49ers-Eagles Is A Tale Of Space Age Vs. Stone Age: Different Offensive Paths Lead To NFC Championship Game

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The 49ers-Eagles matchup is an example of how two very different approaches arrive at the same result.

San Francisco and Philadelphia go into the NFC Championship Game on Sunday with offenses that are nearly identical in terms of results. Both average 5.9 yards per play and finished 1.6 points per game different in total scoring.

Both also have among the most physical offensive lines in terms of trying to impose their will and quarterbacks who have unexpectedly become impact players. Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts has gone from questionable prospect to MVP candidate. San Francisco’s Brock Purdy has gone from unknown player to savior of a season.

Jalen Hurts and Brock Purdy. (Getty Images)

How they do it from there, however, is a study in opposite philosophies. Where the 49ers are trying to outmaneuver opponents before the ball is even snapped, the Eagles are a team well-drilled in what do once the play has begun.

Pro Style Offense Vs. Great College Offense?

One NFL assistant coach terms it a battle of the progression of classic pro-style offense vs. “a great college offense.” Former NFL coach Mike Martz didn’t want to go that far with it.

“I would take the word ‘college’ out of the describing what the Eagles do,” Martz said. “It’s just a great offense with a quarterback who is exceptionally well-trained at how to run it. The system they run is very good and I think what happened is they understand it at a different level than most teams ever get to. They do a great job of coaching it and they are very specific with what they want to do, especially with the quarterback.”

The Eagles system leans heavily into Hurts’ overall talent as both a runner and passer by extensively using run-pass option concepts. Until a decade ago, RPOs were reserved mostly for the college ranks. Over the past decade, they have filtered into the NFL with the use of more running quarterbacks.

The downside is that RPOs remain a problem in the NFL because most quarterbacks don’t last that long doing it or aren’t skilled enough as passers to perfectly take advantage of it. Hurts may be the first great exception and the Eagles have helped him over the past two years by bringing in wide receivers Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown in the draft and free agency.

While Hurts rushed 165 times this season for 760 yards and 13 touchdowns, he also was exceptionally effective as a passer with 22 TD passes, only six interceptions (and set a career-low in interception percentage), and rating of 101.5.

To Martz, that effectiveness was built on the discipline Hurts has developed in knowing how to operate and adjust what the Eagles do.

“He has taken everything they have taught him to heart over the past two years and really perfected how that offense is supposed to be run,” Martz said. “That offense is built on reacting to what you see and following a series of rules about what to do. He does that as well as you’ll ever see.”

Bill Walsh’s Influence On 49ers

By contrast, the 49ers offense is built on coming up schemes that force the defense to change how it attacks the run. Defenses must account for every skill position player. What 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has done is take the concepts Bill Walsh built years ago with the 49ers and add new wrinkles that open up a true running game.

Where Walsh was trying to build a running game through the short pass to account for defenses that could overwhelm his offensive lines, Shanahan has come up with concepts that allow his better offensive lines to attack.

On top of that, the addition of running back Christian McCaffrey as both a runner and receiver to go with Purdy’s preternatural ability to process plays has created perhaps the best version of the Shanahan offense to date in San Francisco. Over the eight games that Purdy has played since former starter Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt, the 49ers have scored 30 or more points with Purdy six times.

“Purdy’s ability to operate their offense is pretty impressive,” Martz said, recalling how Kurt Warner did the same thing more than two decades ago in going from backup to starter and leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title. “You can see that Purdy has a sense of confidence about him that’s different.”


The concern to Martz is whether Purdy will be able to stand in against Philadelphia’s big defensive line.

“Purdy has a tendency to bail out of the pocket a little early and go to his left a lot,” Martz said. “At a certain point, you have to be able to hand in there and take some shots that the defense delivers.”

To put it another way, no matter how advanced the 49ers system is, the game becomes a battle of brute force.

Written by Jason Cole

Jason Cole has covered or written about pro football since 1992. He is one of 49 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has served as a selector since 2013. Cole has worked for publications such as Bleacher Report, Yahoo! Sports, The Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and started his career with the Peninsula Times-Tribune in Palo Alto. Cole’s five-year investigation of Reggie Bush and the University of Southern California resulted in Bush becoming the only player to ever relinquish his Heisman Trophy and USC losing its 2004 national championship.

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