• Bret Rumbeck

Hard Corps: Why Shanahan Can Make the 49ers’ RB Corps the Best in the League

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

The young men preparing for this year’s NFL draft were not old enough to watch the NFL evolve from the pro-formation, power run offense to today’s five-wide, zone-run hybrid.

A two-receiver, one-tight end, two-back set from the 1992 season seems like it is a better fit on Miss Havisham’s dining room table than in a 70,000-seat stadium.

Of course, the zone runs of today’s NFL are nothing but modified veers; what’s old is often new and innovative again.

Last season, the San Francisco 49ers' offense ran 955 plays, with head coach Kyle Shanahan calling runs roughly 44 percent of the time.

In a bit of a shock, the 49ers run game ranked 13th overall in football last year despite losing starter Jerick McKinnon to a torn knee ligament. The 49ers had 1,902 yards on the ground, averaging 118.9 yards per game and 4.5 yards per attempt.

Part of the 2019 offseason chatter surrounds the 49ers’ running back corps. Today, the 49ers list six men at the running back position. Included in today’s squad is a healthy McKinnon, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, and new addition Tevin Coleman.

ESPN reporter Adam Schefter hosted Shanahan on his podcast on April 1 and asked Shanahan which man would end up with the most carries.

Shanahan responded that “It’s up to the players. They will define their roles. That’s kind of what’s unique about this.”

It’s up to the players.

Welcome to a running back controversy in April, Gentle Reader.

Rather than commit to any one of the backs, Shanahan tossed a broken pool cue to these six men and told them to fight it out over the next five months.

I applaud the Bill Walsh-like move.

McKinnon is coming off a torn knee ligament and has to have the fury of a million suns to prove to friends and foes alike he’s an NFL star.

Breida suffered a handful of nagging injuries last year and must have the same motivation to confirm he’s the starting running back for the 49ers. We know Breida’s ability and talent; during his first two seasons, he’s tallied nearly 1,300 rush yards on 258 attempts, and he’s added 441 yards receiving on 48 catches.

Raheem Mostert revealed he’s more than a special teams ace. Last season, Mostert ran for a career-high 261 yards on 34 carries. He had his first NFL touchdown on a beautiful run around right end in the Week 9 win over Oakland.

Tevin Coleman, signed by the 49ers on March 14, 2019, played his first two years in the NFL in Shanahan’s offense. In 2016, Coleman had 520 yards rushing on 118 attempts. He was also a threat to catch the ball, scoring three receiving touchdowns on 31 catches and 421 yards. That’s an average of 13.6 yards per reception.

On April 24, 1987, Bill Walsh traded two draft picks to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for quarterback Steve Young. Walsh’s desire to acquire Young could have been due to Montana’s nagging back, or maybe he saw the visible talent the Tampa Bay coaching staff ignored.

The 1988 season started off with Walsh feeding the controversy he started with pure nitroglycerine.

“Well, our strength is at quarterback,” said Walsh in a television interview on July 31, 1988. “But our problem is we have two. There’s a quarterback controversy developing. We’re going to have to select between Steve Young and Joe Montana.”

Later in the season, Walsh claimed that Montana wasn’t playing because, "He had a form of dysentery for about 2 weeks," he said. "He lost 11 pounds. From that point on, he was weak. Very weak. He has not been able to throw as much and as well as we would like."

It was a psychologist-gone-mad move from Walsh, driving Montana to play his best football for the 49ers. Montana made back-to-back first-team All-Pro in 1989 and 1990 and was named league MVP in 1989.

But, maybe this isn’t a controversy at all, and it’s simply Shanahan’s confidence in the four men to pound the hot, chunked turf in Santa Clara. Imagine dividing up 44 percent of the run game, so the 49ers never have an over-taxed running back.

Four capable backs allow Shanahan to make the defense uncomfortable on each play.

McKinnon may have a series of runs where he excels and brings a different type of elusiveness to the offense. Four or five plays later, Shanahan can sub in Coleman or Breida because these men open up another section of the playbook.

Mostert can quickly step in at any moment to spell these men, or even remain in the backfield while placing Breida or McKinnon as a wide receiver or a wing.

Further, it’s a matter of play-calling. Shanahan has proven time and again that he has the right play for the right situation. He’ll run a handful of zone runs, and then spring a Y-leak on the defense. If he wants to stay on the ground, he can have right tackle Mike McGlinchey clear 52-yards of field on a toss right to Mostert.

I’d certainly rather have Shanahan in a situation where he can choose his own adventure with the backfield, rather than rely on the hope his starter won’t get hurt and then squeezing out a rush attack with two backs that shouldn’t be playing professional football.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

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