San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore's the Top Dog, but Who Is Running behind Him?

Andy BenschSenior Writer IFebruary 24, 2009

The 2009 offseason for the San Francisco 49ers has been focused on specific holes on the field and on the coaching staff. San Francisco has filled their need at offensive coordinator with the hire of Jimmy Raye and numerous on-field positions are being looked at for upgrades including free-safety, a pass-rusher, an offensive-tackle, and even quarterback.

But with the Feb. 27 free agency date nearing, nobody seems to be talking about the need at running back. Clearly running back is the least of the 49ers' offseason worries, with Frank Gore as the No. 1 runner, but who is backing him up?

Ever since Gore broke out into one of the top runners in the NFL back in 2006, the 49ers have not had a clear No. 2 behind him. The time has been split between the likes of Maurice Hicks, Michael Robinson, and Deshaun Foster.

Yet, neither running back has been able to provide substantial rushing yards when filling in for the 49ers' Pro Bowler.

Now, the need to find a quality No. 2 tailback is important because Gore has a rather lengthy track record of knee injuries while at Miami (FL) and this past season missed a couple games down the stretch with a bum ankle.

But his backups have been less than comforting for fans when Gore is unable to carry the rock.

Maurice Hicks had a few quality games with the 49ers in his four seasons with the 49ers but was utilized more in the return game as he currently is used with his new team, the Minnesota Vikings.

Michael Robinson was a quarterback at Penn State who the 49ers drafted with their fourth round pick back in 2006. San Francisco then converted him into a running back but the former Penn State standout has yet to make a significant impact as a tailback in the NFL.

In 47 career games, Robinson has rushed 83 times for only 287 yards, which works out to a yards-per-carry average of 3.5.

Robinson has also come up short on two of the more infamous 49er plays of the last few seasons. In 2006, Robinson was stuffed short on 3rd-and-1 and the 49ers settled for a field goal to go ahead of the Rams by four, but then St. Louis marched down for a winning score moments later.

And this past season, Robinson was stuffed at the goal-line on the last play of the game on Monday night in Arizona. Whether or not fans can blame him for these mishaps is questionable, but it doesn't bode well for a tailback when his two most memorable plays were near misses.

And finally, there is last year's No. 2 running back, Deshaun Foster. I for one was extremely optimistic about last year's offseason acquisition. Foster had struggled in Carolina but came to San Francisco as the top-runner in Panthers history and one would think all he needed was a change of scenery to regain his form.

However, Foster's first year with San Francisco was a continuation of his decline. Gore's back-up was rather ineffective in a loss to Miami when the 49ers' top-back was sidelined. The time of possession was dominated by San Francisco but the offense lacked that punch needed to find the end zone.

The longest run of the game was by quarterback Shaun Hill of 13 yards, second longest by tight end Vernon Davis (11 yards). Meanwhile, Foster's longest run of the day was 10 yards.

To his credit, Foster picked up three to four yards a carry against Miami but his inability to break one over 10 was the Achilles heel of a 49er offense which didn't get many big plays through the air with Shaun Hill at quarterback. But the game Foster had against Miami was much indicative of his 3.1 yards-per-carry for the season in only 76 attempts.

So where does this leave San Francisco? Well, numerous options are available at the running back position to be Frank Gore's back-up. The 49ers could decide to use one of their first day draft choices on a running back and they could also go after recently released Fred Taylor of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Although, Taylor is only one year removed from putting up 1200 yards, a 5.1 yards-per-carry, and five touchdowns for the Jaguars. That being said, the market shouldn't be all that bad for the 33-year-old.

Not only that, but the former Pro Bowler is also looking to find a team where he can be the No.1 runner after being forced to split time with former teammate Maurice Jones-Drew the past few seasons in Jacksonville.

Therefore, with Taylor looking for a starting position, and the 49ers focusing their draft needs in other, more vital areas, San Francisco ought to take a real hard look at former Saints running back Deuce McCallister.

"Deuuuuuuuuce," as he is referred to in New Orleans by the Saints' faithful, was the face of the franchise for the majority of his eight seasons with the team before they drafted Reggie Bush in 2006.

The two-time Pro Bowler has rushed for over 1,000 yards four different times in his eight-year career, including 2003 when he ran for 1641 yards. McCallister has 49 career touchdowns and a 4.3 career yards-per-carry. However, his numbers in recent seasons have dwindled, though not because of a decline in talent.

In both 2005 and 2007, McCallister was rarely seen healthy enough to play. In 2005, McCallister played in only five games due to an injury to his right knee and in 2007 he played in only three games when he tore the ACL in his left knee. 

However, this past season, the Saints running back was relatively healthy, playing in 13 games, averaging nearly four yards per carry, and scored five touchdowns while splitting time with Reggie Bush.

Now just recently the Saints released the former face of their franchise, and the eight-year veteran tailback is free to sign with whomever he chooses. The 49ers need to put themselves on McCallister's radar.

With Gore leading the way, the 49ers need a quality back-up and McCallister could be just the right fit. The questions about durability will mean that McCallister should come relatively cheap and be willing to play a backup role.

Both the new and improved offensive line and the great weather in the Bay Area ought to be enough for Deuce to consider the 49ers.

Bringing in the runner of McCallister's quality to back up Gore could pay huge dividends down the stretch and perhaps into the playoffs. Of course, if the 49ers don't sign him, then they run the risk of a season going down the tubes if Frank Gore is injured for any significant amount of time.