Niners coach Jim Harbaugh carving out his own niche

Vic Fangio, the 49ers defensive coordinator, said last week that he hasn’t seen another NFL team running Bill Walsh’s offense. He’s right, despite all the talk about the West Coast offense. And, the 49ers under Jim Harbaugh don’t run it, either.

That isn’t to say that Walsh’s influence isn’t widely felt throughout the league. In fact, he turned around the thinking of offensive coaches. When he took over the 49ers, it was all about throwing the ball deep. Quarterbacks who completed more than 50 percent of their passes and threw more touchdowns than interceptions were good quarterbacks.

Walsh’s offense was based on “moving the chains,” throwing passes with a high chance of being completed and a low chance of being intercepted. Steve Young told me once that, “Any quarterback should be able to complete 60 percent of his passes in this offense.”

Now, teams emphasize high completion percentages and low interception rates.

But football is a constantly evolving game, so teams have moved away from Walsh’s offensive system as defensive alignments have become more complicated. In the late ’90s, when Walsh was still with the 49ers, I asked him if there was a coach using his offense. He thought for a time and said, “Maybe Mike Holmgren.”

There are two obvious differences between the offense Walsh ran and the NFL offenses of today:

n Walsh believed in having two split backs, either of whom could run, catch passes or block. Roger Craig was first listed as a fullback when he was teamed with Wendell Tyler, then as a running back when he teamed with Tom Rathman, but however he was listed, Craig had the same responsibilities.

Now, backs are lined up in different formations, but the running back gets virtually all the carries. The fullback is almost exclusively a blocker.

n Walsh believed in having relatively light offensive linemen who were very quick. He likened them to a smaller-but-faster boxer who beat his opponent to the punch and eventually wore him down. Offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick did a masterful job of coaching these linemen, and because the 49ers were looking for a different type of linemen, they didn’t have to draft those who were among the first 10 draft picks.

Now, offensive linemen are huge. The Niners have linemen who can get downfield and block, but their main purpose is to just lay out the equally large defensive linemen in front of them. The prototype for these linemen, including those now playing for the 49ers, is the Dallas Cowboys of the early ’90s, not the Walsh teams.

There are some comparisons between the current 49ers and Walsh’s teams. The current edition favors the short passing game. Alex Smith is throwing similar passes to what Joe Montana threw, though he doesn’t have the advantage of a Jerry Rice-John Taylor receiving combination. Greg Roman is the counterpart to McKittrick, basically developing the running game. Like Walsh, Harbaugh makes use of his tight ends on downfield patterns, and he has two outstanding players  in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker.

But Harbaugh has adjusted to the changes in the game with his offense. Walsh would approve.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on Email him at

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