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COHN: Smart Guy has tendency to outsmart himself

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, left, talks with tight end Garrett Celek at the 49ers' training facility in Santa Clara on Wednesday.

JEFF CHIU / Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 8:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 9:09 a.m.

Last Sunday, just before the 49ers’ first offensive play against the Falcons, I said out loud to myself, “Colin Kaepernick is going to throw a pass to Michael Crabtree.”

Sure enough, Kaepernick threw a dinky little pass to Crabtree for one yard.

The game before that against the Packers, Kaepernick threw a pass to Crabtree on the Niners’ first offensive play, this one for nine yards.

Get this. In six of the 49ers’ last eight games, the first offensive play was a pass. And that first pass went to Crabtree three of the past five games.

This is what you call a tendency. If I, a mere writer, can spot this tendency, you can bet defensive coordinators and head coaches around the league can spot it. You can bet the Baltimore Ravens know all about it.

It is no good to have an obvious tendency. It is even worse when the obvious tendency is a bad tendency. The tendency we’re talking about is a very bad tendency.

Let’s refer back to the Atlanta game. The Niners are significantly better than the Falcons, as in not even close. If Crabtree had not fumbled at the goal line and if David Akers had not missed that easy field goal, the game would have been a blowout.

But — and this is the screwy part — the 49ers fell behind 17-0 right away. Sure, the Niners came back and won and played brilliantly. But they did fall behind 17-0. There was a reason for that. The reason was offensive coordinator Greg Roman. This is not a Get-Greg-Roman column. It is more of an analytical column, an advice column.

Take a look at what Roman did at first in Atlanta — and remember Roman actually scripted these early plays, really intended to run them. Kaepernick threw the nothing pass to Crabtree for one yard. Frank Gore ran for no gain and then Kaepernick missed Vernon Davis and the 49ers went three and out. Not good when you’re already trailing 7-0.

Atlanta came back and kicked a field goal and went up 10-0. How did Roman respond? On the first play of the Niners’ second series, he called a pass to Randy Moss. Incomplete. Gore gained six on a run. Kaepernick got sacked. Three and out the second time in a row.

The Falcons scored a touchdown early in the second quarter and that made it 17-0. The 49ers were behind a whopping 17 points, a place they didn’t have to be.

In the meantime, something happened in the Roman brain. Either he came to his senses or someone knocked sense into his coconut. He began the Niners’ third possession with four consecutive Gore runs. “Run the ball, Greg.”

The 49ers’ offense took off from there. Why? Because the run sets up everything the 49ers do on offense — play-action, the option-read, the entire passing game, everything. Run is what the 49ers do best and it is the basis of everything else. Got that?

One assumes Roman knows this. But he has a fatal flaw. Oh, that’s overstating it. Let’s just say he has what I’ll call The Smart-Guy Tendency. In Smart-Guy Tendency, the smart guy — Roman — tries to outthink the opposing coaches. They are expecting a run — with very good reason, because it works — so The Smart Guy calls a pass. Understand, pass is the wrong call given what the Niners do, but Smart Guy calls it to show how smart he is.

Being The Smart Guy almost lost the 49ers the game and that leads us to the basic lesson of being an offensive coordinator. Roman outthought himself. It is his worst tendency, this outthinking himself. “Greg, never call a play because you think it’s the genius play. Call it because it’s the right play, even if it’s a humble, no-frills run. The right play trumps the genius play every time.”

Roman, The Smart Guy, is in love with the genius play, and he needs to get over that infatuation. Fast.

Here’s another example of Roman The Smart Guy. It was that horrible loss to the Rams in St. Louis on Dec. 2. The loss was Roman’s fault. The Niners led 10-2 with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter. They were at their own 17-yard line. They merely had to run out the clock.

For some inexplicable reason, Roman had Ted Ginn run behind Kaepernick. Kaepernick faked a handoff and then tossed the ball, a lateral with his left hand — he’s a righty — to Ginn who ran behind him and to his own left. Ginn never laid a hand on the ball. The Rams recovered, took the ball into the end zone, made a two-point conversion and won in overtime.

That is a perfect example of The Smart Guy outsmarting himself. The Niners faced third-and-3 from a dangerous position. Just run the ball up the middle or throw a slant for three yards. Do something normal.

All that was beneath Roman. He wanted to be a genius. So, he called the read-option fake, a triple-option pitch to Ginn. It was a crazy play and it looked like the 49ers barely had practiced it. And it was a disaster. That preposterous play never should have been part of the four-minute package, the win-the-game-victory package, especially 17 yards from their own end zone.

Which leads to my conclusion: The 49ers should beat the Ravens. The 49ers are the better team. But they have an X-Factor. And the X-Factor is Greg Roman. If he calls a reasonable, no-genius game the 49ers are Super Bowl champs. If he reverts to The Smart Guy, watch out.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs. pressdemocrat.com. You can reach

Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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