Season in review: Running backs

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2007 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 Michael Robinson, RB Maurice Hicks, FB Moran Norris, FB Zak Keasey

Starter in season opener: Frank Gore (in a one-back set)

Starter in season finale: Frank Gore (in a one-back set)

Unit MVP: Frank Gore

Top newcomer: Thomas Clayton (practice squad)

Most improved: Michael Robinson

Biggest disappointment: Moran Norris

Biggest surprise: None

On the rise: Michael Robinson

On the slide: Moran Norris

Overachiever: Zak Keasey

Underachiever: None

What went right: After a slow start during which opponents stacked the box with seven- and eight-man fronts, Gore stuck with it and came on strong over the second half of the season to produce another fine season and become the fifth player in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in back-to-back seasons. Gore, who didn't produce a game of more than 88 yards rushing until Week 11 of the season, rushed for 563 yards in the season's final six games to finish fifth among NFC rushers with 1,102 yards on 260 carries, a 4.2 average. He also led the 49ers in receptions for the second consecutive season with 53 catches for 436 yards, becoming the second player in franchise history to lead the team in both rushing and receptions in two consecutive seasons. With 1,538 combined yards rushing and receiving Gore also set a new franchise record for total yards from scrimmage in back-to-back seasons with 3,718. Gore had 81 yards and two touchdowns to spark a Week 2 win at St. Louis and also had a two-touchdown game while rushing for 116 yards in a Week 12 victory at Arizona. He had a season-high 29 carries and 138 yards rushing in a Week 15 victory over Cincinnati and finished the season with games of 138 yards, 89 yards and 94 yards rushing. Hicks and Robinson both performed well in limited playing time behind Gore, with Robinson finishing second on the team with 121 yards rushing on 26 carries (a 4.7 average) and Hicks finishing thid with 117 yards on 21 carries (5.6 average). Starting in place of an injured Gore in Week 9 at Atlanta, Robinson displayed that he could handle the every-down load while rushing for 67 yards on 17 carries. That also was Hicks' best game, when he rushed for a season-high 49 yards on seven carries and scored his only touchdown of the year.

What went wrong: Gore got beat up and beat down as the season progressed and suffered an ankle injury in October that nagged him for much of the remainder of the season and kept him out of a Week 9 loss at Atlanta - the first game he's missed since his rookie season of 2005. Norris, who had played so well as a blocking fullback to pave the way for Gore's record-breaking season of 2006, became a lost man in the offense and wasn't used effectively most of the season. He started only five games as the 49ers went mostly with one-back and two-tight end sets. While the three running backs on the roster typically played well when called upon, they were not utilized well throughout the course of the season. Gore also experienced some problems with fumbles and dropped five passes and, for the most part, was not quite the same dominant force as the previous season.

Looking forward in 2008: New offensive coordinator Mike Martz said he will build San Francisco's offense around Gore, and that's good news for both Gore and the 49ers, even if it might mean Gore won't be used in the same grind-it-out fashion in which he has flourished since joining the team. Martz will spread the field and give Gore a larger role in the passing game, using him much like Martz used Marshall Faulk in St. Louis. The versatile Robinson and Hicks also could find effective roles in the new offense, and to be sure, the 49ers will need more than just one running back to carry the load Gore has handled the past two seasons. What the change in offense means for Norris is uncertain, but his days with the team could be numbered since there's not a lot of need for a fullback in Martz's attack. It will be a different kind of role for the running backs in Martz's offense, to be sure, but the attack will revolve around them and they'll be given plenty of opportunities to flourish. With Gore and Robinson under contract, the question surrounding this unit is whether Hicks will be back, since he can become an unrestricted free agent at the end of February and may be look for an opportunity for more playing time next year. He'd be a good fit as a backup in Martz's offense and would have to be replaced should he leave, so the 49ers should consider offering him some decent money to stay.

Final 2007 unit grade: B-minus


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