Ranking the Running Game Pt. 15: San Francisco 49ers

Jeff LittleSenior Writer IMarch 27, 2008

Part 15 of a 32 part series, a running back position analysis of each franchise.

The San Francisco 49ers struggled through one of the most forgettable seasons in franchise history. Many thought that Coach Mike Nolan would be replaced but, despite a 16-32 record in three years as head coach, Nolan returns.

Nolan has relinquished his authority on the personnel front to Scot McCloughan who was promoted to GM. McCloughan has his work cut out for him, especially on the offensive side of the ball where the team was anemic to say the least.

The club ranked last in most statistical categories, including yards per game, yards per play, passing yards per game, sacks allowed, first downs, and third-down efficiency. The 49ers scored a total of 219 points in 2007, matching a 1978 club record for fewest points in a 16-game schedule.

I like history, but this isn’t the type of history the team wanted to make.

Nolan did get into a well-documented rift with starting QB and former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith that could be difficult to repair. There will be open competition at the QB position. Shaun Hill played better than the other four signal callers in just two starts in '07.

The 49ers have some tough decisions ahead of them. Mike Nolan hired former St.Louis Ram head coach and former Detroit Lion offensive coordinator Mike Martz at the same position.

He has a lot of work to do. Smith had a lost season in 2007 starting slowly with, and then suffering, a separated right shoulder in the fourth game. Martz has spoken of having Smith re-learn the QB position to fit his unique offense system. He also said that he likes both quarterbacks’ accuracy, which is a must for his offense.

Martz has raved about the offensive line and what he calls the teams’ centerpiece RB Frank Gore. Martz's offense needs a go-to receiver, and if Vernon Davis can quickly grasp the offense he could be that guy.

The 49ers rushed for 92.3 yards per game last season.

  • Frank Gore: 5-foot-9, 215 lbs, 260 Att, 1,102 Yards, 4.2 YPC Avg, 5 TD’s
  • Maurice Hicks: 5-foot-11, 196 lbs, 21 Att, 117 Yards, 5.6 YPC Avg, 1 TD
  • Michael Robinson: 6-foot- 1, 218 lbs, 26 Att, 121 Yards, 4.7 YPC Avg

Frank Gore is the guy who carries the rushing load for the 49ers. Gore had a disappointing season, but was still highly productive. He is a hard runner who has also led the team in receptions the past two seasons.

The rushing game dropped off by nearly 600 yards from Gore's breakout 2006 campaign, but he remains a quality running back with excellent receiving ability.

In free agency, the 49ers signed former Panther DeShaun Foster, which will give the team two proven runners. No disrespect to the 49ers, but Mike Martz has been known to favor the passing game over the running game on several occasions and has been criticized for it. The jury is still out on if that trend will continue or end in 2008.

The 49ers have two proven NFL runners in Gore and Foster. Gore can play the Marshall Faulk role of rushing and receiving. Foster can spell Gore when needed.

The team did sign former Ram Isaac Bruce and released Darrell Jackson. The 49ers signed former Cardinal WR Bryant Johnson. They don’t have a need to draft a runner this year, but Martz's offense needs a receiver who can stretch the field and draw extra defensive attention.

No one on the team has fit the bill in recent years. Houston’s Donnie Avery, Michigan’s Mario Manningham, Vanderbilt’s Earl Bennett, or Florida’s Andre Caldwell could be targets.

The 49ers needs are WR, DE, OG, ILB, RT, and QB. The team traded their first round pick to the Patriots to select LT Joe Staley. They acquired the Colts first round pick when they sent their second round pick to them. The 49ers, according to the league office, were caught tampering with Chicago Bears LB Lance Briggs and penalized a fifth round draft pick and must flip-flop third round picks with the Bears.

The 49ers got in trouble for attempting to work out a trade that would’ve sent a first round pick to the Bears and working out a long term deal with Briggs. The tampering was based on more than two telephone calls, as reported, between the 49ers and Briggs' agent Drew Rosenhaus, prior to the Bears and 49ers realizing that Briggs had failed to sign his one-year franchise tender prior to July 15.

This prevented the 49ers from signing him to a long term deal. There were also several e-mails exchanged between key members of the team’s front offices.

The question for the 49ers: How many playmakers can GM Scot McCloughan find in his  first draft?