Is Greg Roman Destined to Coach the Jaguars?: Breaking Down the Philosophies the 49ers’ Offensive Coordinator Would Bring to Jacksonville
On Saturday, the San Francisco 49ers became the first team since the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars to pass and rush for over 250 yards in a playoff game. Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator for the 49ers, has widely been rumored to be the lead candidate for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ head coaching position – as much for his relationship with new Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell as for the work he’s put into transforming the San Francisco 49ers offense into what it was on Saturday. Greg Roman has led this year’s 49ers to top 10 finishes in both passing and rushing efficiency, much like Tom Coughlin led the Jaguars to top 10 finishes in passing and rushing efficiency in 1999. However, unlike with the 1999 Jaguars, who were coached by Tom Coughlin without the assistance of an offensive coordinator, it’s unclear who to attribute the productivity of the San Francisco 49ers offense to. Separating the work of Greg Roman from the offensive-minded coach he’s been working with for four years, Jim Harbaugh, is a trying task that we at Black and Teal have been working at uncovering since GM Caldwell agreed to terms with the Jaguars. While Luke took a historic approach to try to uncover the offensive philosophies of Greg Roman, I’m going to pursue an ethnographic approach by bringing together sources with the greatest knowledge of the 49ers offense – 49ers players, team sources, and the San Francisco sports media. Let’s do it.
Tom Coughlin went back to hiring offensive coordinators after putting together the most successful season in Jaguars history – without an offensive coordinator. Source: Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports
First, let’s talk about the improvement the 49ers have made in the past two years. The pre-Harbaugh/Roman 49ers averaged 7 wins and 9 losses from 2008-2010, ending with a 6-10 season that led to Mike Singletary’s firing. During that span, they averaged 24th, 24th, and 19th in offensive (tot), passing, and rushing efficiency. With the addition of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, the 49ers offense finally took flight. With the same offensive weapons – Alex Smith, Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, and Michael Crabtree – and offensive line, the Harbaugh/Roman combination took the 49ers to their first respectable offensive season in at least half a decade, and followed that up with a top 5 performance in overall offensive, passing, and rushing efficiency. And they pulled that off with two different quarterbacks this year.
Alex Smith was trending up before he got benched halfway through this season. Will he be packing up his bags and following Greg Roman (to Jacksonville?)? Source: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Speaking of other quarterbacks, let’s look at the career history of the recently benched Alex Smith. Before Harbaugh/Roman came to the 49ers, Alex Smith was widely seen as a bust. If not for Harbaugh/Roman and Jamarcus Russell, Alex Smith would be seen as the most recent draft bust picked number one overall. However, Smith posted career highs in passing statistics across the board last year in his first year with Harbaugh/Roman before getting benched halfway through this season. As you can see from the table below, Smith was actually having his best year this year by virtually any statistical measure before he got benched – which makes the 49ers decision to go with Colin Kaepernick even more audacious. From a quick look at the stats below, it’s pretty clear that the Harbaugh/Roman combination have had a revitalizing effect on Alex Smith’s career. While no one is going to confuse him for an elite quarterback, Harbaugh/Smith saved him from becoming Chad Henne (a moderate upside career back-up QB) and turned him into the type of middling NFL starter who’ll still get a chance to start somewhere next season even though his job was taken by a (very good) second year player.
Advanced Passing Statistics: Alex Smith
* Note: QBR is an advanced statistic calculated by ESPN. It is not the same as QB Rating. DYAR is an advanced statistic calculated by FootballOutsiders. QB Rating is listed as the raw number, while QBR and DYAR are listed as ranks. This is done for convenience purposes, as QB Rating is a commonly used NFL Statistic while QBR and DYAR are advanced statistics that take factors like opponent variability and wide receiver drops into account. For more information on what factors QBR and DYAR incorporate and how the two statistics differ, please refer to the explanation posted by FootballOutsiders here.
“Luck had nothing to do with it.” But did Roman? Source: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Assuming that y’all are now on board with the idea that Harbaugh and Roman have drastically improved the 49ers offense in just two years, let’s start trying to make good on the promises we set out to – that is, discovering Greg Roman’s role and impact on the 49ers offense. Remember, Greg Roman’s playing and coaching career started with the defensive line. When he moved to offense, he worked with mainly offensive linemen and tight ends or as a general offensive assistant before he joined forces with Jim Harbaugh as the running game coordinator and tight ends/offensive tackles coach at Stanford. After Toby Gerhart’s Heisman-worthy 2009 season, Roman also gained the responsibility of “associate head coach/assistant offensive coach” (not offensive coordinator). The following year saw Andrew Luck’s rise to prominence, and finally, the departure of Harbaugh and Roman to the NFL. Roman’s focus in the run game as a part of Harbaugh’s offense hasn’t changed in the NFL. According to two 49ers, the game plan each week is divided and conquered amongst the 49ers coaches. “For the most part, Coach Roman does the run game, [WRs] Coach Morton does the pass game, and [QBs] Coach Chryst takes the red zone.” 49ers backup running back Anthony Dixon agreed with that assessment. However, not only is Roman not responsible for the entire game plan, he also doesn’t always call all the plays. While the camera will often flash to Roman in the box during a 49ers game calling the plays, the plays can be suggested by quarterbacks coach Geep Chyrst or presumably wide receivers coach Johnnie Morton, since he’s also involved in creating the pre-game plan. Furthermore, all plays are actually approved and called in by Harbaugh. So while Greg Roman is the offensive coordinator and primary playcaller for the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco offense is a collaborative process that puts heavy creative responsibility on a number of offensive coaches, not just the offensive coordinator.
This helps breed the creative and often complex 49ers offense that was on display on Saturday against the Packers. How creative is the offense? Well, in their first NFL season, Harbaugh and Roman were calling plays NFL film gurus had never seen before. In praising Jim Harbaugh, NFL films guru Greg Cosell said, “He’s understanding the ranges and limitations of his offensive personnel, and he’s maximizing the strengths and minimizing the limitations. And you know what that’s called? Coaching.” While Harbaugh gets credit for the management of his team’s strengths and weaknesses, as a head coach should, there’s no doubt that much of that is the result of Greg Roman’s work with the offense. Just ask his players. Often called “a mad scientist” or “an evil genius” by his players, the creativity Roman has brought to the 49ers offense is palpable for a long-time 49er like Joe Staley.
“They say it all starts with the guys up front, but it all starts with the play-calling,” Staley said. “The coordinator sets up everything. “I’ve been here for a lot of predictable offenses and no matter how you’re executing those plays look like s—-. When you’re executing well with plays that are very creative it creates doubt in defenses’ mind and you’ll have days like today.”
– Joe Staley, 49ers, LT, San Francisco 49ers
“Roman is an evil genius and I love the things he calls up… We talk to our defense and they’re like ‘We don’t know if we’re getting ‘Wham,’ we don’t know if we’re getting ‘Crack.’ Guys are going everywhere and that’s a big part of this offense – deception.”
– Alex Boone, RG, San Francisco 49ers
An unidentified team source confirms this. “The players rave about Roman’s calls. If you’re a defensive coordinator, you have to be concerned about the volume in the Niners’ offense. You’re going to see plays that you’ve never seen before or practiced against. That’s a huge advantage, especially with a quarterback like Alex Smith who is so smart and able to take advantage of situations.” While Roman’s approval rating by his players isn’t the best way to evaluate him as a head coach candidate, having the players on board is certainly important when deception and unconventional play-calling are an integral part of his offensive scheme.
High School Football Players – Greg Roman’s inspiration. Source: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Where does this creativity come from? For better or for worse, Roman doesn’t discriminate based on the source. When Roman served as the offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Holy Spirit High School, he created a jumbo package by playing offensive linemen at the strong side tight end and wing back positions. Although he initially created the package because of a shortage of tight ends (detention), the formation has made its way to the 49ers with success. But it’s not just Roman’s offensive innovation that people are taking note of – it’s also his play utilization. Roman noted that the Packers had only faced two read-option plays before the playoffs started; so Roman and Kaepernick pounded the read-option to the tune of a QB rushing record and a huge playoff win. For some visual insight on Roman’s use of creativity and deception in both creating plays and utilizing them, I’ll refer you to Bay Area Sports Guy.
But the love for Greg Roman isn’t ubiquitous – a certain member of the San Francisco sports media has had less-than-kind words to say about the 49ers offensive coordinator at times during this season. Halfway through this season, the aforementioned sports journalist from a local newspaper gave Roman a “D” for his midterm grade. The same writer claims that Jim Harbaugh thinks that Greg Roman “isn’t good enough” to be the offensive coordinator for the 49ers. Fans complain about the Roman offense being “inconsistent” or “too cute” and sometimes “too predictable”. Some, however, take a more balanced view – that Greg Roman likely gets too much credit at times and too much flak at other times, but while he isn’t perfect, he’ll likely be missed if and when he leaves the 49ers.
Can Roman turn Blaine Gabbert into at least Alex Smith? Or will Alex Smith replace him? Source: Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports
If Dave Caldwell decides to bring his buddy on board, what will Roman bring to the Jaguars? Likely, he’ll bring an offensive philosophy centered on balancing smash mouth football with elements of creativity and flexibility. He’ll bring deception – especially with regards to pre-snap formations and calls, but also an emphasis on player fundamentals. Furthermore, he’ll value an offense that adapts, that is prepared, and that has the potential to excel in many ways. Do the Jaguars actually have the talent to make such an offense work? That may be the ultimate question, but two years ago, no one thought the 49ers did either. Moreover, in the past four years, Roman’s offense has successfully leaned on five very different types of players (Toby Gerhart, Andrew Luck, Alex Smith/Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick/Frank Gore); there’s little reason to think that he can’t do it again. The Jaguars have a pair of promising young receivers, a running back who’s among the best in the league, and a tight end who has shown he can be productive. The question would be at quarterback – and it’s a toss-up whether Roman thinks Gabbert can be the answer, or whether he raids the 49ers bench and brings the answer to Jacksonville.
The real concern with Roman is two-fold. First, while Harbaugh repeatedly says that “[the 49ers] offense is Greg Roman’s offense”, it’s clear that many coaches play an essential role in creating and executing the 49ers offense. How much of this creativity, flexibility, and execution can be maintained without those coaches? Secondly, many in San Francisco have questioned the lack of consistency in the San Francisco offense. While fans and the sports media commonly charge coaches with the sin of inconsistency, the 49ers offense has been both unstoppable and incompetent in games this season. If the 49ers failed to put up 20 points against the Falcons this week, I think you’d see a lot of frustrated but unsurprised 49ers fans. This type of inconsistency has happened at times this season, and it’s even been borne out statistically: the 49ers have ranked 20th in offensive efficiency variance (consistency) over the past two years. Roman supporters will argue that being a first time coordinator with only one offseason to work with, two quarterbacks to start, and a sample size of two seasons more than explains for the inconsistencies that Roman’s offense has exhibited in the past two years. But only time can give us more data, and the Jaguars will have to make their decision without time on their side.
Lastly, Roman also has some strengths that make him an ideal candidate to be a head coach in the National Football League. First and foremost – his diverse experiences in football. A head coach with experience at so many different positions has a unique insight that a truly offensive-minded or defensive-minded coordinator can’t have, and some of Roman’s players clearly feel this way about him. Alex Smith says, “”I don’t think it’s just an offensive thing. I think it’s the game of football. I think the thing that jumps out at me is his understanding of football, offensively and defensively because he’s coached on both sides. He has such great knowledge of the game; I know I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last year and half, two years with him because he knows so much about the game of football… I think everybody enjoys working for him and respects how hard he works.” This renaissance-man approach to football knowledge is well-balanced by Roman’s uncompromising attention to detail. “He’s so dialed in with the entire offense, it’s unbelievable,” said one player.
Finally, being a coach with such a wide variety of football experience may give Roman a unique insight when it comes to picking assistant and position coaches; on the flip side, his lack of uni-dimensional expertise in a particular arena of football means that he’d benefit from giving said coaches significant responsibility and independence in orchestrating their football domains. However, given how many coaches are intimately involved in running the 49ers offense, this won’t be a foreign idea to Roman, and it seems to be one he’s already embraced. Roman declares, “You have to be ready for anything. I call the plays, but if somebody’s got something better, I’m going with that. The way we do things, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What more do you want from a coach besides making a team greater than the sum of its players?
— Zain Gowani