Count me amongst the many fans, analysts and Fantasy Football people who thought 49ers rookie running back Glen Coffee would spell veteran Frank Gore often when they met the Arizona Cardinals last Sunday.
While you’re at it, count me amongst the folks who were definitely shocked Coffee got a grand total of ONE carry.
With multiple analysts spending the week leading up to the Arizona game asking not ‘if’ but ‘how many’ carries Gore would lose to Coffee, it makes you wonder what was going on.
It’s not as if Gore was a monster moving the chains. 22 carries for just 30 yards doesn’t leave you with much more than a cringe when you look at the statline. The two touchdowns were very good but in terms of moving the ball, Gore just couldn’t.
It certainly wasn’t Gore’s fault. The offensive line played badly and I counted easily half a dozen or more times where he was met – and hit by – Cardinal defensive players in the backfield.
In fact his touchdown on the ground highlight what he can do when he gets some blocks, in this case a nice hit by David Baas.
Yet overall, Gore spent most of his effort trying to get inches not yards. As that’s the case, wouldn’t you expect a little more rest time by utilizing Coffee?
Here are a few things to consider in respect to that question.
1) Rookies struggle with blocking: Quarterback Shaun Hill felt pressure early and often from the Arizona defensive linemen and linebackers. He was at times rushed, he was sacked four times and overall didn’t find as much protection as he needed.
Rookie running backs often struggle with blocking. Well ROOKIES struggle with blocking but for a wide receiver it isn’t as critical.
While Coffee had a very nice preseason carrying the ball, he’s still improving his blocking. Gore has more experiance with it and is better.
If your quarterback is getting hammered, you’re going to keep your more reliable players in to try and stem the tide. That’s Gore.
He’s also a good pass catcher and having Gore in there means you are telegraphing your plays. With Gore in the backfield, he could be a threat to run the ball, or he can slip out to the falt for a nice catch.
It payed off wonderfully in the fourth quarter when Gore did exactly that for a nifty three yard touchdown which ended up being the difference in the game.
It’s a nice added dimension and on a third down, having a player who can block and catch is almost a neccesity for a team.
Can Coffee catch? Sure. But Gore can catch, block and run – so why take him out when you know he’s someone you can count on for all three.
With fewer snaps, Coffee was just involved less overall. It doesn’t explain just one carry, but it was no doubt a factor.
2) Gore is the engine in this offense: When it comes down to it, Frank Gore is the thing that makes this offense effective. We already know Offensive Coordinator Jimmy Raye wants to run a ratio of about 60% run-to-pass plays.
If you plan on doing that, you go with your best back. That’s Gore, no matter how good Coffee looked in the preseason.
If your offense is struggling, you keep hammering with your main guy looking for some momentum. If something is going to spark the offense, it’s going to be that guy.
Despite poor offensive line play, Gore looked good running. He kept his legs moving and fought for every millimeter of ground he could get. When he broke free for that touchdown run, he still had to run an Arizona player over.
You want Gore in there because you know he CAN run that player over.
3) It’s early: Frank Gore is healthy and will never feel better this season than he did in week one. As the season goes on he – like every other player – will start to feel the accumulated effects of many weeks of having his body battered.
In fact, the fear that Gore will wear down towards the end of the season is what drove many to predict Coffee would carry the ball early and often.
It is very common, though, for rookies to hit what is termed the ‘rookie wall’. Particularly running backs who get hit every time they touch the ball, often even on the runs where they don’t get tackled.
For thos unfamiliar with the term the ‘rookie wall’ is usually a point late in the season where a young player just hits a point of exhaustion he cannot overcome.
The NFL season is longer than most college seasons and is much. much harder on the body.
Sure, we’re worried about Gore wearing down. The team may be worried about Coffee wearing down as well.
If Gore can carry the lion’s share of the early load, there is a better chance Coffee can shoulder a bigger burden near the end of the season when every game could make a difference in a birth for the playoffs.
If the team does make the playoffs, Coffee may still have something in the tank to be a factor in those games.
Meanwhile if Gore carries the ball a little less in December, he will be mroe rested for the playoffs.
This may seem like thinking a little further ahead than necessary, but be sure Coach Mike Singletary will be thinking that far ahead on some level.
Keep Coffee fresh early, gradually give him more carries as we get deeper into the season, rest Gore more often towards the end and perhaps have two running backs who are not exhausted for the playoffs.
I havenj’t even touched on the idea that Coffee may still need some time to adjust to the speed of the NFL. Preseason doesn’t fully prepare a guy for the difference between college and the NFL.
So Coffee may get eased in, in part because they don’t want to overload him.
None of the three reasons I stated fully explain the paltry three carries for a rookie we all expected to burst out of the gate.
However I feel they all factor into that low total to some extent.
I believe we will see more of Coffee this Sunday in the game with the Seattle Seahawks.
However I also believe we will still see a lot more Gore than we originally expected to when we finished the preseason.
And I think in the end, that will be a good thing for the 49ers and their fans.