Imagine that you’re an iconic college football player and the driving force behind a powerhouse university—let’s say, the Oregon Ducks.
In rags-to-riches style, your ultimate goal in life is to become a contributing NFL player and perhaps a star someday. Then your moment comes when you're drafted high by an offensive-minded team that not only can help you reach your ceiling, but one you can win world championships with.
Then suddenly, as if the organization had a change of heart, you discover that you’re just no longer part of the plan. Or at least you’ve been placed on the back burner for your first two years. You’d probably have a lot of questions rattling around in your head.
You’d be dismayed.
“Some things I just don’t understand at all,” San Francisco 49ers tailback LaMichael James said in a tweet that was later deleted, via Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee. “I don’t work at State Farm. I’m not trying to be insurance.”
James, the former NCAA speed demon, is currently dealing with this vexing truth, continually being relegated to the inactives list during games.
On Monday, in a press conference wherein 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was grilled on the topic, he acknowledged that there has been a back-and-forth between the coaches and James during this time. He knows it is a sensitive issue.
Harbaugh also understands that the recent draftee is displeased with his non-involvement, having spoken with him personally and catching wind of the aforementioned tweet, per the team’s official website:
His development has been fine. He’ll be back playing. I know the talk about "insurance," etc. It is not slight to LaMichael [James]. LaMichael is a very good player. He is a very valuable member of our team.
There is going to come a time, like last year, where he is fully in the mix and depended on. I know he wants to play, he wants to be contributing. And when he is dressed, he is contributing and doing that.
Again, Harbaugh insisted that there is an open line of communication, he is where he needs to be in terms of development and that James will have “very big role” for this football team.
Obviously James feels different about things. Following the presser, the second-year running back sent this out to over 100,000 of his followers from his official Twitter account:
This was also tweeted on Sunday day when he was listed as a healthy scratch in Week 6 versus the Arizona Cardinals:
It is clear that James remains bothered by his non-involvement.
Granted, San Francisco sits at 4-2, they are scoring points as a team and maintain one of the beefier rushing attacks in all the NFL. Having James on the bench is not costing them games. Still, it is inhibiting the growth of the offense and causing one of its higher draft picks to become pretty sour.
Is it worth it for running back Anthony Dixon or another non-factor like Nate Stupar or Marlon Moore? No, probably not.
Let’s take a look at what the 49ers are missing out on by having one of the most prolific players in college football history hogtied in the locker room while games are taking place on Sunday.
Radical Expansion of the Run Game
1,731 yards rushing and 24 total touchdowns made Oregon pinup LaMichael James a Heisman finalist as a sophomore in 2010, coming in third only behind Andrew Luck and winner Cam Newton, both of whom were eventually selected No. 1 overall in their respective draft classes.
So, let’s expunge the myth that James can’t run the football.
He is a flat-out dangerous human being with the ball in his hands, once ranked as the 25th overall player on Mel Kiper Jr.’s big board on ESPN (subscription required). The legendary draft guru also consistently had James as the No. 2 running back, only after Alabama’s Trent Richardson.
Now flexing in the National Football League, this is one guy who can totally change a defense’s perspective, simply because of his unique athletic ability and the fact that he differs stylistically from what the 49ers already have in place.
Remember, the team already has its north and south runners.
This is a player who can stretch teams horizontally, going east to west, offering a change of pace that San Francisco really does not have right now. Between the three of them, it is a perfect collage of talent, representing both ends of the spectrum and everything in between.
You’ll have Frank Gore and LaMichael James on two ends with Kendall Hunter’s skill set providing a happy medium, able to do it all, just as general manager Trent Baalke envisioned with this “three-headed approach,” via Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
But it hasn’t happened yet. Instead, the 49ers have been about hard charging, between-the-tackle football, winning the past few weeks strictly off power rushing. But they also have an ultra-athletic group of offensive linemen, so there is potential to develop more of a perimeter game.
Mike Iupati is a brilliant pulling guard, Joe Staley and Anthony Davis are big, strong edge protectors that can move and Vernon Davis is arguably the best blocking tight end anywhere. With their united ability to set the edge, get out in space and knock guys off at the second level, James could use his speed to get outside and leave burn marks on the defense.
Speaking of the top speed he has to offer, James can potentially bring the read-option back to San Francisco, providing just the spark they need.
A backfield composed of Colin Kaepernick and LaMichael James—two of the team’s fastest players—can present problems for a defense. You’ve got 4.45 speed going one way and 4.53 speed going the other, which plays mind games on the defense before the ball is even snapped.
Not to mention two completely different style runners, touting long speed and quick burst.
Then there is the expertise James brings, having played in Chip Kelly’s renowned uptempo offense at the University of Oregon, which has him prepped and ready for this kind of attack. That's assignment-based football: one false step by a defender and he’ll make you pay.
Sure, Frank Gore is the best runner the 49ers have, but when the outside linebacker or defensive end whiffs on the read, he’ll maybe gain 15 yards while James has the extra gear that enables him to make a house call. You can’t supplement that kind of ability with field vision and experience.
Having trouble in the red-zone? James can help there, too.
He had 53 rushing touchdowns in his three-year career with the Ducks, many of which came in red zone situations.
During that time, James demonstrated an amazing ability to cloak himself behind his offensive line, zigzag through traffic and break the plane before the defense even knew what hit it. It did not take long for him to show these skills off at the next level.
In fact, his first-ever NFL touchdown came on a 15-yarder. Let’s take a look at this key score versus the Atlanta Falcons in the 2012 NFC Championship game. It is a perfect example, seeing as how it reflects a little bit of everything we’ve discussed, it is an outside run on the read-option in the red zone.
Personnel: 11 (3 WR-1 TE-1 RB)
The 49ers were down big in the NFC title game, struggling to push the ball through the air and neglecting the run a little too much. They finally got a drive going after a few nice runs by Frank Gore, but once they got in scoring position, No. 23 entered the game at tailback.
The ball is snapped and the Niners have multiple sets of eyes watching Colin Kaepernick and LaMichael James—expecting a give to the back, a keeper by the quarterback or a potential pass down the field. After all, in this frame, it does appear that San Francisco’s receivers are running routes, not blocking.
All the while, Joe Staley, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis are blocking left, clearing out that right side. Left guard Mike Iupati is in motion, pulling across the formation.
James gets the handoff going right, with his offensive line taking care of the front seven quite handily. The two Falcons linebackers that crashed down on the run could not take the right angle in time, frozen by the sleight of hand of the read-option. The tailback is in a position to blow right past them and he does.
That leaves only three real potential tacklers and James is still four yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The blocking was exceptional on this play.
Vernon Davis nails his assignment, clearing out the cut lane for James. He also received support from the wideouts on the perimeter, not allowing the defensive backs to dig back inside and get an arm on the ball-carrier.
So far in every frame, the 49ers offense has been just a step ahead of the Falcons defense.
James is too quick. He bursts through the seam and a last-ditch arm tackle from the linebacker tailing him won’t even put a kink in his momentum.
Making the Passing Offense Three-Dimensional
It’s no secret; the passing game in San Francisco is in distress with a debilitated receiving corps and growing pains from quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The only worse-ranked aerial unit in the league is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as the 49ers are currently tied for 30th with the Oakland Raiders, per NFL.com.
Outside of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, the 49ers do not have a single dynamic player to throw the football to right now. And the one exception that probably should have gotten going by now—rookie tight end Vance McDonald—hasn’t had more than one catch in a game.
If the front office is not going to procure any outside talent while Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree are returning from their respective injuries, then the coaches need to pull James off the bench to help Kap. Due to his position, this will be an easy player for the quarterback to get the ball to.
When all else fails, a checkdown to the running back (with potential for yards after catch) is much better than a sack, throwaway or worse. And though the 49ers have Gore and Hunter, it is safe to say that James is a bit different.
As most of us are well aware, the player comparison is and always has been Darren Sproles, running back for the New Orleans Saints. And it’s eerily close, especially when you consider how rare this type of player is. Over his career, Sproles has proven to the world that big things can come in small packages.
Especially if used properly.
James has a like build and similar tools as Sproles, making him an enticing option as an outlet receiver for Kaepernick, even more so now during these trying times. It could even reach a point where the coaching staff is scripting plays with James as the go-to receiver out of the backfield.
Stick routes, Texas routes, wheel routes and more may all make their way onto the play-call sheet on game day. Not to mention the array of screens the 49ers could utilize to get James running in space with a convoy of blockers. Uncontested balls on screens and short routes with high-degree cuts and pivots will get him touches.
It is true that San Francisco runs an entirely different system from New Orleans, but nevertheless, it can become a wrinkle without altering the offense.
James can do all his receiving work underneath, providing a bail out for Kap, just as Sproles does for Saints quarterback Drew Brees. It is a killer for opponents on third down, in long yardage situations and in the red zone. Through the course of a game, it loosens up the defense immensely.
Things begin to open up elsewhere because now the defense cannot overcommit to guarding particular sections of the field; they have to protect the entirety of it. It gains the respect of the players and defensive coordinators, essentially putting them on high alert.
It is very abrasive that way.
And as we’ve seen with Sproles, there really is no limit to what a physically gifted scatback can do if utilized the right way.
Darren Sproles receiving facts (h/t Pro Football Reference):
- In 2011, he was the team’s third leading receiver (86-710-7), behind TE Jimmy Graham and WR Marques Colston.
- In 2011, Sproles was No. 2 on the team in targets (111).
- In 2011, 97 percent of his receiving yards came after the catch (690 of 710).
- In 2011, he averaged 82.1 all-purpose yards per game, which was among the league’s best.
- In 2011, his 86 receptions were good enough for No. 7 in the league, making him the only running back in the top 15 in said category.
- In two seasons with New Orleans (29 games played), Sproles has 2,224 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns.
- In 2012, Sproles topped All-Pro WR Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals) in receptions and receiving touchdowns.
- His career all-purpose yards (15,012) are third among active players, ranking only behind Steve Smith and Wes Welker, having recently surpassed Tony Gonzalez.
- Sproles holds the NFL single-season record for all-purpose yards with 2,696 (2011).
Of Sproles’ 25 receiving touchdowns since 2008, would you believe that 11 have come after runs of 20-plus yards, including four over 45 yards? And that of his 16 receptions between one and nine yards away from the end zone, Sproles managed to convert eight into scores, via Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus.
That being said, James can be used as a pass-catcher to help the 49ers attack the length of the field, as well as contributing in the red zone. This is the mold of player that James is meant to be and despite the underwhelming size that tends to irk the critics, the overall production is clearly off the charts.
Like the pocket rocket from the Bayou, LaMichael James can harness his explosive ability to develop into an all-purpose dynamo.
For a team that has not only been at a loss for big plays on offense, but generally struggling to sustain drives, it is baffling that the 49ers have remained so conservative with one of their most physically gifted offensive players—one they invested in.
James can also contribute on special teams, working as a punt and kick returner, which is another area that has been lacking for San Francisco. According to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News, the team's current returner, Kyle Williams, has 16 fair catches on the season, which is already the ninth most in franchise history.
In short, the 49ers are leaving potential big plays and risking losses when they do not take full advantage of their resources. Making waves with a player that they may or may not be counting on in the future is also damaging each week it continues.
As a staff, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman need to make it a point to activate LaMichael James and begin to integrate him into the three phases on game day, which are rushing, receiving and returning. These are all facets where he has value.
So, as one can plainly see, there are a lot more reasons to have him active on game day than there are to keep him sidelined.