San Francisco 49ers may have found the missing piece they needed

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Alfred Morris
ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Alfred Morris /

The San Francisco 49ers, after suffering a plethora of injuries in the preseason opener, signed a veteran running back, and should think about keeping him.

For the San Francisco 49ers, it’s been a whirlwind Summer of good vibes, good feelings, and in the case of new franchise quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo – some interesting new friends.

Those good vibes took a bit of a hit during that first preseason game, when San Francisco lost about half the team to injury. Among the wounded after that initial skirmish with the Cowboys, was running back Matt Breida. And at practice a couple of days later, the 49ers then lost high-price free agent acquisition, Jerick McKinnon.

Neither injury is too serious, and both will reportedly be back by the time the regular season kicks off, but it has made San Francisco’s running backs group a little bit thin, as they head through the rest of their preseason schedule.

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To help, the team brought in veteran running back Alfred Morris to help shore up the spot.

Morris, the two-time Pro Bowler, is entering his seventh season in the league, with his third team. He previously played for Washington – and for two seasons (2012-13) with current 49ers field boss Kyle Shanahan – and two seasons with Dallas, before landing with San Francisco.

No doubt, his connection to Shanahan, his familiarity with the system, and a pressing need for some warm bodies on the field, prompted Morris’ addition to the 49ers backfield.

Even still, most see Morris as a “camp body,” and somebody to take the snaps while Breida and McKinnon are down. Many see him as a guy just keeping the seat warm, and think he faces a steep uphill climb to make the 53-man roster. And most of them don’t think he’ll make it.

The reason for that, is likely, that Morris doesn’t fit the mold of the prototypical back in Shanahan’s system. At five-foot-ten, 225 pounds, Morris is a banger, and an effective between the tackles runner, but one who isn’t much of a pass catcher out of the backfield – a staple of Shanahan’s offense.

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Put another way though, Morris is exactly what this 49ers offense needs if they want to win the ultimate prize.

There’s no doubt that Shanahan’s offense is going to be explosive. Dynamic. Armed with what looks like a franchise quarterback in Garoppolo, receivers that blend very well with that quarterback, and some flashy, quick backs who can help open up the passing game, fans can, and should, expect to see an offense that puts up a lot of yards, and scores a lot of points.

Indeed, Shanahan has all of the ingredients on his 49ers roster that made his Atlanta Falcons units so high-powered. The only thing missing is that big bodied banger who can keep the chains moving when it matters most.

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  • To illustrate that need, and why Morris is a lot more valuable to this offense than as just a camp body, consider Atlanta’s Super Bowl run in 2016 – and why they lost in the heart breaking fashion they did.

    Shanahan’s offense carried the Falcons all the way to the Super Bowl that year, and while the defense takes a lot of the heat for blowing the commanding 28-3 lead Ryan and the offense staked them to – and rightly so – one thing that’s barely mentioned is the failure of Shanahan and the offense, to keep the chains moving, and keep eating up that clock.

    If the run game had been able to control the clock even just a little bit, Atlanta would have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy that year.

    But, they couldn’t control the clock. Couldn’t keep Brady and the Patriots offense off the field. Couldn’t give a defense that was getting worn out, a break. And ultimately, couldn’t win a game they had in the palm of their hand.

    Though the defense deserves a far amount of heat, the running game deserves just as much.

    Think about it. With 8:31 left in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, Atlanta had a 25-point lead. All they had to do was control the clock – control the last 23:31by running the ball and moving the chains – and they couldn’t do it.

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    On their four offensive drives after that 8:31 mark in the third quarter, the Falcons totaled just 6:55 in time of possession.

    That lack of ability to stay on the field and keep the chains moving is as much to blame for that Super Bowl humiliation as the defensive meltdown heading down the stretch of that game.

    That’s not to say that Atlanta didn’t have a solid running attack in 2016. They certainly did. Behind Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, the Falcons posted the fifth-best rushing attack in the entire league. That success paved the way for Ryan and the passing game to have their breakout season.

    But, Shanahan perhaps knew that neither Coleman (six-foot-one, 210 pounds), and Freeman (five-foot-eight, 206 pounds), were particularly effective between the tackles runners, were better in open space than grinding it out, and that as the game started to tighten up, he had to rely more on the passing game.

    To wit, over the last 23:31, Shanahan called just five total running plays – one was nullified due to a penalty, but it lost a yard anyway. Of the four plays that counted, Atlanta’s running smaller, shiftier running backs gained a total of ten total yards. Ten.

    Let that sink in for a minute – needing to move the chains and control the clock – and that by doing so, they’d be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy – Shanahan called just four running plays. And only one of them went for more than two yards.

    That inability to control the clock – as well as a leaky defense – cost Shanahan and the Falcons a Super Bowl win.

    Now, in San Francisco, Shanahan is recreating his high-flying offense, with the roles of Coleman and Freeman being played by McKinnon (five-foot-nine, 205 pounds), and Breida (five-foot-eleven, 190 pounds).

    San Francisco 49ers
    San Francisco 49ers /

    San Francisco 49ers

    Both McKinnon and Breida have good speed, great hands, and can make plays in open space. But, neither one of them have proven to be grinders, who can move the chains, and help control the clock in crunch time.

    Regular season football is one thing. But, as they say, playoff football is something else. When you have to go to places like Green Bay or Philadelphia, where you often have to deal with inclement weather that late in the season, it’s not necessarily conducive to a team’s passing game. That’s when you need some tough, grinding backs, who can chew up the yards, and keep the chains moving.

    Or, you know, when you’re holding a lead late in a big game, and you need to squat on it by controlling the clock.

    Morris can be exactly that for the 49ers. When given a chance to be the lead back in Washington, Morris showed out. He had 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie. In his four years in Washington, Morris rushed for 4,713 yards and 29 touchdowns.

    In Dallas, he found himself stuck behind Ezekiel Elliott on the depth chart, and saw his touches plummet. Filling in while Elliott served a suspension last season, Morris (who got five starts) showed that he can still move the chains, piling up 547 yards on just 115 carries – an average of 4.8 yards per carry.

    There’s no question that McKinnon and Breida will flourish in Shanahan’s system. They’re going to put up some numbers and San Francisco’s offense is going to be electric.

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    But – when it matters most, will the 49ers be able to grind out those tough yards. Will they be able to work the clock if they’re holding a lead late in a game?

    Morris could be a valuable component to this offense, and he should be more than just a camp body. He’s a guy who can help a team squat on a lead by grinding out the tough yards and keeping the chains moving.

    He very well could be the difference between winning a title – or Kyle Shanahan having to spend another offseason talking about missing an opportunity for a ring.