49ers don't fumble 'pistol' execution

Roman explains intricacies of the read-option

49ers don't fumble 'pistol' execution
January 17, 2013, 2:30 pm
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I didn't like it at first, but it's working for us. If it gets us to the Super Bowl, I'm with it.
—Frank gore on "Pistol" offense

SANTA CLARA -- The concept of the "pistol" is for an offense to blend the threat of a power, straight-ahead run game with a strong element of deception.

Ironically, if a 49ers running back gets the ball on the power, between-the-tackles option, quarterback Colin Kaepernick must use finesse and a soft touch to trigger the read-option play.

But if Kaepernick decides to challenge the defense's outside contain, he must be aggressive and forceful with his actions.

"The quarterback has the ball and controls the ball," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday. "When he pulls it, I mean, he's yanking that thing out. There is no indecision. He is ripping that thing out with conviction."

That approach is completely different when Kaepernick decides he must hand the ball off to running back Frank Gore or LaMichael James.

"He lays it in there gently," Roman said. "So there's definitely a stark contrast between the two."

The 49ers fashioned more of the "pistol" offense in the team's 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers in an NFC semifinal game than at any point this season. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards on 16 attempts. Gore gained 119 yards on 23 attempts, while James added 21 yards on three carries.

James, who ran a read-option offense during his college career at Oregon under new Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, was the back who got the ball ripped away from his arms on Kaepernick's 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter against the Packers.

When asked about the mechanics of working with a quarterback on those such plays, James said, "It's just an instinctive deal. You really don't know if you're going to get it or not, but he (Kaepernick) made the right read."

James said at the snap of the ball, he is not looking at the defense and spying a hole through which to run. He is merely keeping focused on the first task and that's the football.

"I'm looking at the ball," James said. "I'm looking at it go in, and once he pulls it, it's gone. You got to look at the ball, and get the ball first."

Kaepernick, who ran the offense exclusively at Nevada under creator Chris Ault, is well-schooled in making split-second reads and carrying out a fake. He did it full-time at Nevada, where he became the first player in major-college football to pass for at least 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 or more in three consecutive seasons.

The Packers' defense seemed to regularly lose track of which player had the football because of Kaepernick's expert ball-handling.

"It's definitely something we work on and emphasize and everybody knows how critical that is to the play," Roman said. "It is a key component to the play. Colin, because of the extensive use of that offense in college, came in here to the NFL with a real good understanding of that."

Gore has made the biggest adjustment of anyone after spending most of his first seven NFL seasons in a traditional run game. This season, with a larger element of the pistol offense sprinkled in after Kaepernick took over at quarterback, Gore had to adapt. His rushing average with Kaepernick at quarterback was a yard less than it was earlier in the season.

But Gore excelled in the playoff victory over the Packers, so it's clearly grown on him.

"I didn't like it at first," Gore said. "But it's working for us. If it gets us to the Super Bowl, I'm with it.

"I just felt like that's not real football, at first. But like I said, it's helping us get to where we want to go, so I'm with it."

Said Roman, "Frank is such an adaptable player. It doesn't take him long to pick something up. He's one of the most gifted, knowledgable, intelligent football players I've been around at any position. He just has a feel and an understanding for the game."

And the 49ers, as a whole, have developed an understanding for the key component through a lot of repetitions over many months on the practice field. The 49ers have yet to fumble one of their read-option handoffs or fakes this season.

"It's something we worked on in spring and training camp and really last year as well," Roman said. "We do have some time invested in it, and it comes down to the layers executing the players on the field."