The six-team NFC playoff field is loaded with veritable stars on both sides of the football, but it…
Niners learning offense on the Fly
Pete Lavorato was at home watching the 49ers on Thanksgiving when a play popped up on television that looked all too familiar.
"I remember watching it going, 'Hey, there's the fly sweep!'" Lavorato said. "That was kind of cool."
The coach at Sacred Heart Preparatory in the Bay Area had passed along a tip about the offense to San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh a couple of years ago at Stanford. Lavorato never imagined seeing the scheme in the NFL, let alone working so successfully.
The idea is only the latest wrinkle Harbaugh has worked into the 49ers offense. San Francisco (10-2) has found creative ways this season to keep opponents guessing about an otherwise vanilla scheme, including throwing to a lineman, letting a nose tackle catch a pass and converting a defensive end into a fullback.
Harbaugh showed up at a Sacred Heart game just up the road in Atherton on a 2009 recruiting visit with Stanford. Lavorato's offense caught Harbaugh's eye, and he invited the high school coach to Stanford one day to teach the scheme.
Lavorato figured the coaching clinic would be an informal session.
"I got there and Jim said, 'Are you ready?' And I said sure. He walked out the door and he said, 'OK, guys, come on in.' And his whole coaching staff, about 15 guys came in ready with their pens and pads to listen to me," Lavorato said. "I'm like, 'Oh my God, this is intimidating.' But it's kind of funny now."
The fly sweep's concept is rather simple.
The formation puts a player in motion – usually a wide receiver or running back – from one side, the quarterback takes the snap and hands the ball off to the recipient at full speed running parallel to the line of scrimmage. The scheme is similar to the wildcat formation the Miami Dolphins made popular. However, the 49ers run the fly sweep with a drop-back quarterback in Alex Smith starting under center instead of a running back in shotgun formation.
The idea is to give the offensive player an advantage by starting at full speed against a defense that is standing still – all the while maintaining the threat of a pass by starting under center.
"Just wanted to learn about it," Harbaugh said on why he contacted Lavorato. "Saw teams that were incorporating it and there were teams that were actually using it as an entire offense. Wanted to learn from somebody who was an expert at it."
The 49ers have run the play several times this year.
In last week's 26-0 victory over St. Louis, wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. ran the fly sweep for a 16-yard gain. Smith faked a handoff to running back Frank Gore, lined up to the left, before giving the ball to Ginn sprinting close to full speed to the right for a gain off the edge.
The last time the lightning-quick Ginn remembers running the formation was at Ohio State and to a greater extent in high school. After all, the idea is still a novel concept in the pros.
"I always thought it could work in the NFL. We just needed a coach like coach Harbaugh who wasn't afraid to run it," Ginn said.
The 49ers are hardly built around such deception.
As is the case on most Sundays, San Francisco grinds out wins with a power running game and ball control, taking few risks with a defense that has become one of the NFL's best. Harbaugh still sprinkles in some tricks from time to time, if nothing else just to keep opponents guessing.
Joe Staley relished his shining moment after the offensive lineman caught a 17-yard pass and celebrated madly with a two-handed point downfield to signal the first down during a victory over Cleveland. Nose tackle and part-time fullback Isaac Sopoaga got into the action with a key 18-yard reception in the second half of that game.
Rookie Bruce Miller has been converted from Conference USA's defensive player of the year at Central Florida to fullback. And when he went down with a concussion, third-string tight end Justin Peelle filled in as Gore's lead blocker.
"We've got it all," defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said.
How long the fly sweep lasts is anybody's guess.
Lavorato is quick to point out he is not the master of the offense, rather, just the final coach in a long line of colleagues sharing information. Lavorato first saw the system as an assistant at Hollister in the South Bay when they played Norm Costa's team at Palma High School.
Willamette University's Mark Speckman is considered the foremost expert on the fly sweep, utilizing the formation as his base offense for years. Speckman built a Northern California prep powerhouse at Merced High School using the Fly offense during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Still, Lavorato takes personal pride in watching the 49ers run the system in prime time, considering it might never have happed if not for Harbaugh's call.
"It goes to show you what kind of guy Harbaugh is," Lavorato said. "He doesn't care how or what or who is telling him. He just wants to do anything he can to give his guys a chance to succeed. So I just think the whole thing is kind of special."