It is well known that sports fans often favor the underdog and become impatient with the status quo, wishing to replace their players with others, often lesser known or even less talented. This is apparently the case with some 49er fans, especially the young ones. In browsing through various forums and blogs I came across an interesting situation that will impact the coming season.
We know that Mike Martz often ignored the running game in favor of his outdated 7-step drop philosophy. Much has been made about the fact that Mike Singletary favors a "power running" game. Many wrongly believe that this means the 49ers will be a run-first team and nothing could be further from the truth. The difference will be that Jimmy Raye will direct a power running game that goes between the tackles, rather than outside the tackles like the "finesse" running game advocated by Martz.
Frank Gore will again be the featured back and will have his personal bodyguard, Moran Norris, back at fullback leading him through the line. It is expected that Glenn Coffee will be his backup at the #2 RB position as long as he can overcome the fumbling tendencies that hampered his college career. That leaves Michael Robinson, rookie Kory Sheets from Purdue, and the long dormant Thomas Clayton as the other backs. Sheets is a speed burner who was plagued with fumbles throughout his college career. He also plays special teams as a kick returner and may well be headed for the practice squad.
The point of this article is the rather bizarre opinions of some fans that Thomas Clayton should remain and Michael Robinson should be cut. That, my friends, is insanity and demonstrates how little many fans know or understand about the game of professional football. I often ask these fans what it is about Thomas Clayton that excites them enough to cut one of our most valuable players. The answers are usually "he has led the league in preseason for two years". It is my firm belief that they are infatuated with his body. The man looks like Tarzan, but plays like Jane. No mention of the fact that Clayton sat on the practice squad the last two seasons and any of the other NFL teams could have picked him up for a loaf of bread and none did.
Let's compare their records. Clayton runs a 4.63 40, the slowest of all the 49er RBs with the exception of Norris. During his four-year college career, he gained just over 1000 yards and scored only 7 TDs. His senior year at Kansas State, he gained only 330 yards as the 3rd string running back. In his first two seasons with the Niners he has yet to impress the coaches enough to even set foot on the field. It is one thing to be a classic underachiever, but quite another to never have achieved success at all.
Michael Robinson was horribly mismanaged by Mike Nolan for two years. Nolan didn't like to play rookies and Michael was no exception. Like his new Offensive Coordinator, Jimmy Raye, Michael Robinson, led his team to the Big 10 Championship. MRob as he is affectionately called, is a 6-1, 228 lb. powerhouse whom Penn State coach Joe Paterno referred to as "the greatest athlete I have coached in my 55 years at Penn State".
At Penn State, MRob was a standout on a losing team. He was used mostly as a wide receiver, but also played a little halfback and a short time at quarterback prior to his senior year. It was then that Paterno inserted Michael, who had never played the position full-time before, as his quarterback for his senior year. Robinson responded by leading his team to an 11-1 record, winning the Big 10 title and a victory in the Orange Bowl, and being named Big 10 Offensive Player of the Year. He threw for 17 TDs and ran for 8 more. Throughout his career in college, he ran for 1,637 yards, caught 52 passes for 629 yards, threw for 3,575 yards and accounted, either by passing, throwing or running for 46 touchdowns. He was also their best player on special teams.
In direct contrast to Clayton's college career, Robinson achieved and then some. So, upon being drafted by the 49ers and despite his plea to be given an opportunity to at least try out for quarterback, Michael was put on ice by Mike Nolan who expressed his unwillingness to allow most rookies to even play with the classic statement: "Young players play young".
So, Michael has been a standout on special teams and has made a few memorable plays, despite being overlooked and woefully mishandled. Since coming to the 49ers, Robinson has established himself as their premier special teams player. He has been the leading tackler and his blocking resulted in two kickoff returns for TDs, the first for Delanie Walker in a preseason game, the second,a great block that led to Alan Rossum's opening kickoff return for a TD against the Arizona Cardinals. In fact, Robinson threw two blocks to spring him.
In addition, Robinson is the Captain of the 49er special teams and his inspirational play and leadership are well known. Some fans complain that he is "not a real RB". Well, he came to the Niners as a quarterback and has only averaged about 2 carries per game. It is well known that a running back needs several carries to develop a rhythym and Robinson has never been afforded that opportunity. He has, however, made several impressive runs in his short stint at that position. Here are just a couple. In the first, he breaks off a 20 yard gain with a swing pass breaking five (5) tackles.
It is important to note that once Mike Singletary took over as coach last season, Robinson became a weapon receiving out of the backfield from the backup FB position, catching 17 passes for 201 yards, an 11.9 average per catch.
Robinson also took a few snaps last season from the Wildcat formation and is expected to be the man behind center if and when Jimmy Raye utilizes that formation this season. It is important to remember that the new running backs coach is Tom Rathman, who played with another #24 in the early 1980s, Harry Sydney, also a former QB who was instrumental in a playoff victor by throwing an option pass to Brent Jones. Tom has a long memory and Robinson possesses similar skills to Sydney.
Because he is such an excellent receiver, blocker, runner and passer, as well as the best special teams performer, his versatility is important not only to Mike Singletary but to the front office as well. He is under contract, long-term and his versatility will allow 49er management to get creative if necessary. Let's say the team decides to keep all four (4) QBs or 6 WRs. This is where Robinson's value comes through. He can be carried as both the #3 RB and #2 FB, thereby enabling the 49ers to fill five (5) roster spots with only four (4) players. They can then retain a Nate Davis or an Arnaz Battle thanks to Robinson.
Clayton offers no such options. He will be gone after the preseason.
The SF 49er Observer
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