SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers coach Chip Kelly raised some eyebrows on Sunday afternoon when he announced that his team isn’t built to throw the ball 60 times per game.
But Kelly wasn’t really saying anything that the rest of the football world didn’t already know or that he hadn’t said before. From the moment Kelly arrived as head coach of the Niners, it was clear that the focal point of the offense was going to be the running game, namely running back Carlos Hyde.
After all, Hyde was the one skill position player on the roster — save for the 2012 or so version of quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who looked like he had breakout ability.
So when Kelly was asked again about the statement on Monday, he reemphasized the point.
“It’s just overall the way our team is built,” Kelly said. “We’re built to run the football. Carlos is the main focus of what we’re doing offensively. We have a running quarterback that complements him and then our play-action pass complements that, and when we’re running the ball successfully and play-action pass off of that, we’re very good as an offensive football team. But to think we’re going to go into a game and throw the ball 60 times and win, that’s not a game plan for success for us.”
Carlos Hyde took a positive step with 86 yards on 19 carries against the Patriots, but the 49ers need more from their running game. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Indeed it isn’t. Really, throwing the ball 40 times in a game isn’t a recipe for success for the 49ers. Going back to Kelly’s three years in Philadelphia, the run game always has been the central piece of the offense, and the Eagles were at their best under Kelly in 2013 when they had one of the best rushing attacks in football. In three seasons in Philadelphia, Kelly’s Eagles were 24-8 when they rushed for 100 or more yards.
At the heart of that running game was LeSean McCoy, and though he had help, the amount of production that came from the quarterback paled in comparison to the yardage ratio between running backs and quarterbacks on Kelly’s 49ers.
Of the 2,566 rushing yards those Eagles had, running backs accounted for 2,019, or 79 percent.
This year, Kelly’s first season in San Francisco, the 49ers have rushed for 100 or more yards in seven games, but they’re just 1-6 in those matchups. In addition to not having a supporting cast that includes the likes of receiver DeSean Jackson, a dominant offensive line and a solid defense, the Niners’ running backs haven’t been able to do enough to keep defenses honest.
While the 49ers are averaging a solid 119.8 rushing yards per game, running backs have mustered just 766 of those 1,198 yards on the ground, which comes out to 64 percent. Last week, we discussed the need for running backs to contribute more to help alleviate some of the pressure on Kaepernick as both a runner and a passer.
To his credit, Hyde took a step in that direction in Sunday’s loss to New England. In a performance that Kelly would call “OK,” Hyde rushed for 86 yards on 19 carries, the third-most productive outing he’s had this season and a vast improvement over the 13-carry, 14-yard performance from the previous week against Arizona.
What was the difference? For one, Hyde looked less concerned with his previously injured shoulder than he did against the Cardinals. But he also pointed to a refreshed approach to running in Kelly’s scheme.
“Last week, I wasn’t attacking the line,” Hyde said. “This whole week, my mindset was to attack. When I’m attacking, I’m extending the drive for us and picking up yards for us.”
“As the game goes on, it gets easier and I know where I need to go with the ball.”
To hear Hyde discuss attacking the line would represent a different take on the popular emphasis that most discuss when talking about running in Kelly’s zone-heavy scheme. Patience is usually the primary factor and coaches praised Hyde’s patience early in the season when he had a couple of his better performances. An aggressive approach would seem to run counter to the patience required to read the line, locate a hole and accelerate through it, but as Kelly explains there’s actually a happy medium to be found.
“I think you need to find the holes,” Kelly said. “That’s the most important thing. And I don’t know, sometimes that is attacking and sometimes that is patience. It’s a combination of the two. So the biggest thing for the running back is having the vision to understand where the hole’s going to be and when the hole breaks that you have the opportunity to get yourself through it.
“So sometimes it’s going to be a quick-hitting play and you’ve got to hit it quickly and other times you’ve got to let the blocks develop. It really just depends on the play call in terms of where you are for that.”
Hyde ranks 20th in the NFL in rushing yards (529), 33rd in yards per carry (3.75) and 13th in yards per carry after contact (1.94) in nine games. Clearly, he could use some help from his blockers as he ranks 37th in the league in yards per carry before contact (1.81).
The inability to consistently run successfully combined with regular deficits has left the Niners averaging 37.4 dropbacks per game, which even though it’s 26th in the league, is still more than the Niners would like to have.
Regardless of how you slice it up, so long as Hyde and the run game remain the primary option for the offense, the Niners need to get more in that area so they don’t find themselves having to air it out as often.
“Every week we want to run the ball,” Hyde said. “Especially when you’re playing quarterbacks like Tom Brady, you want to get your run game going. You want to keep him off the field, minimize the defense on the field and extend our drives. Yeah, you want to run the ball. Eat that clock off and score points.”