Tom Rathman signed his contract this morning, which officially makes him the 49ers' new running backs coach. It's worth taking a look at the unit that Rathman inherits, one that ranked 27th overall in running the ball this season and one that likely will be overhauled in the offseason.
Frank Gore is the unquestioned leader of the unit. Gore rushed for a franchise record 1,695 yards in 2006 and this past season became the first 49er to run for 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. But there were also disappointments. His 4.3 yards-per-carry average was only marginally better than the 4.2 average from 2007, the most dismal year offensively in 49ers history. His receptions total also dropped in 2008 despite Mike Martz's pass-oriented offense. Gore's longest run, 41 yards, came in the season opener against Arizona. After that, he didn't break any long touchdowns. In 2006, by contrast, he had runs of 51, 61, 72, 40 and 53 yards.
While those numbers are bound to go up in an offense that concentrates on the running game, the trend around the league is to split carries between two (and sometimes more) running backs. The Giants, for example, handed the ball to Brandon Jacobs 219 times this season, but also gave Derrick Ward 182 carries. Both rushers went over 1,000 yards. At Tennessee, the split was 251 carries to Chris Johnson and 200 to LenDale White. In Carolina, it was 273 to DeAngelo Williams, 184 to Jonathan Stewart. In Baltimore, it was 232 to Le'Ron McClain, 170 to Willis McGahee and 107 to Ray Rice. In San Francisco? Gore received 240 carries to DeShaun Foster's 76 despite the fact that Gore missed the equivalent of three games with an ankle sprain.
Gore certainly is 1A material. The question is whether Foster is 1B. He ran hard in games against Miami and St. Louis. Still, there is a sentiment at 49ers headquarters that they will try to get younger at the position. Foster turns 29 on Saturday. If the 49ers use a draft pick on a running back, the question is whether they turn to a home-run hitter like the Titans' Johnson or go with a thumper like the Panthers' Stewart.
And what of Michael Robinson and Thomas Clayton? Robinson reminds me more and more of Terry Jackson, the running back/special teams ace who played from 1999-2005. Robinson is excellent on special teams, is nifty when he catches passes out of the backfield and is a team leader inside the locker room. But he's been a mixed bag as a runner. Robinson definitely has a place on the team, but the 49ers can't rely on him to be a frequent rusher. As for Clayton, his running style improved markedly since his rookie season when he ran too upright and went to the ground too easily. But despite Gore's injury, the 49ers never saw fit to give Clayton a single carry and he's mostly been stuck on the practice squad. The 49ers will give him a chance for a juicier role on the team this offseason but they certainly can't count on him for a major role because he's never had one.
Fullback also needs some attention. Zak Keasey likely will be back this offseason, but the question is whether Rathman and company want a more traditional blocker leading the way. As mentioned in a previous post, Seattle's Leonard Weaver likely will be available on the free-agent market in the spring. Moran Norris, who led the way in Gore's record-breaking 2006 campaign, also could hit the market.
The 49ers announced that no offensive coordinator candidates would be interviewing today.
-- Matt Barrows