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‘Versatile’ Doesn’t Do Justice To Deebo Samuel

Deebo Samuel is not supposed to be the focal point. There’s not even really supposed to be a focal point in the first place, in the spiffed and shined machine that is the San Francisco 49ers offense. Or if there is one, he’s over there stalking the sideline, glowering over his play sheet and speaking the codes into the headset. 

Kyle Shanahan, the Niners’ head coach and lead mechanic, is the inheritor and reviser of the wiliest manual of incremental football-moving ever written, a savant of run-game variants and their play-action offshoots. His fully realized vision of the sport looks a lot like a combine rolling through a field of wheat with fresh-sharpened blades, and his favorite sort of player moves as reliably and swaps out as easily as that machine’s parts. But a snow-swept divisional-round game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night, like so many other stretches of a bumpy San Francisco season, showed the limits of the diagrams.

The Packers’ front pushed the Niners’ rushers backward at key moments; their secondary baited Jimmy Garoppolo into panicked throws. On the last drive of the tied game, Samuel — a dense, slippery player all the denser and slipperier in the winter mix — snatched a pass out of the bluster for a first down. Three plays later, with San Francisco needing one more conversion to set up a last-second field goal, he lined up in the backfield, took an up-the-middle handoff and pinballed between defenders for 9 yards. (He’d done all this, and thrown in a dash of lead-blocking, with a twisted ankle and a stung shoulder; “I was hurting all game,” he said after Robbie Gould booted the winner.) At the crucial juncture, the plan was the same one that had pulled the 49ers from a 2-4 start to a playoff berth, the this-then-that of Shanahan’s script reducing to a single-arrow flowchart. “Just give him the damn ball,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said back in November. “I like that. I don’t care where it is.”

Samuel’s byword, in his third professional season, is versatility. The nominal wideout carried the ball 59 times at 6.2 yards a clip this season, more than quadrupling his previous career high in attempts, to go along with 77 catches for 1,405 yards, the fifth-highest total in the league. He scored eight times on the ground and six through the air. Over the first two playoff games, Samuel has tacked on 20 more rushes and six catches, four of which moved the chains. He has taken to calling himself a “wide back — a wide receiver playing running back.” Analysts prefer “skeleton key,” “walking first down” or the contemporary catch-all “unicorn.”

By any measure and whichever bit of verbiage, Samuel is a remarkably multi-use football cog. But just as telestrating Shanahan’s blocking schemes minimizes the muscle and skill needed to actualize them, the fixation on what all Samuel can do obscures the still more impressive particulars of how he does it. For all the chatter about his sui generis-ness, it’s mostly the direction of his evolution — receiver first, then rusher — that is rare: NFL history is rich in running backs who took on starring roles in the passing game, from Marshall Faulk to Alvin Kamara. Sixty-five players have tallied 50-plus rushes and 70-plus catches in a season, but Samuel is just the second not listed at RB.1

What really distinguishes Samuel is that he hasn’t soldered a secondary skill set to a primary one but simply put what he does best to greater and more inventive use. In the abstract, the traits most valued in slot receivers and up-the-middle backs are one in the same: vision and wiggle, liquid hips and a steel shoulder. The 6-foot, 215-pound Samuel has always flashed these qualities in a passing-game context; his 12.3 yards-after-catch in 2020 is the highest of any receiver since NFL’s Next Gen Stats started tracking the figure in 2016. (The second-best year? Samuel this season, at 10.4.) It does not so much shock as stand to reason that, posted in the backfield after injuries leveled the Niners’ rushing corps, he’s been the same guy. Samuel averaged 3.1 yards after contact per rush this season, putting him clear of illustrious wrecking balls like Jonathan Taylor and Nick Chubb. Taylor and Chubb broke a tackle once every 13.3 and 9.9 attempts, respectively; Samuel did it once every 6.6. The gaudy stats don’t stop with the player himself. Michael Renner at Pro Football Focus noted that from Week 10, when Samuel started taking at least five backfield snaps per game, to the end of the regular season, the San Francisco offense went from middling to the top five in expected points added per play.

Novelty follows necessity in the NFL. The Samuel show’s extended run owes a lot to the knee injury suffered in Week 1 by would-be first-stringer Raheem Mostert and the subsequent weeks missed by his backups. Team and player alike, in the sobriety of an offseason that figures to include a hefty contract extension, will likely agree that they could do with a little less of their newly minted All-Pro plowing into nose tackles. (After he gained that last first down on Saturday, he winced and hopped off the field on one leg.) It’s one thing for Samuel to claim two positions in press conferences, but for longevity odds and earning potential, choosing between them is easy. 

To the good fortune of football fans, the playoffs are no time for half-measures. It’s easy enough to envision Samuel circa 2023 holding to a stricter Shanahan regimen: working his slants, running the occasional synapse-frying option with Trey Lance, taking two or three proper handoffs a game in homage to his former self. To have a chance at a championship, though, this year’s Niners will need Deebo in full. They’ll need the version who, digging San Francisco out of a 17-point deficit in a must-win Week 18 matchup with the Rams, sliced up L.A.’s secondary for 95 receiving yards, whirled in for a 16-yard rushing score and threw a trick-play touchdown. (“You can put me anywhere out there on the field,” Samuel said in a predraft interview in 2019. “I’m schooled in every aspect of the game. Throwing, running, recovering fumbles — I did it all.”) The version who, in the wild-card round against the Cowboys, took a third-quarter handoff, spotted a path through three levels of Dallas defense and switchbacked his way 26 yards to the end zone as if he’d been doing it since Pop Warner.

Sunday’s Rams-49ers rematch, in the NFC championship game, is supposed to be a contest between star power and system, explosiveness and discipline. The shorthand is accurate enough. San Francisco will need to do all that stuff that Shanahan loves — dominate the trenches, protect the football — to hang with the telegenic Rams and their wider margin for error. But while fundamentals and the tenets of the outside zone can keep the Niners in the game, they aren’t likely to win it. That task will fall to Samuel, the team’s soul, spark and foremost overtime-collector. Wherever he lines up, his job is to render all his coach’s fancy designs irrelevant, to reduce the sport to its purest and Deebo-est version: Run over or around the player in front of you, again and again. 

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Footnotes

  1. Percy Harvin was the first, thanks to his 87-catch, 52-carry 2011 campaign.

Robert O’Connell is a writer from Kansas. His work can be found on The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian and elsewhere.

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