Jerry Rice had no problem enjoying himself as he watched his old team the San Francisco 49ers dismantle the Los Angeles Rams 24-9 in Week 4. One of Rice’s reactions has already become a meme, but the greatest wide receiver of all time still found one thing about the 49ers’ performance he didn’t like.
It concerned how head coach Kyle Shanahan used an All-Pro who was in peak form against the Rams. Although this versatile weapon scored a touchdown and amassed almost 120 yards of total offense, Rice believes it’s time to change his role.
The GOAT Speaks Out on All-Pro Usage
Rice isn’t happy about how the 49ers use Pro-Bowl wide receiver Deebo Samuel as a running back. The Hall of Famer told 95.7 The Game’s Morning Roast (h/t NBC Sports’ Taylor Wirth) he’s “not a big fan of him being back in that backfield because it’s almost like the second he’s back in the backfield, the opponent knows that Deebo is going to get the ball.”
What Rice wants to see is more variety in Samuel’s role as a so-called wide back: “So it’s going to be up to Kyle Shanahan to be a little bit more creative, maybe spread him out just a little bit more. Brandon Aiyuk, he made some plays, and they’ve got some weapons. They’ve got some guys that can make some plays.”
Rice’s reference to spreading Samuel out more often speaks to his desire to see the latter used more as a receiver. That’s where Samuel was playing when he scored on a 57-yard catch and run in the second quarter, a play that brought Rice out of his seat:
There’s merit to Rice’s view about Samuel because the latter scorched the Rams with 115 yards and six catches as a receiver. He managed just two yards on his only carry.
A single rushing attempt represented an unusually light workload on the ground for Samuel. His transition to de facto running back was the catalyst for the 49ers’ run to last season’s NFC Championship Game.
The schematic ploy has still worked at times this season. He found the end zone as a runner against the Chicago Bears in Week 1, and Samuel averaged 13.2 yards on four carries a week later against the Seattle Seahawks:
Things slowed to a crawl for Samuel the running back against the Denver Broncos in Week 3, when he was held to six yards on five attempts. The sluggish showing seemed like an early warning sign opposing teams have worked out how to stop Samuel on the ground.
Defenses Catching Up to the Wide Back
Samuel took teams by surprise when he took direct handoffs from the backfield last season. Now, defenses are prepared for the ploy, so Rice is right to urge Shanahan and his staff to devise more creative ways to make use of this look. Especially since fans are already asking to see Shanahan’s next “rabbit trick.”
Ironically, the package of plays with Samuel at running back would likely have become more varied had Trey Lance not suffered a broken ankle against the Seahawks. Combining Lance’s own talents as a runner with those of Samuel would have added a ton of option-style plays to this offense.
There are plenty of other ways to utilize Samuel effectively. Throwing to him out of the backfield should be a bigger part of the playbook because it’s a good way to get a wideout matched up against linebackers in space.
Fortunately for Shanahan, he already has the ideal template for expanding Samuel’s role. He did just that against the Green Bay Packers in last season’s playoffs, on plays highlighted by Nate Tice of The Athletic:
Defenses can’t be blamed for playing run first when they see Samuel behind the quarterback. After all, No. 19 averaged 6.2 yards per attempt and rushed for eight touchdowns during his breakout campaign a year ago.
The problem is it doesn’t take long for the rest of the NFL to catch up to the latest coaching ploy and offensive trend. It’s time for Shanahan to follow Rice’s lead and freshen up what he designs for Samuel.