Going into the 2010 season it looks like the Jimmy Raye offense will once again rely more on faith than strategy. It will be built upon the antiquated foundation that the running game sets up the pass. Expect to see Frank Gore pound the ball time and again into opposing defensive lines like an unarmed Christian into the teeth of a Roman Legion. Assuming that rival coaches will make Alex Smith prove he can move the ball through the air, the 49ers will probably see a lot of eight man fronts and Gore will no doubt be worn to a nub from the constant collisions, necessitating the emergence of a capable back up that can gamely handle the carries when he’s on the sidelines.
Last year the 49ers’ insistence on a single back offense went against the emerging trend in today’s NFL. In the past few years teams have shifted away from focusing on one back carrying the ball and more towards a two back system, each man interchangeable and capable of shouldering the load when the other is sitting. In 2009 Frank Gore ran the ball 70 percent of the time while Coffee had the ball in his hands for just 25 percent of the team’s carries. Throw into account that Gore was injured for the majority of three games (one carry against Minnesota) and that Coffee was the featured running back during his absence, and the stat is even more skewed - in games that Gore was the starter Coffee had the ball in his hands only 22 times, which averages itself out to less than two carries a game.
If Raye and the 49ers are planning to stubbornly go into the coming year keeping with the status quo, then this enormous split in carries does not bode well for Frank Gore. As the past has taught us, the risk of ineffectiveness and injury rise with each rushing attempt as the season progresses, and the 49ers must know that if they have to put him on the shelf then the chances of the team finishing the season with a division title goes out the window.
For the Niners to have a good season someone has to step up and help Gore, and right now that will have to be Coffee. It seems unlikely for the 49ers to spend another high draft pick on a running back since they just took the junior from Alabama in the third round of last year’s draft. And it would be unfair to write him off as a bust after just one season which saw him getting the bulk of his carries in a three game stretch in the beginning of the season.
There is of course the possibility that the 49ers may nab someone in the later rounds or through free agency to help complement the running game, even better if that someone could also come in and immediately help with the return game and maybe catch a few balls out of the back field. But right now it looks like that the 49ers are going into the coming season with Gore penciled in as the starter and Coffee as his backup. If that is the case it would make sense for Raye to find a way to integrate Coffee into the game plan on a more consistent basis to conserve Gore and to see what the team has in his understudy.
With one year under his belt Coffee should now have a feel of what the NFL is all about. There will be no more excuses, and improvement is mandatory. With the proper utilization, the coming season will unveil whether he will be an asset to the team’s running game or just an overconfident, well proportioned stiff.