Tom Rathman Returns to San Francisco As 49ers RB Coach

Matt MCorrespondent IMay 8, 2009

17 Jan 1993:  Running back Tom Rathman of the San Francisco 49ers runs with the ball during a playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  The Cowboys won the game, 30-20. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule  /Allsp

Tom Rathman is no stranger to old-time 49er fans. Heck, even this baby-faced young adult gets a smile out of hearing his name. 

Prior to leaving the Oakland Raiders, this former NFL fullback was being considered in “league circles” as a potential offensive coordinator candidate. With his plethora of experience both as a coach and a player it’s easy to see why Rathman was such a sought after coaching commodity.

After being selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round (56th overall selection) of the 1984 draft, Rathman began an illustrious NFL career as a hard-nosed fullback. 

His nine year career, which included eight seasons in San Francisco and a final one with the St. Louis Rams, was highlighted by two Super Bowl victories (1988 and 1989), a two touchdown performance in Super Bowl XXIV, and a league leading 73 receptions in 1989. 

In addition, his superior skills as a blocker was a driving force (pun intended) behind Roger Craig’s decorated 49er career which entailed a 1988 Associated Press “Offensive Player of the Year” award.

Upon retiring with 2,020 rushing yards, 2,684 receiving yards, 320 receptions, and 34 touchdowns in his career, Rathman rejoined his beloved 49ers as a running backs coach from 1997 until 2002.

To better quantify the value that Rathman brings to the 49ers organization, I decided to dissect his NFL coaching career year-by-year and team-by-team.  The following is an overview of his stint with San Francisco.  It provides both the actual number and league ranking of team total rushing yards by year.  In order to convey the offensive firepower at Rathman’s disposal, I also include the team-leading rusher.

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San Francisco 49ers

Prior to Rathman's Arrival

1996- 1,847 yards (10th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Terry Kirby

Following Rathman’s Arrival

1997- 1,969 yards (8th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Garrison Hearst

1998- 2,544 yards (1st in NFL), Leading Rusher: Garrison Hearst

1999- 2,095 yards (1st in NFL), Leading Rusher: Charlie Garner

2000- 1,801 yards (18th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Charlie Garner

2001- 2,244 yards (2nd in NFL), Leading Rusher: Garrison Hearst

2002- 2,244 yards (6th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Garrison Hearst

Following Rathman’s Departure

2003- 2,279 yards (5th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Kevan Barlow

The 49ers running back core experienced a renaissance of the Craig/Rathman days under coach Rathman’s guidance.  Unlike the long-overdue 14th century cultural rebirth, the return to rushing greatness was immediate. 

Upon re-joining the 49ers in 1997 as the teams RB Coach, the Rathman-coached Garrison Hearst rushed for 1,019 yards, providing the 49ers their first 1,000 yard rusher since Ricky Watters in 1992. 

This was an impressive feat for a coach making his NFL debut.  For the following five seasons, the 49ers run game only improved, leading the NFL in total yards twice, and ranking in the top 10 all but one season. 

Under Rathman’s guidance, two Pro-Bowl caliber running backs in Garrison Hearst and Charlie Garner experienced the peaks of their career.  This bodes well for the 49ers current Pro-Bowl running back. 

When Frank Gore was smashing records in his breakout 2006 season, it was Rathman-coached running backs he surpassed. It would be poetic justice for the two record-breakers to join forces and do what they do best.

Detroit Lions

After the firing of then-head coach Steve Mariucci, Rathman reunited with his former boss, becoming the running back coach of the Detroit Lions where he served for three seasons from 2003 until 2006. 

Here is a brief look at the Lion’s rushing attack prior to, during, and following Rathman’s arrival:

Prior to Rathman’s Arrival

2002- 1,477 yards (29th in NFL), Leading Rusher: James Stewart

Following Rathman’s Arrival

2003- 1,338 yards (32nd in NFL), Leading Rusher: Shawn Bryson

2004- 1,777 yards (19th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Kevin Jones

2005- 1,471 yards (26th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Kevin Jones

Post Rathman’s Departure

2006- 1,129 yards (32nd in NFL), Leading Rusher: Kevin Jones

Coming from the pick-your-poison running back duo of Garrison Hearst and Charlie Garner to the talent-barren Lions, Rathman had his work cut out for him Detroit. 

The Lion’s running back situation was… quite the situation.  Having lost 10-time Pro Bowler Barry Sanders to an unexpected retirement in 1998, the Detroit Lions had spent four seasons trying to (unsuccessfully) fill his void. 

To make matters worse, the franchise had just lost starting running back James Stewart, the NFL’s 6th leading rusher in 2002, due to retirement. 

With nothing beyond the famously unrecognizable running backs of Shawn Bryson, Olandis Gary, Avon Cobourne, and Artose Pinner, the Lions experienced a justified regression in their 2003 rushing performance, finishing dead last in the NFL in total rushing yards.

Given the mediocrity of running back talent, the failures of the 2003 Lions is not an accurate reflection of Rathman’s coaching abilities.

The following offseason, the Detroit Lions attempted to bolster their rushing attack by adding Virginia Tech running back Kevin Jones in the 1st round (30th overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft. 

While never living up to his expectations, Jones still managed to lead the Lions in rushing, improving the Lion’s league standings in total rushing yards.  Although never amounting to anything in the NFL, Kevin Jones’ failures were a product of his inability to stay healthy rather than a fault of Rathman as a coach. 

Oakland Raiders

Following Mariucci’s subsequent team dismissal in 2006, Rathman once again jumped ship and returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, only to stop just short in the East Bay where he set up shop as the Oakland Raider’s running back coach.

He served there for three seasons up until Al Davis’ organizational laundry sale in the 2009 offseason. Here is a brief look at Oakland’s rushing attack before, during, and following Rathman’s arrival:

Prior to Rathman’s Arrival

2005- 1,369 yards (29th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Lamont Jordan

Following Rathman’s Arrival

2006- 1,519 yards (29th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Lamont Jordan

2007-  2,086 yards (6th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Justin Fargas

2008- 1,987 yards (10th in NFL), Leading Rusher: Justin Fargas

Like his Midas touch for the red and gold, the Oakland rushing attack received a shot of amphetamines under Rathman’s tutelage. What’s even more impressive than the stats of his running backs is just how unimpressive the Oakland running backs truly were.

Fantasy football fans would have been more inclined to take a backup kicker than make Lamont Jordan or Justin Fargas their starting running back. 

In 2007 Rathman made Justin Fargas a 1,000 yard rusher (1,009 yards), providing the mediocre running back the best year of his career. 

To put that accomplishment into perspective, in his three career seasons prior to Rathman’s arrival, Fargas amassed a modest sum of 337 rushing yards combined. 

Although Al Davis gave Rathman an early Christmas present last April in Darren McFadden, McFadden’s undersized frame and style of running was expected to have a gradual NFL transition process.

Under Rathman’s guidance, the rookie running back amassed 499 yards in 2008; averaging an impressive 4.4 yards-per-carry. This included a 164 yard and one touch down performance in week two against the Kansas City Chiefs

Rathman could assemble an impressive resume from his accomplishments in the East Bay alone.  As evidenced by the rag-tag tandem of Justin Fargas and Lamont Jordan, and the development of Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, Rathman has a god-given ability to get the most out of his running backs. 

Overall the rushing attacks of Tom Rathman coached running backs have averaged 13th in the NFL. Excluding his dismal tenure with the talentless Detroit Lions this average improves to ninth.

Looking into the impressive rushing statistics (see San Francisco 49ers), while noting dramatic rushing improvement following Rathman’s arrival with a franchise (see the Oakland Raiders), and the significant regressions following his departure (see the Detroit Lions), 49ers fans have every right to be excited for this coaching addition (or re-addition).  Much like the unprecedented Godfather Part II, this 49ers fan is hoping the sequel exceeds the original. 

In evaluating Rathman’s impact on the 49ers, one has to ask themselves: “imagine what Midas could turn into gold?”. If he could make stars out of journeyman, just imagine what Rathman could do to Frank Gore. 

On behalf of all 49ers fans, welcome back Mr. Rathman, it’s been a long time coming.

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