The year was 1985. A third-year fullback out of the University of Nebraska was starting to make a real name for himself in Bill Walsh’s offense. His connection with Joe Montana made him a huge target and pretty much the fuel behind this new look offense. This would be the first year he hit 1,000 yards rushing. This would also be the first year ANY running back of any kind also achieved 1,000 yards receiving. The fullback was Roger Craig, who rushed for 1,050 yards on 214 carries and caught 91 passes for 1,016 yards. He would never approach the 1,000/1,000 mark again; quite possibly because that is the same year the Forty-Niners drafted out of Mississippi State Valley University one Jerry Rice, who became the focal point of the offense in the air.
It would take 14 years for someone to do it again. In his first year (1999) as the focal point of the Greatest Show on Turf, the Rams’ Marshall Faulk rushed for 1,381 yards on 253 rushes and had 1,048 yards on 87 receptions. He would come close the next two seasons, gaining 830 and 760 yards respectively. He was even closer in 1998, the year before his first 1,000/1,000 season, when he reached 908 yards receiving to go along with his 1,319 yards rushing in what would be his last season in Indianapolis. That four-year run was quite possibly the greatest of any running back in the history of the league.
Since the turn of the century, there have been a few RBs who flirted with joining the 1,000/1,000 club. In 2002, Charlie Garner rushed for 962 yards while catching 92 passes for 941 yards. Steven Jackson came close in 2006, falling just 194 receiving yards short of 1,000 to go with his 1,528 rushing yards. LeVeon Bell, who wants to be paid like a number-one receiver, was 146 receiving yards short in 2014, the only 16-game season of his career.
Recently, David Johnson has been talking about his goal of becoming the third RB in NFL history to join the 1,000/1,000 club, which he almost did in 2016, when he came up 121 receiving yards short of the mark. He could accomplish the 1,000/1,000 mark this year, especially with an uncertain receiving core. LeVeon Bell could also make it happen with the Steelers. The big question for both of them is: can they stay healthy for 16 games?
There is a player in the NFL who could be a dark horse bet to be the third running back to reach 1,000 yards rushing and receiving. He has only missed one game in the last three seasons, and has the explosiveness to turn some screen passes into long touchdowns, a big need for any RB to hit 1,000 yards receiving. Who is this mystery man? None other than the 49ers’ own Jerick McKinnon.
Looking at the two players who have achieved the 1,000/1,000 feat and the four players to nearly reach it over the last 20 years, one can see some similarities in what needs to happen to reach the illustrious Craig/Faulk company. First off, you need to play 16 games and be a true feature back. None of these players are taking plays off for a third down RB. These were three down backs. You need to hit or be near 90 receptions on the season. You need a good offense around you.
Does McKinnon have these pieces around him and the ability to achieve the surprise season that every San Francisco fan wants to see?
First, as stated earlier, McKinnon has never had a major injury and there is no reason to think he would catch the injury bug now. He has literally been a third-down, change of pace back for his career, excluding down the stretch last season when he took on more of a lead role. He has only 150 and 159 rushing attempts the last two seasons, so he should have plenty of gas in the tank for this season. With Matt Breida around, will McKinnon get enough touches? He should; last year, Carlos Hyde had 240 rushing attempts and nearly broke the 1,000-yard barrier. We should expect McKinnon to get about the same number of touches. Hyde was also targeted 88 times for 59 receptions. McKinnon had 68 targets for 51 catches last year with the Vikings, a better catch percentage than Hyde (nearly 74% compared to 67%). Breida should be used more as a resting back and not a third down back, which will allow McKinnon to continue to eat up targets in the passing game.
Speaking of targets to RBs in the passing game, will the Forty-Niners offense allow a 90-catch, 1,000-yard back? Hyde received the seventh most passing targets of any RB in the NFL last year, but we all saw how those numbers dropped off when Garoppolo stepped into the starting lineup. Over the full season, the Forty-Niners targeted their running backs 166 times, with Hyde getting 88 targets (53%), Kyle Juszczyk getting 42 targets (25%), and Breida getting 36 targets (21%). The 166 targets represented a shade over 21% of the team’s overall targets.
Do we see this percentage of targets go up? We would have to in order for McKinnon to reach that 90 catch threshold he needs to in order to hit 1,000 yards receiving. We’ve already seen McKinnon line up or motion out to a wide receiver in OTAs, which we didn’t see Hyde do much of last year. Does this mean we can expect the Forty-Niners to flex McKinnon and Juszczyk out of the backfield pre-snap to create a five-receiver set all the time? Probably not, but looking at the style of player McKinnon is compared to Hyde tells us that it will happen more than it did last year.
I don’t expect McKinnon to push for 2,000 yards rushing, but falling between 1,000 and 1,300 would create the type of balance the 1,000/1,000 RB needs. The real question will be, does Garoppolo’s quick decision and quick release allow for a 1,000-yard receiving RB? It should, because of McKinnon’s ability to line up pretty much anywhere on the field. Putting him, Donte Pettis, and Marquise Goodwin all lined up will force a linebacker to pick up one of them; most likely, that will be McKinnon, creating a ton of mismatches throughout the season.
With the presence of Goodwin and the addition of Pettis to push the safeties back, the 49ers passing and running game should be more open this year. Include the improvements on the offensive line, and you have a great possibility for McKinnon to gain 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving this year.
As with all great achievements, it will take the perfect storm of events to happen. For example, if McKinnon can break a couple rushes and receptions for 60-plus yards throughout the season and with the offensive line being as improved as we all think they are, I think it is a realistic opportunity.
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