There was once a 49ers head coach who began his tenure by overseeing a team that didn’t manage more than 226 yards or 16 first downs in his first three games.
No, it wasn’t Chip Kelly. Or Jim Tomsula.
It was Jim Harbaugh.
The shaky offensive start under Harbaugh (record with 49ers: 44-19-1) is worth remembering considering current events. Under Kyle Shanahan, another offensive-minded head coach with a voluminous playbook, the 49ers (0-2) haven’t scored a touchdown or managed more than 248 yards or 13 first downs.
The good news: The 49ers don’t have to peek too deeply into their history for a lesson that could prevent early panic.
Six years ago, Harbaugh’s opening marked one of three times in franchise history the 49ers didn’t gain more than 226 yards in three straight games.
The 49ers won two of those first three games in 2011, but the offense had little to do with their success. They scored one offensive touchdown in a win over Seattle and beat Cincinnati 13-8. Their offensive line looked so inept that left tackle Joe Staley declared to reporters after three games: “Contrary to popular belief, we don’t suck.”
On Tuesday, Staley was reminded of that quote — and the start under Harbaugh — and asked if it gave him hope that their current issues will be resolved quickly.
“You can’t compare it,” Staley said. “It’s a coincidence, I guess. But I think there’s something to be said about a new scheme. And this scheme had definitely been proven that it’s been successful. We’ve just got to perform better.”
Like Harbaugh, Shanahan’s scheme is complex, and it’s being taught to a group that needed name tags in the offseason: Only four of the 49ers’ offensive starters in a 12-9 loss at Seattle on Sunday were with the team last year.
Another similarity to 2011: There are questions about whether the 49ers’ quarterback is a competent starter.
Six years ago, Alex Smith, who had endured benchings and boos, didn’t immediately justify Harbaugh’s faith in him, and Brian Hoyer can relate.
On Sunday, Hoyer, 31, whom Shanahan declared was his unquestioned starter in the spring, threw for 99 yards and averaged 3.67 yards per attempt. The latter figure was the lowest by a 49ers quarterback with at least 20 attempts since Smith’s fourth career start, Dec. 11, 2005.
Hoyer, with his seventh NFL team, is vaguely aware the chatter surrounding him isn’t exactly uplifting.
“I’ve been through it all,” Hoyer said. “First of all, you don’t listen to it. … It was a tough game, and now we move on.”
As the 49ers move on to host the Rams on Thursday night, there are reasons for optimism.
Unlike 2011, when the 49ers averaged 2.5 yards per carry after three games, they rank second in the NFL in that category (6.2), and Carlos Hyde (169 yards) is fourth in the league in rushing.
“I think we’re definitely making strides,” Staley said, “and guys are feeling a lot more comfortable.”
However, the same can’t be said about the passing game, which Shanahan bluntly called out after Sunday’s loss.
The 49ers have converted a league-worst 17.4 percent of their third downs (4-for-23), and Hoyer bears responsibility. He has completed 10 of 18 passes for 55 yards on third down, and just three of those completions have netted first downs.
Twelve of the 49ers’ 21 drives this season have lasted four plays or fewer.
“I think you’ve just got to get completions and move the chains,” Hoyer said. “I think that’s the one thing we’ve got to do as an entire offense is stay on the field longer. Our defense is doing a great job. Keep them off the field. Keep them fresh. For us, it would be great to just go out and sustain a drive.”
Or perhaps multiple drives. In 2011, the 49ers finally did that in Harbaugh’s fourth game. They had 289 yards in the second half, 63 more than they managed in any of their first three games, to erase a 20-point, third-quarter deficit in a 24-23 victory at Philadelphia.
“That was as good a win as I can remember being a part of,” Harbaugh said afterward.
Of course, it was the first of many huge wins for Harbaugh with the 49ers after a sputtering start.
So, perhaps, Shanahan can take heart: His start has him positioned to join good company.
Source: SF Gate | Eric Branch | 09/19/17