Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Young and Jerry Rice struggling to figure out 49ers’ identity

Oct 21, 2021 at 9:58 AM--

Who are the 2021 San Francisco 49ers? Fans are still trying to figure out the team's identity. Maybe the Niners are still trying to figure that out themselves.

We know head coach Kyle Shanahan would like the 49ers to own a punishing rushing attack. That hasn't happened. Some of that is due to injuries. The team lost starter Raheem Mostert for the season due to a knee injury suffered in Week 1. Jeff Wilson was lost before that but could return this season. JaMycal Hasty is just now returning from an injury of his own.

That left a pair of rookies — Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon — to establish a rushing attack. However, even they have not been healthy. Right now, San Francisco is averaging 122 rushing yards per game, which is good enough to rank No. 12 in the NFL. However, 133 of the team's 610 total yards have come from quarterback Trey Lance, and no 49ers running back has reached 200 total rushing yards this season.

Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young joined KNBR this week and was asked about the 49ers' identity. Has he been able to figure out what it is?

"I love someone declaring, 'This is our identity,' and it's like, 'Well, we don't have any of the personalities to make that true,'" Young said on the Tolbert, Krueger & Brooks show. "It's like, 'Our identity is theoretical, and it's got aspirations.' Because [with] Kyle, you've seen the running game when it's flying. And it really is; it's a flying running game, and it's gashing. In [2019], you couldn't fathom how well and how effective that running game was.

"And then off of that, you know play-action, people are going to be wide open. George [Kittle] is going to be wide open. Deebo [Samuel] is going to be wide open. It's just inevitable when you're running the football like that. You know what? I like that identity. Who doesn't? Everybody's like, 'That team's going to the Super Bowl,' and they did.

"So, the identity this year, we're trying to replicate what we did in [2019]. We just don't have the speed. And I don't know what exactly is causing the grief, but you don't get those gash runs anymore."

Young adds that the lack of a potent rushing attack limits what a quarterback, like Jimmy Garoppolo, can do. While the team tries to replicate what made that 2019 campaign such a success, it's falling behind in the playoff race.

"Everything's harder," Young continued. "... Right now, I don't know that they have the capability to fill their aspirations."

Another Hall of Famer, Jerry Rice, also had some thoughts on the 49ers' identity — or lack of one. The NFL great joined the 49ers Talk podcast this week and shared that he is still trying to figure out who the 2021 49ers are trying to be.

"I don't know what it is. I've been looking for it," Rice told Laura Britt. "Are we more of a running team, or are we a throwing team? ... Back in my day ... Bill Walsh was one of those guys that felt like we had to establish the run. And once he established the run, then we threw the ball. That opened up the passing game. So, you've got to pick one or the other. Either you're going to be a passing team that's going to open up the running game or something like that.

"And I just feel like they're searching right now. They really don't know exactly what they want to do or their identity, and stuff like that. But they need to figure this out real fast because the season is not going to wait for them, and the games are going to get much harder.

"And it's going to be up to those players to find their identity, and just make this work, and start winning football games. Once you do that, once you start gaining some momentum and stuff like that, I think that really opens the door for anything to be possible."

Is it too late for San Francisco to pivot in another direction when it comes to its identity? Wide receiver Deebo Samuel has taken his game to another level in his third NFL season. He is averaging over 100 receiving yards per game and already has four total touchdowns.

"He's just like George Kittle. He tries to run over people," Rice said. "But I think he shows too that he has that big-play ability, and if you get him the ball, he's going to put points on the board. So, he's having fun right now.

"If that's the identity, let's go to Deebo Samuel just a little bit more. Let's get him going early during the football game. Then I feel like that's going to open up the door for other opportunities.

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