San Francisco 49ers franchise-tagged nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has yet to report to the team since leaving for the offseason following the 2009 campaign. While much had been made of this hold out drama, things took an even more interesting turn on Monday morning, less than one week prior to the team's opening preseason game this Sunday against the AFC Champion Indianapolis Colts.
The 49ers had an uncharacteristically undisciplined practice in which starting center Eric Heitmann was lost for six to eight weeks with a broken left fibula. Defensive end Kentwan Balmer also left the team on what was at the time an excused leave of absence for "personal matters."
By Wednesday, the absence had become unexcused as rumors surfaced that the "personal matters" were related to yet unconfirmed allegations that Balmer had purchased tickets for former University of North Carolina teammates to join the 49ers for a conditioning camp in 2009. Speculation continues to maintain that head coach Mike Singletary is furious with Balmer and his days in San Francisco are numbered.
Finally on Friday morning, back-up second-year running back Glen Coffee announced to Coach Sing, his teammates, and the NFL world that he was stepping away from the game of football and retiring from the NFL, having played just one professional season. This strange news came just one day after Coffee had told 49ers.com's Taylor Price "Getting in to the game is what we live for, so I'm ready for it."
Coffee's retirement is shocking and his motivation for leaving the game is about as clear as Brett Favre's plans for the 2010 season as of today. All that aside, where does this latest twist the 49ers offseason epic leave the team just hours before they kick off the exhibition season?
If you believe the local media, this is a tremendous blow to the red and gold. They contend this puts unrealistic pressure on rookie back Anthony Dixon, who has shown promise but not polish thus far in camp. Such a perspective is strange, however, in light of the fact that many were predicting Dixon would supplant Coffee this season since the moment the former Mississippi State standout was selected in the sixth round of April's draft.
Coffee was said to be having a strong camp, growing into the role of the primary backup and possible eventual heir to Pro Bowler Frank Gore. With heavy emphasis expected to be placed on the running game this year, the team had expressed desire to limit Frank Gore's reps more than in previous years.
All this points to Coffee being an important piece of the 49er success puzzle in 2010, but how much could he truly have been expected to contribute?
Coffee saw action in 14 games last year, including two starts when Frank Gore went down with an injury after the first play from scrimmage in a Week Three battle in Minnesota. However, the rookie struggled to produce, amassing only 228 total yards and one touchdown. His best performance came at home against the dismal St. Louis Rams, where he gained only 76 yards. He failed to break triple digits in rushing yards in all 14 contests and several times failed to even break double digits.
Could he really be expected to serve that large of a role, just one year later?
In actuality, the loss of Glen Coffee, like the seemingly probable loss of Kentwan Balmer, will likely have minor on-the-field ramifications for a 49ers team with big expectations in 2010. It is most likely they will progressively increase Dixon's touches in the preseason, make an assessment of what they have in the rookie, and use this information to determine whether they need to bring in another running back from the outside.
However, reports contend that Dixon is not yet developed and versed enough in his understanding of pass-blocking techniques to play with the first team offense. With much expected from quarterback Alex Smith and much invested in a revamped offensive line, the 49ers do not want to jeopardize what should be major progress in the passing game by placing Dixon back in pass protection.
This too may be a blessing in disguise as it will likely force the much-maligned co-captain Michael Robinson to accept a larger role in the 49ers offense. Robinson is the most likely candidate to spell Frank Gore on the first team offense while Dixon develops the skills he needs to be a complete back. This could finally help the 49ers learn what they truly have in Robinson, and whether the former special teams specialist can actually begin to contribute offensively enough to fully justify a roster spot.
Whether he proves himself or the 49ers decide to part ways with the former Penn State QB, the team will wind up improving the depth and versatility of all 53 men on the final roster.
There is still a possibility that the 49ers will look to the outside to replace Coffee before the season starts, but as Matt Maiocco pointed out on Comcast Sports Net's Sportsnet Central on Friday night, it is likely they will wait until the 53-man roster cuts are made around the league on September 4 to maximize their options.
Friday the 13th may have been shocking day for the 49ers, but it was not necessarily unlucky in its outcome. Through all this supposed turbulence, Coach Sing maintains that the team has had their best week of practice yet. That includes a Monday session where he was admittedly disappointed.
The team must go on, the season must go on, and with Coach Sing at the helm, these obstacles can be overcome.
Keep the Faith!
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