The 49ers have operated the most run-heavy offense in the NFL the past three years, and last season they had four tailbacks on their roster.
On Sunday, however, the team will face the Chicago Bears with just two regular runners, Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde, after parting with LaMichael James earlier on Monday. And coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday there are no immediate plans to add an extra running back.
“Feel like the way the roster is right now is good,” he said.
But the shortage of running backs could have been avoided.
James was frustrated with his lack of playing, and the 49ers had tried to trade the former second-round pick, per his request, during the offseason. Coaches and team officials also knew James wouldn’t have a major role at either running back or special teams in the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys after Hyde and another rookie, return man Bruce Ellington, impressed during the preseason.
So why did the 49ers wait until after Week 1 to release James?
If the team had let him go nine days earlier, they could have held onto hard-charging Glenn Winston, who led the 49ers in rushing yards during the preseason while averaging 5.9 yards a carry. James, by contrast, averaged 3.7 yards in the preseason.
But they cut Winston with the hope they could get him for their practice squad. The Browns claimed Winston off the waiver wire and he’s on Cleveland’s 53-man roster.
“We felt like, you know at that time, LaMichael was the player we still wanted to look at, still wanted to develop,” Harbaugh said. “You couldn’t second guess that one.”
The question now becomes how the 49ers cope with just two tailbacks, especially if one – or both – gets hurt in a game. Harbaugh hinted at a possible solution when he said of James’ release that, “We felt like there are things we could do to (replace) the reps that he would have had.”
On Wednesday, Ellington, drafted to play wide receiver, was warming up with the running backs.
A number of teams have a multi-use receiver who often lines up in the backfield and is capable of taking handoffs on end-arounds and fly sweeps. The Green Bay Packers do that with Randall Cobb and the Seattle Seahawks use Percy Harvin in that fashion.
Ellington has skills similar to those players, and 49ers coaches have said he may have a variety of roles this season.
“While he’s young, I think he’s a very instinctive guy,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said last week. “He’s going to be a guy that can really help us in a lot of different ways, I think. He’s got a little multidimensional ability to him. We’ll see. We’ll see how it goes.”
James played in a read-option offense in college, and the 49ers thought they could use him in that capacity. Colin Kaepernick, for example, pitched the ball to James on a read-option play on Sunday but the Cowboys defended the play and stopped James for no gain.
Hyde also is familiar with the read option, and he scored a short touchdown against Dallas on a read-option carry up the middle.
“Not very long,” Kaepernick said when asked how long it took Hyde to get used to the read option. “He ran it in college, was very familiar with it, and he has very good instincts.”
The 49ers also have a running back on the practice squad, 240-pound Kendall Gaskins, who they can elevate to the 53-man roster at any point.
Another runner, Marcus Lattimore, is on the non-football injury list. Lattimore can be activated after the 49ers’ Week 6 game against the St. Louis Rams.