The San Francisco Running Back Stable: Earthquake, Coastal Wind and Wildfire
To some, the words Gore, Coffee, and Sheets may conjure up memories of a crime scene, or worse yet, a bad 1970’s police detective sitcom.
Beyond the mustache sporting crime fighters of the 70's, these words may assume a whole new meaning in the city of San Francisco.
To 49er fans, it will soon represent the united elements that form the awesome force known as the San Francisco 49er rushing attack.
Beyond ending the New England Patriots' perfect season and providing a nationally televised pass rushing clinic, the New York Giants made a league-wide offensive statement during their 2007-2008 Super Bowl run. That statement was: “Running backs, gotta collect them all!”.
In a battle of quantity versus quality and diversity versus uniformity, New York running backs found their strength in numbers and skill-set diversity.
It was this collective and dissimilar force that formed the three headed New York monster famously dubbed “Earth, Wind, and Fire”.
For earth, the Giants had bell-cow Brandon Jacobs, whose large frame and tree-trunk resembling thighs provided a punishing short yardage offensive onslaught.
In addition to providing power running ability, Jacobs was the featured back and widely relied upon to wear down opposing defenses.
Providing the force of wind was Derrick Ward. Although neither big nor fast, Ward possessed a north-south style of running that capitalized on the battered state of a tired and Jacobs-tested defense.
Playing the role of fire was the elusive Ahmad Bradshaw. He was a player whose blend of speed and quickness lead to an outbreak of broken ankles among NFL defensive players.
In providing a deceptive change-of-pace speed, Bradshaw was a threat to score from anywhere on the field. This speed was a useful asset against winded defenders in the open field.
In combining complimentary skill sets, the 2007 New York Giants' running back core was as multifaceted as schizophrenia.
Entering the 2009 NFL season, the San Francisco 49ers’ stable of running backs will look eerily similar to the elements that swept New York City like a natural disaster. Adjusting for regional accuracy, I hereby coin the San Francisco-based trio “Earthquake (Earth), Coastal Wind (Wind), and Wildfire (Fire)".
There are three major uncertainties in the world today: the future of the US economy, the whereabouts of Dave Chapelle, and the 49ers’ running back depth chart.
Although stockpiled with bodies and talent, the 49ers rushing attack, with the exception of Frank Gore, remains entirely untested.
Like the populated yet unproven 2007 New York rushing stable, the current 49er roster contains the likes of five running backs, only one of which has established himself as capable NFL ball carrier.
These running backs include last years’ holdovers Frank Gore, Michael Robinson, and Thomas Clayton, as well as new off-season additions Glenn Coffee and Kory Sheets.
The following is a player-by-player breakdown of current 49er running backs. It includes an in-depth analysis of each player’s skill-set and likely role in the 2009 San Francisco offense.
Frank Gore- Earthquake (Earth)
Being the featured back, and biggest impact player of the San Francisco 49ers for the past three seasons, Frank Gore should provide a formidable earth (or San Francisco earthquake) to the 49er offense.
Despite starring in similar feature roles, Gore and Brandon Jacobs possess different skill sets that distinguish the New York earth from the San Francisco earthquake.
Evidenced by his lackluster 22 touchdowns in four seasons and consistent inability to convert in short yardage situations, Gore lacks the pile-driving ability of Brandon Jacobs.
Although not as powerful as Jacobs nor as punishing as a wind (San Francisco coastal wind) type of of back, Frank Gore’s thick legged and stout (5’9, 219 lbs) build provides San Francisco an elusive yet tackler-carrying, go-to running back.
In addition to his thick frame and consistent leg drive, Gore posses remarkably fluid hips providing him the ability to change direction and effortlessly shake defenders in the open field.
Although elusive and explosive, Gore lacks the top-end speed of a true home-run threat. This absence of elite speed allows pursuing defenders to catch up with Gore, preventing a seemingly break-away run from reaching the end zone.
Having rushed over the 1,000 yard mark in each of his previous three seasons, including a record-breaking 1,695 yard Pro Bowl campaign in 2006, Gore provides a better all-around player than the New York Giant featured back.
Expect Gore to rumble through defenses like a San Francisco earthquake, as the 49er workhorse wears down and shakes his opposition.
Glenn Coffee- Coastal Wind (Wind)
Glenn Coffee looks to be the leading candidate for the role of wind (or San Francisco coastal wind). Similar to the New York wind, the San Francisco coastal wind is neither big (6’1, 209 lbs) nor fast (4.58 seconds in the 40 yard dash).
It was his rushing style, rather than physical attributes, that brought the former Crimson Tide runner collegiate success.
Like former New York Giant Derrick Ward, Coffee possesses a tough down-hill style of running that enables him to pick up the yardage given to him.
This style of running should allow Coffee to energize (pun intended) the San Francisco rushing attack in relief of Frank Gore.
The addition of Coffee should do wonders for Gore's career longevity, eliminating the need to shoulder the short yardage workload on surgically repaired needs.
Despite his average measurables, Coffee has proven to be a productive back against top collegiate competition.
While primarily a backup during his college career, Coffee was productive under the spotlight amassing 1,383 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on his way to a first-team All-SEC selection in 2008.
Look for Coffee to have an immediate impact in the 49er rushing attack.
Like the coastal wind on a cold San Francisco day, expect Glenn Coffee to reinforce the chills of shivering defenders while providing Gore a second wind.
Kory Sheets- Wildfire (Fire)
It’s rare to make the assumption that an undrafted free agent will make the active 53-man roster of an NFL team.
Declaring it prior to the opening of training camp is an even greater taboo. Regardless, Kory Sheets is too good of a player and far too perfect a fit to not make the 49ers’ roster.
When former 49er Maurice Hicks left via free agency in the 2008 off-season, the impact left a tremendous void at speed running back.
As the remarkably nimble Ahmad Bradshaw proved, speed is a necessity in the NFL rushing game.
If utilized correctly a speed back can turn missed assignments, poor pursuit angles, and defensive exhaustion into touchdowns from anywhere on the field.
Sheets’ elite speed and open-field elusiveness make him the perfect fit for the San Francisco wildfire role. Sheets showcased these talents at the NFL combine by running an impressive 4.47 seconds in the 40 yard dash, the third fastest time among running backs in attendance.
At Purdue, the star Boilermaker amassed 3,341 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns, becoming Purdue’s all time leader in rushing and total touchdowns. This included a breakout 2008 senior campaign of 1,131 rushing yards and 16 scores.
As evidenced by his 108 career receptions for 814 yards and well-documented pass blocking ability, Sheets can provide a multi-dimensional threat through his added contributions to the passing game.
In addition to being an offensive role-player, Sheets’ speed and experience should make him a top candidate for the kickoff return spot opposite of Allen Rossum.
Look for Sheets to spread the defense and cover ground like a California wildfire on a dry summer day.
Michael Robinson- Slash (Wildcat/Utility/Special Teams)
Although listed as a running back, Michael Robinson will likely make the 49ers’ roster under a different role.
While lacking the instincts and vision to be an elite NFL running back, the former Penn State star quarterback and Big Ten offensive player of the year possesses a unique blend of size, speed, and toughness that is ideal for a special teams’ ace.
Robinson, who is star and captain of the 49ers’ special teams unit, provides the 49ers’ organization an elite situational player as a three-time special teams’ tackle leader and dangerous fake punt orchestrator.
In addition, his prior experience and competence as a quarterback will provide the 49ers a premium wildcat back. Robinson had the brief chance to showcase this ability in limited yet promising opportunities under the Mike Martz-dictated 49er offense.
Expect offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye to utilize Robinson's potential in San Francisco's new run-oriented offense.
Thomas Clayton- Unemployed
Last, and likely least of the San Francisco running backs, is Thomas Clayton, a former sixth round draft pick of the 49ers.
Clayton has been a fan-favorite of the San Francisco 49ers’ online community due to his bodybuilder physique and stellar preseason performances.
During the 2007 preseason, Clayton was the NFL’s leading rusher; accumulating 200 yards on the ground.
Although a remarkable preseason achievement, Clayton has made a career of non-production. Even in his career-best 2007 collegiate season, he only rushed for a pedestrian sum of 637 yards and four touchdowns.
His impressive yet irrelevant preseason statistics will provide a noteworthy resume builder for the soon-to-be unemployed 49er.
With that said, don’t be surprised to see Clayton called up to the active roster of an injury-riddled NFL organization in 2009.