The ESPYs on Wednesday night didn’t teach 49ers fans anything new. They already knew that last year’s playoff cha-cha with New Orleans was the game of the year. Everyone knew the minute it was over that it was one of best games in recent memory, and certainly the best 49ers game of the last ten years.
What made it so great? It wasn’t the incredible defense. There was plenty of that, to be sure. Justin Smith’s one-handed manhandling of Drew Brees over a reeling Jerome Bushrod was a sight to behold. The way the secondary forced Brees into more mistakes than he’d made all season was downright impressive. But it wasn’t the defense.
Let’s cut to the chase. It was the offense. Derided all season, labeled as impotent, not explosive, the weakness of the team. On that day, though, when it mattered, Alex Smith and crew went blow for blow with one of the top offenses in the league, and won. This was Hagler vs Hearns, The War. Finally, San Francisco was throwing punches that landed, and it left them standing at final bell.
So when we talk about what the 49ers need to improve, it’s not so much a discussion as a demonstrated fact. The 49ers had plenty of wins last season; the best one was when the offense showed up. For the 49ers to improve on last season (which I expect they will), the offense must be more consistent and explosive. That’s why LaMichael James is the most exciting addition to the 2012 49ers.
If you’ve watched college football at all over the past few seasons, you know Oregon has been college football’s high octane highlight machine. Oregon coach Chip Kelly is college football’s Michael Bay—he loves touchdowns like the Bay loves explosions. One of the big reasons? I think you already know it’s LaMichael James.
Take a few minutes and watch this LMJ highlight video, and tell me you aren’t jazzed to watch him in red and gold. (Rap music and fancy editing ahead!)
The 49ers haven’t had a lot of that in a while, even with one of the league’s top backs in Frank Gore. It might be hard to see touches in his rookie season with such a crowded 49ers backfield; I believe, however, LMJ’s irrepressible volatility will see him on the field from day 1.
At the combine, he posted excellent speed and quickness numbers: 4.45 seconds in the 40 (top 4 for RBs); 6.88 in the 3-cone drill (top 5 for RBs); 4.12 in the 20-yard shuttle (top 5 for RBs). LaMichael was easily the most productive back with results in that range; in fact, he has been the most productive back in college football the past two seasons, leading the nation in yards per game at 150.4 ypg in 2011, 144.3 ypg in 2010. As a freshman in 2009, he was eighth with 118.9 ypg. He’s also a bloodhound for the endzone, posting 53 TDs over the last three seasons combined.
I remember the first time I saw LaMichael James in person. It was 2009 at the Rose Bowl, and young, unknown, freshman James tore up the UCLA defense for 152 yards on 20 carries. (In those days, UCLA actually had a semi-decent defense.) I remember watching him run right through the middle of our defense, which featured future NFL players DT Brian Price, LB Akeem Ayers, and FS Rahim Moore. If he got to the outside, he ran right by future Titans starting CB Alterraun Verner.
He bounced off of, spun past, and shimmied out of tackles on each and every play. He displayed one of the most essential qualities a running back can possess: the absolute refusal to be brought down. And it wasn’t a fluke. He did the same thing week in, week out for the next three seasons. As good as Oregon’s offense was, the destructive speed and quickness of guys like LaMike is what keyed the whole thing.
And that’s what the 49ers need. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Harbaugh pulled the trigger on James. In two games against the diminutive dynamo, Stanford under harbaugh was ripped for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns on 49 carries. Stanford had a top-20 rush defense in 2010. Harbaugh saw first-hand what the man can do, and at 61st in the second round, couldn’t pass on his speed.
Of all the new weapons the 49ers added this offseason, it’s James who excites me the most. He knows how to make people miss, he knows how to find the endzone, and he knows how to work hard. He probably won’t have a start this season; there are too many other backs. But this is the sort of player Jim Harbaugh loves, and soon enough, we’ll see James running by people.
(Since I love highlights so much, here’s a few more college football highlight videos for you. Most have rap music and swearing.)