A lot has been made recently about the lack of playing time 49ers’ running back LaMichael James has had in 2013. The second year runningback, who filled in admirably after Kendall Hunter was lost for the year last season, was thought to have earned a role with the offense based on his past performance. Instead, James has been inactive the last two contests and has only been active in 9 of the last 26 meaningful games. The question is, why?
When the 49ers entered into the 2012 draft, their approach seemed to be to draft for the future. With their first two selections, they chose wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and James. One could make the argument that both players were chosen with the idea that the offense would eventually develop into more of a spread, read option type unit when Colin Kaepernick eventually took over at quarterback.
In 2012, neither player was able to really make a dent in the lineup (Jenkins has since been traded) until Kendall Hunter was injured. It was at that point that James was inserted to back up Gore and responded by averaging 5 yards a carry (38 attempts for 190) yards and a touchdown over seven games (regular season and playoffs). James played well enough to think he’d earned some snaps in 2013 on offense and also made a case to be the team’s primary kick returner. James returned 14 kicks in 2012 for an average of 29.7 per return and seven more in the playoffs for a 23.1 average. His 62 yard run back in a tie game with the New England Patriots shifted the momentum and set up the game winning touchdown for San Francisco.
James’ 2013 season did hit a snag early on as he sprained his knee in the 49ers’ preseason finale. While he was out, the team team’s offense found itself in an identity crisis as it tried to rely more on shotgun formations and abandoned the power running game. The unit struggled and the team returned to the between the tackles running that was used to pace their offense in 2011 and 2012.
When James returned, he found himself to be the odd man out. The team seems to prefer Kyle Williams or Perrish Cox to return kicks, possibly because of what they bring on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball as well. James is also clearly behind Frank Gore, Hunter, and Anthony Dixon on the depth chart at running back.
Gore is the work horse and the player the offense runs through. Out of the 182 attempts by runningbacks this season, Gore has 70 percent of those carries (127). The next closest is Kendall Hunter with 19 percent (34). Hunter is only averaging about five carries per game. Dixon is used primarily on short yardage (something James’ size does not make him ideal for) and is also valuable on special teams coverage units. Dixon is only averaging two carries a game. James, himself, has seven carries this season but those have mostly come in garbage time during wins in Week’s 4 and 5.
When you look at non-Gore runningback only carries, there are limited opportunities in the backfield. James, even if mixed in, would probably only be touching the ball one or two times through the course of a game. That doesn’t mean that he can’t be used with Gore though. What about utilizing James as a receiver in the slot or out of the backfield?
The answer may be as simple as the 49ers just do not throw much to their runningbacks. They have only 10 catches all season (excluding fullback Bruce Miller‘s 11). Looking at Gore specifically, he averaged 51 catches a season from 2006-2010 and only 22.5 in 2011-2012 under Jim Harbaugh (he’s on pace for 16 this year). So while James may have value as a receiver, the 49ers don’t seem to want to utilize runningbacks that way. James, even in his extended playing time in 2012, only had three receptions.
Looking forward, there may not be a lot of room for James in future seasons either. Even if Gore is not on the team in 2014 (that is a possibility due to age and salary), the selection of Marcus Lattimore in the 2013 draft seems to point to San Francisco hoping he can eventually be healthy enough to be the bell cow or at least split with Hunter. Even so, Gore is still the focal point of the offense and could be in that same role next season given what we’ve seen so far in 2012.
So James may very well go on in limbo, stuck on an offense that doesn’t fit with his skill set. He may be used primarily as insurance on a deep roster that has talent more conducive the scheme. Barring injury, it just doesn’t seem like James in the 49ers’ plans right now.
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