Fans uncertain about new 49ers offensive coordinator Geep Chryst might take comfort in knowing he was behind the team’s most famous offensive play in the last decade.
The so-called “Vernon Post” landed tight end Vernon Davis in the end zone with nine seconds left in the 2011 divisional playoffs and was the knockout blow to the visiting New Orleans Saints. It was the 49ers’ first postseason win in nine years and was quarterback Alex Smith’s finest moment as an NFL quarterback.
Chryst, then the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach, had been an assistant in Carolina the previous five seasons and knew New Orleans’ defensive tendencies. It also helped that the 49ers had a bye week to prepare.
“We assumed the Saints were going to beat the Lions,” Chryst, 53, said this week. “So we spent a lot of time doing homework on the Saints. We actually had that play up in Carolina but never called it.”
Saturday’s preseason opener against the Houston Texans is Chryst’s first game as the 49ers’ primary play caller and his first in that role since he was the San Diego Chargers’ offensive coordinator in 2000. He was the 49ers’ quarterbacks coach the last four years, three of which ended with long playoff runs.
Still, Chryst scrapped the old playbook and – along with new colleagues like offensive-line coach Chris Foerster, tight ends coach Tony Sparano and quarterbacks coach Steve Logan – started from scratch.
The result is an offense that wants to throw deep to wide receivers like Torrey Smith, toss screens to tailbacks like Reggie Bush and attack both the middle and edge of defenses with runners like Carlos Hyde.
Chryst sought input from quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert and pared down the language so that it was easier to learn and deliver in the huddle. That also helps the offense get to the line of scrimmage faster so the quarterback and center have time to survey the defense.
It’s a player-friendly system on a team for which “friendly” has become a theme.
Head coach Jim Tomsula is talkative and gregarious, and many of his assistants – including Chryst, one of the few retained from the previous staff – are from the same affable mold. That’s no coincidence. Harmony was a top criterion when Tomsula assembled his staff
“I’d never met Geep, Geep had never met me, but the conduit was Jimmy,” Logan said. “And I have a relationship with Jimmy where if he says, ‘Hey, you’re going to do well with this guy,’ shoot, I just get in the car, drive over there and get it going because I know it’s going to work. From second No. 1 to right now, Geep and I have been having a real, real fun time coming to work. And that’s the way it should be.”
Chryst comes from a football family. His father, George, coached at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. One brother, Paul, became the head coach at Wisconsin last year, and another, Rick, is the former commissioner of the Mid-American Conference. And Chryst’s son, Keller, plays quarterback for Stanford.
Geep Chryst, a linebacker at Princeton in the early 1980s, also was the team’s long-snapper. It’s a skill he picked up playing in the backyard with his brothers and sisters and one that would earn him a few extra bucks early in his coaching career.
Chryst spent the spring of 1991 with the Orlando Thunder of the World League of American Football. His main job involved working with receivers and running backs, but he also helped the team’s long-snapper.
The following year, when Chryst was an entry-level assistant in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, he got a call from the Thunder’s coach, who said his squad was having trouble with its long-snapping.
“I said, ‘I’d be happy to work with the long-snapper,’” Chryst said. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to work with the long-snapper, I want you to be the long-snapper.’”
So Chryst, a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday, flew to Orlando on a Friday and played the next day. The Thunder kicked a 53-yard field goal in the game and went on to play in that season’s World Bowl against the Sacramento Surge.
Before he left Chicago, Chryst had to get permission from head coach Mike Ditka, who granted it with one, gruff caveat: Don’t get hurt. That Bears squad also included a quarterback named Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh and Chryst later would reunite in San Diego, where Harbaugh was the starting quarterback for most of 1999 and Chryst the play caller. The following year, Ryan Leaf took over as the primary starter and the team went 1-15. Chryst’s offense ranked 28th out of 31 teams.
He hasn’t been an offensive coordinator since, although the division of labor during Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach in San Francisco gave his assistants license to take charge of different components of the offense. That’s what happened before the 49ers hosted the Saints in the 2011 playoffs.
The 49ers knew New Orleans’ defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, was aggressive.
“We played that team in the preseason in Week 1, and they blitzed the living daylights out of us,” Chryst said.
But perhaps more important, after facing the Saints twice a year when he was with the Panthers, Chryst knew when Williams had a tendency to back off.
On third down from the Saints’ 14-yard line with 14 seconds remaining, the 49ers removed a wide receiver and sent in an extra tight end, Justin Peelle. The intent was to make the Saints think they would run the ball to set up a game-tying field goal.
New Orleans bought the ruse and didn’t blitz, which gave Davis time to run his route and Smith room to step into the best throw of his career.
“I think we ran it two or three times in practice, but we always ran it from the right,” Chryst said of the play. “This time, (Davis) was on the left. So we had to flip it. But it wasn’t that big a deal. We just flipped the play.”