Is it better to have two running backs that complement each other? Or is it better to have one star running back?
Well, there is no right answer. It was thought the NFL would be moving towards a two-back system when the Carolina Panthers had eye-opening success with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart a couple years ago. However, teams like the Minnesota Vikings and the Tennessee Titans have resisted the trend and still believe in the old-school philosophy of relying on one running back. And who could blame them, when they can call on future Hall-of-Famers Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson?
A scheme can only be executed if it has the right players. A two-back system that works for one team doesn't necessarily mean it will work for another team. The coach must make sure the running backs on his roster fit whatever scheme he chooses. Which is why the 49ers must run a two-back system.
When Frank Gore ran for over 1,600 yards in 2006 it made no sense for the 49ers to have Gore split carries in a two-back scheme. Why take away carries from a running back who was having a career year? The 49ers simply didn't have a running back worthy of splitting carries with Gore. But times have changed, and Gore is no longer the running back he was in 2006.
Indeed Gore is 28 now and has already begun to show signs of decline. He has had injury plagued seasons the past three years and doesn't look like he is able to run with the same toughness that had made him so successful earlier in his career. More importantly, Gore just doesn't have it in him to carry the load by himself and succeed in a one-back system. At this stage in his career, Gore is better suited for a two-back system.
Just look at other veteran running backs that found new life in a two-back system. The San Diego Chargers thought that LaDainian Tomlinson had nothing left in the tank when they released him in 2009. And all signs suggested they were right. What could a 31-year-old running back with almost 3,000 carries under his belt have to offer? Ask The New York Jets, who, after seeing past his visible decline in San Diego as a solo running back, brought in LT to share carries with their promising second-year running back Shonn Greene. The aging veteran would go on to lead all Jets’ backs in both yards and touchdowns.
LaDainian Tomlinson was able to be productive with the Jets that season because he wasn’t asked to carry the ball over 300 times like he did for the Chargers. What’s more, LT was playing with a chip on his shoulder. All football players have pride. And when a team tells a veteran player that he is too old to play anymore, it can light a fire. From then on that player is on a mission to prove that team wrong.
Frank Gore is not LT, he hasn't even reached 30 yet. But, like LT, having Gore split carries with Kendall Hunter will light a fire under him. Gore is the most competitive player on the 49ers, he wants his name called on every play. Even a fractured hip wouldn’t stop Gore, and team trainers had to hide his helmet to keep him off the field. If you take away carries from Gore, he will do everything he can to get them back.
Other veteran running backs have had success in a two-back system, including Thomas Jones, the man that LaDainian Tomlinson replaced in New York. Like LT, Thomas Jones split carries with Shonn Green and in 2008 had a career year when he rushed for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was 31 at the time. Fred Taylor, also 31, rushed for 1,200 yards in 2007 while splitting carries with future Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew. As you can see, a two-back system allows teams to squeeze out any production left in a veteran running back.
What you'll also notice is that all of the these veteran running backs were paired with a promising young running back. The 49ers have one of those, by the name of Kendall Hunter.
For a two-back system to work, not only must you have two good running backs on your roster, but those two running backs must complement each other. Take for example Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw of the New York Giants. Bradshaw is the speedster and Jacobs is the bruiser.
Much like Brandon Jacobs, Frank Gore is a bruiser. Much like Ahmad Bradshaw, Kendall Hunter is a speedster. And much like those two Giants running backs, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter complement each other. Hunter could use his speed to spread the defense, which would in turn prevent the defense from stacking the box against Gore. This would give Gore the space he needs to run in between the tackles and capitalize on his bruising ability.
Still looking for evidence that the 49ers should run a two-back system? Look no further then when the 49ers played the Eagles. Going into that game, Gore had a bum ankle and a portion of Gore's carries were given to Kendall Hunter. The 49ers went on to win that game, racking up an impressive 163 yards on the ground, of which 127 belonged to the aging Gore, who secured his first 100-yard+ game of the season. Granted, the Eagles are one of the worst teams against the run. But by giving more carries to Kendall Hunter, they weren't limited to the predictable in between the tackle runs. Instead, Kendall Hunter's speed allowed Jim Harbaugh to call sweeps and run the ball outside the tackles.
Kendall Hunter can also substitute for Frank Gore in third down situations. He has shown he can be a weapon in the passing game, and against the Eagles he caught the ball for 62 yards. If Hunter can learn how to block and pick up the blitz the 49ers could have a dangerous third-down back.
All parties would benefit if the 49ers switched to a two-back scheme. Kendall Hunter would get the playing experience he needs to eventually inherit the starting position from Frank Gore and having Gore take on a lighter load would help preserve his body and keep him playing in the NFL as long as possible. More importantly, though, a two-back scheme would give the 49ers run offense the creativity and production it is so desperate for.