With the San Francisco 49ers (6-1) getting off to a start that most would consider way ahead of schedule, one does have to wonder if the 49ers have found their identity. Can the 49ers have playoff success by relying solely on their defense? Is the 49ers' offense simply a run-first-type of offense? Or can they, according to Jim Harbaugh, “be successful at running and throwing when needed?”
As this season progresses, one thing that the 49ers do have to implement more into their offense is the two-headed-monster-style of the running game. Other teams have referred to this style as “thunder and lightning.” The Kansas City Chiefs were famous in the 1990s for their two-man backfield of running backs Christian Okoye and Barry Word. The New York Giants implemented their own versions with Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne (although many debated who was the thunder and who was the lightning), and again with the current duo of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.
While 49ers running back Frank Gore is off to an incredible start, scoring a rushing touchdown in every regular season game except the Seahawks and Bengals, as well as gaining 675 rushing yards on 140 carries, one has to wonder if carrying the ball 31 times (as Gore did against the Cleveland Browns last week), is a formula that the 49ers are comfortable with repeating on a weekly basis.
The long-term missing piece to this two-headed monster puzzle could certainly be 49ers running back Kendall Hunter. Hunter certainly has the footwork and quickness to get outside the tackles, and he has the explosive speed needed once in the open field. The question, however, is how many touches should Hunter be getting? With the exception of Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns, Hunter carried the ball nine times for 26 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals, nine times for 38 yards against the Eagles, nine times for 65 yards against the Buccaneers and eight times for 33 yards against the Lions.
Some would argue that as teams “key in” more on Hunter, he may not have the same success running the ball in the second half of the season as he did in the first half. That argument is certainly a valid one due to the fact that the Browns held Hunter to just 26 yards on three carries.
But the fact remains that if the San Francisco 49ers are going to reap the benefits of signing their leader and workhorse Gore to a three-year contract extension worth $21 million ($13.5 million guaranteed), the team may also want to invest in the long-term future of their running game. If Hunter gets the appropriate amount of carries this season, he could be the catalyst that opens up big-yardage plays for other 49ers players, including Gore. After all, no one is going to complain about having a durable truck and a flashy sports car in the same garage.