is always the same. There is a smile, a chuckle or a roll of the eyes, then a virtual shrug of the shoulders that comes from a place of deep respect and incredulity.
Quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst: "I think he visits some football muse at like 2 in the morning and comes up with designs that are very creative -- destructively creative. You ask, 'Can we really do this? Can we really line up this way?' It's his way of having fun, and he presents it to the players as having fun. Hey, let's try something that's a little bit out there."
Right guard Alex Boone: "I want to know how he draws them up. I want to know where he is when he's thinking of these things. Seriously. Some of them, you don't think they're going to work. You say, 'That doesn't look right.' Then you do it and you're like, 'Wow, that's amazing.' "
"I don't know if it's in the wee hours of the night when he comes up with this stuff, but I'll come in the next morning and he'll be like, 'I thought of this last night,' and it'll be a whole new deal from what we were just talking about," QB Alex Smith says. "It's like he has it all laid out and he wants to run it by me, like, 'What do you think?' I swear he's trying to check and see if it's sound, because he thinks of it at such strange hours. But that's him. He is like the Mad Scientist, up there coming up with such great stuff."
Roman will have to be at his creative best Sunday for the 49ers to beat the Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. Baltimore's defense has surrendered just four touchdowns in three playoff games -- three were against the Broncos in Denver -- and 14 months ago it held San Francisco without a touchdown in a 16-6 victory.
Roman needs no reminding of this. He has reviewed the game tapes from that primetime Thanksgiving defeat. But bank on this: What you see from the San Francisco offense on Sunday will be significantly different from what it showed a year ago. For one, Colin Kaepernick has replaced Smith at quarterback. Kaepernick has the mobility to not only escape the Ravens rush, but also convert those runs into big gains. His 181 yards rushing against the Packers in the divisional round are a league record for quarterbacks.
No. 2, Roman has had two weeks to prepare. In that Thanksgiving game the 49ers were traveling cross-country on a short week. Creativity had to give way to the reality that there wasn't time to install a game plan that was long on complexities or cleverness. That won't be a concern this week, so look for Roman to present as many personnel packages in one game as some clubs do in a month.
"Their offense is multiple [in its packages] beyond Colin Kaepernick," says former Ravens coach Brian Billick. "They're as physical and as creative as any group in the league. It's going to be a problem for the Ravens, who were run on pretty good during the season. [The Ravens are] healthier now than they've been and that's a good thing, but this (SF) group is going to test them in a way they haven't been before."
Before playing the 49ers in Week 2, Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch studied tape of San Francisco's season-opening win at Green Bay. After a while he could only shake his head, noting that the offense used 10 different personnel groups in its first 15 snaps.
"Since I've been in the league it's the first time I've really seen a team that mixes its personnel that much," Tulloch said after losing 27-19 at Candlestick Park. "It kind of keeps you on your toes when you're out there. You can't get comfortable. You have to be ready for sub packages at all times."
Roman's desire to be different comes from an upbringing in Ventnor, N.J., during which he admittedly questioned authority. Not in a disrespectful way, but a curious-to-know way. When someone would tell him That's how it's always been done, he would ask, Why?
Same with football. While some coordinators do things by the book, Roman continuously asks himself and other staff members, What would happen if we did it differently? Like, the run game.
Most teams rely on zone-blocking schemes that require linemen to account for a particular area instead of a pre-determined player. Not the 49ers. After discussing whether they could gain an advantage by doing the opposite and having their linemen be responsible for a man instead of a designated space, they set out to find out. Through their first two seasons the 49ers have posted 4,535 yards rushing, third most in the league.
"Everything became so zone-blocking oriented after the incredible success that Denver had there for a while," Roman says of the Broncos, who from 1995-2007 ranked in the top 10 in rushing 12 times, including nine top-5 finishes. "When [opponents] practice against one thing, they don't quite know how to play that other stuff. We kind of took the opposite approach and said let's be counterculture and do things that people don't work on; anything we can do to get our players an advantage."
The beauty of Roman's approach is that he's not wedded to one idea. While he believes in flexibility and creativity, he also knows his mind's capabilities are tied to his players' skill sets. That's why his first priority is to develop game plans that accentuate their abilities. It's working. Last season after coming from Stanford with coach Jim Harbaugh and other members of the Cardinal staff, the offense scored three or more touchdowns just four times. This season it has done so 10 times.
"I've never played or been around anyone who is as detailed or has as much volume as he does in his playbook," says fullback Bruce Miller. "It's a lot of fun for me because I get to move around a lot. He comes up with schemes that gives guys great angles to block from. And he's always game specific. Whatever he thinks will work against that opponent is what we're going to use. We might call the same play but block it up a little differently depending on the opponent."
That wasn't the case for guard Leonard Davis during parts of previous stops with Dallas and Arizona. The offense was the offense, and if a certain play was called you ran it the same way one week as you did the previous week. With Roman, however, a former assistant offensive line coach with the Ravens, the blocking angles are different each week depending on the opponent.
"I've never seen anybody develop and design some of the plays that he does in the run game," says center Jonathan Goodwin. "It makes sitting in those meetings, having to learn some new things, more enjoyable. You're not just hearing that you're going to run the same old 'power' play again and again. At times we've run sweeps with both guards pulling. It's rare that you see that in this league."
Opponents have a hard time getting a read on what Roman will do because he'll send out, say, a Jumbo package -- which typically indicates a run play -- and call for a pass from that formation. He can get away with his creative ideas because San Francisco's players are multidimensional. It allows them to pass out of run formations, and run out of pass alignments, particularly with tight ends as versatile as Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.
"You can show run with the two of them in the game, then shift to an empty backfield and throw it," Lions cornerback Drayton Florence said earlier this season. "That kind of messes with a playcaller and what defense he wants to go with and which personnel he wants to put in. They probably mix their personnel and spread you out to create mismatches better than anyone in the league. It makes it tough to prepare for."
That's the goal each time Roman climbs the mountain in the wee hours and returns with a holy grail to review with Harbaugh. "We try to be creative, try to keep people off balance, try to have fun," says Roman. "I think what we do stimulates our players. When they come in every week there's always something new and they get really excited about what's next. It's a lot of fun."
If you don't believe him, just ask the players. Then wait for a smile, a chuckle or a roll of the eyes.