On a typical night, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith leaves his team's practice facility around 9 p.m., and often, on his way out, he'll spot offensive coordinator Greg Roman scheming away in his second-floor office at 4949 Centennial Boulevard. When the two run into each other the next morning, the bespectacled Roman, often appearing not to have slept, bounces his late-night work off the quarterback.
"It's as if he wants to see if it's sound, because he thinks of it at such strange hours," says Smith. "He's like a mad scientist up there. It's fun to come in in the morning and see what he's got."
The mad scientist's schemes—in a nutshell, a hair-raising number of player packages—were on full display during the 49ers' 27--19 Week 2 win over the Lions, as Roman used 10 different personnel groups in San Francisco's first 15 plays. On consecutive snaps to open the game Roman went with one back, one tight end and three wide receivers; two backs, one tight end and two receivers; and one back, two tight ends and two receivers. On the fourth play he used two backs and tight end Vernon Davis, who beat the safety to the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
Against Green Bay a week earlier, Roman had guard Leonard Davis, a 6'6", 350-pound office building of a human, line up at tight end for the first time in his career. On other occasions against the Packers and the Lions he had 6'3", 308-pound guard Daniel Kilgore join Leonard Davis at tight end. And when he really wanted to go big, Roman had 6'4", 293-pound defensive tackle Will Tukuafu at fullback.
What makes these myriad alignments so dangerous is Roman's tendency to present, say, a Jumbo package, which typically indicates a run by Frank Gore, and then go with a pass.
Roman can get away with such creativity because his players are multidimensional. "You can line up Vernon Davis as a receiver [alongside end] Delanie Walker and show run, then shift to an empty backfield and throw it," says Lions cornerback Drayton Florence, who witnessed just that on Sunday. "That messes with a play-caller and what defense he wants. The 49ers mix their personnel better than anyone. It makes them tough to prepare for."
And tough to beat. The 49ers decline to discuss the number of personnel packages at their disposal—20 would be a safe guess—but there's little question that such scheming (paired with a defense, ranked No. 2 in points allowed in 2011, that returns every starter) has forged a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Last year, when they made it to the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers scored three or more offensive touchdowns in five of their 18 games. In 2012? They're already two for two.
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Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
LET'S BE FRANK The Niners constantly swap linemen in and out and often run Frank Gore out of pass formations to befuddle defenses.
BILL KOSTROUN/AP (GILBRIDE)