Season in review: Running backs

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Running backs

Running backs on final 53-man roster: RB Frank Gore, RB Maurice Hicks, RB Michael Robinson, FB Moran Norris, FB Chris Hetherington

Starters in season opener: Frank Gore, Chris Hetherington

Starters in season finale: Frank Gore, Moran Norris

Unit MVP: Frank Gore

Top newcomer: Moran Norris

Most improved: Frank Gore

Biggest disappointment: Gore's six lost fumbles, most of them coming in the first half of the season, which persuaded the 49ers to replace him for a large portion of the season as the team's goal-line and short-yardage back. The 49ers would have been better off had they just left Gore in that role before finally giving it back to him in December.

Biggest surprise: Gore's emergence as a record-breaking NFC rushing champion in just his second season while shrugging off his history of injuries to start all 16 games and record 373 touches without sustaining a significant injury.

On the rise: Frank Gore

On the slide: Chris Hetherington

Overachiever: Maurice Hicks

Underachiever: Michael Robinson - but only from a productivity standpoint. The rookie is a hard worker and has the potential to be a fine player.

What went right: Mike Nolan had a decision to make back in the middle of August when the New York Jets - starved for an established running back to fill the void left by Curtis Martin's knee problems - began showing serious interest in trading for Kevan Barlow, whom Frank Gore had blown past on the depth chart at tailback earlier in training camp. Boy, did Nolan ever make the right decision. By trading Barlow to the Jets for a 2007 fourth-round draft pick, Nolan essentially made Gore an every-down, featured back in the San Francisco offense, and there still were a lot of questions concerning whether Gore could handle that load given his previous injury history. All Gore did was go out and lug the football 312 times - 81 percent of the carries given to San Francisco running backs in 2006 - while smashing several significant team rushing records. In becoming the first 49er to lead the NFC in rushing since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger, Gore set a new franchise single-season record with 1,695 yards, breaking the previous standard of 1,570 set by Garrison Hearst in 1998. In the process, Gore became San Francisco's first rushing champion since Joe Perry led the NFL in back-to-back seasons in 1953-1954. Gore's 5.4 average per carry was the best for San Francisco's leading rusher in the past 48 years, and it also was the best among the 23 NFL running backs who rushed for 990 yards or more in 2006. Gore's powerful, north-south running style produced a team-record nine 100-yard games, including a 212-yard effort in November against Seattle that also set a new team single-game record. Gore had 505 yards rushing on 67 carries (7.5 average) during a three-game stretch to begin the second half of the season in November, the most yards ever for a San Francisco running back over a three-game span. The offense revolved around the 215-pound workhorse, who also had a team-high 61 receptions that produced 485 yards. Gore's 2,180 yards from scrimmage also was a new team record. After being inactive the first two weeks of the season, Moran Norris settled in front of Gore as the starting fullback, and his hard-charging blocks became an integral part of a San Francisco running game that finished sixth in the NFL. Norris was used more often as the season progressed, and he had a season-high three touches in the season finale, including a 32-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. Maurice Hicks also had a 33-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in Week 5. Michael Robinson had 116 yards rushing and Hicks had 82 as Gore's backups, with Robinson producing a two-touchdown game in Week 3 against Philadelphia, both scores coming on hard-nosed one-yard drives into the end zone.

What went wrong: Gore's fumblitis began in the season opener, and he lost a pivotal fumble in each of San Francisco's first four games before finally getting a handle on the problem, which had an impact in several early-season losses. Gore also let a few passes slip through his hands that became costly interceptions. Neither Hicks nor Robinson could get untracked as a consistent rushing threat to spell Gore. Hicks averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and Robinson averaged 3.1. Take away his season-best 33-yard gain on a fake punt, and Robinson averaged just 2.2 yards on his other 37 carries. Hetherington, who began the season as the starting fullback, quickly faded from the picture and appeared in only one other game during the rest of his 11th NFL season. But little else went wrong on this unit as Gore produced consistently whenever given the chance. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry or better in 14 of San Francisco's 16 games, 5.0 or better in 10 games and 6.4 or better in five games.

Looking forward in 2007: The 49ers already are working on a long-term contract extension for Gore, who can become a restricted free agent in 2008, and he will continue to be the central figure of the San Francisco offense with the dual threat he presents as an every-down rusher and receiver out of the backfield. The 49ers remain high on Robinson and would like to get him more involved as both a rusher and third-down back. The 49ers will continue to look for more ways to keep Gore fresh in the future, though they seemed to do a pretty good job of that in 2006, even though he averaged 19.5 carries and 23.3 touches per game. Norris, who will sign a new three-year contract with the team when NFL rules allow him to in March, appears set as the team's fullback, and he may become more involved in the attack in the future. The 49ers also would like to make better use of the versatile Hicks, who was effective as a third-down back in 2004 and 2005 but did not make much impact in that role this past season.

Final 2006 unit grade: A

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