The curious case of LaMichael James

Al Sacco
Jan 30, 2014 at 12:51 PM22

When LaMichael James was finally brought down after a 41 yard kickoff return, the San Francisco 49ers were in business. With the score tied at 20-20 and 25 seconds remaining, the Niners started the game's final drive at their own 36 yard line and were just a few plays away from a field goal opportunity. Two completions and a field goal later, San Francisco came away with a 23-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals after nearly losing a game they once led 17-0.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because it should. James displayed similar big play ability in the return game back in Week 15 of 2012 when the 49ers had let a 31-3 lead slip away to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. After the Pats tied the score at 31, James took the ensuing kickoff back 62 yards to the New England 38 yard line. The 49ers scored on the next play and went on to win the game 41-34.

James was a breath of fresh air after he was re-inserted as the team's primary return man in 2013. He averaged 26.8 yards per kick return and 10.9 per punt return. That was a significant improvement from the player he replaced, Kyle Williams. Williams had only averaged 19.1 yards for every kick return and 5.1 on punts. Williams also had 20 fair catches and only returned a punt on 12 of 32 actual opportunities. James had taken punts back on 23 of 35 chances (with 12 fair catches) and, as noted above, more than doubled Williams average in yards per punt return.

Looking at how explosive James can be might make a person wonder, how can a player of his talents be left out of the game plan almost completely on offense?

In his rookie season during 2012, James was not able to make a dent in the lineup until Kendall Hunter went down with an injury. It was at that point that James was inserted into the equation to backup Frank Gore. The rookie runner responded by averaging 5.0 yards per carry (38 attempts for 190 yards) and a touchdown over seven games (regular season and playoffs). He had done enough to think that he had earned a shot to get regular touches the following season.

James' 2013 season did hit a sang early on as he sprained his knee in the team's preseason finale. While he was out, the Niner's offense found itself out of sorts as it tried to rely more on shotgun formations and abandoned it's power running game. The team would eventually return to running in between the tackles in Week 4, after dropping two of it's first three games. The move worked, as the team started to win again behind it's bruising rushing attack.

When James returned, he found himself to be the odd man out. The team seemed to initially prefer Kyle Williams or Perrish Cox to return kicks, possibly because they added value at receiver and cornerback as well (although, as noted above, that was remedied soon there after as James would eventually take over return duties). At running back, James could barely even get on the field as he was either inactive or buried on the depth chart.

James only received 12 carries all season and gained 59 yards (4.9 per carry). He also caught two passes for 16 yards. For his regular and post season career, James has 51 carries for 249 yards. At 4.9 yards per carry, he clearly produces. So why does he not see the field?

San Francisco running backs carried the ball 401 times during the 2013 regular season. Frank Gore had 69 percent of those touches with 276. The next closest was Kendall Hunter with just over 19 percent (78). Anthony Dixon saw seven percent of the carries (28) and was primarily used in short yardage (something James' size does not make him ideal for). James, himself, had 3 percent of the carries (12) but most of those came in garbage time of games. Fullback Bruce Miller had the other seven carries this season.

When you look at the non-Gore carries, there are limited opportunities in the backfield. James, even if mixed in, would probably still only have touched the ball a few times a game even if he did play a regular role. That doesn't mean he can't be used with Gore in certain packages, however. So what about using his skills as a receiver?

The answer to that may be as simple as the 49ers just don't throw to their running backs. Excluding Miller's 25 receptions, Gore, Hunter, Dixon and James only combined for 23 catches all season. So while James may be someone who could excel as a receiver, the 49ers don't seem to want to utilize their backs that way. Even in extended playing time in 2012, James only had three catches.

Looking forward, there doesn't seem to be much opportunity for James to be a part of the offense in 2014 and beyond either. Gore should be back next year (even if it's at a reduced salary) and the selection and grooming of Marcus Lattimore would suggest the 49ers hope he can be healthy enough to eventually be a bell cow, and at least split time with Hunter. It's disappointing to think that a player of James' talents would be in this situation, but that is the reality.

It's up for debate whether James' skill set either doesn't fit San Francisco's system or the team simply does not know how to use him, but what is for sure is that James seems destined to remain in limbo as long as he stays with the 49ers.

It's a curious case.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Burke
    It's scandalous how stubborn Roman can be- he just refuses to find ways to utilize the unique skillsets of the entire roster.
    Feb 16, 2014 at 4:17 PM
  • Gandrew
    Everyone forgets that we wouldn't have Eric Reid without the third round pick from the 2012 draft that was used to trade up to get Reid.
    Feb 14, 2014 at 11:33 AM
  • AZ9er
    I really like the way the Patriots use and get personnel. They have constant turnover yet they remain competitive every year. 49ers have to get James in space against linebackers. Similar to the way Saints uses Sproles or Chargers use Woodhead. They can have him come out of backfield or as a slot receiver. Still use him as a punt and kick returner too. Speed kills.
    Feb 8, 2014 at 10:34 AM
  • T
    I'm not as optimistic as some of you are about LaMichael. I'll admit that he's improved our return game, but that's only because Kyle was so bad. I was once excited about him, thought he could make a difference, now he kind of scares me everytime he gets the ball. I think we should move on.
    Feb 4, 2014 at 9:13 PM
  • larry coffield
    Yes, I can see Harvin parallels. James can fly, is a very good receiver, and he has great open-field moves. I like our coaches, but developing offensive personnel is a glaring weakness. Roll up all of those draft picks and get 2 or 3 no-brainers,e.g., Sammy Watkins, and end it. BJ and Johnson at LB, were great, there was no room for them. That's bad selection, and undermines Baalke's cherished note of quantity in picks.
    Feb 1, 2014 at 10:53 PM
  • Marty
    If SF needs advice on how to use James, just ask NEs coaching staff. 49ers coaching staff only knows Gore. Look at the 2013 stats. Same problem with the passing game. 49ers lost Crabtree, coaching staff was totally lost until Crabtree came back. The coaching staff will run the vets into the ground & refuse to develop backups. Case in point, when Williams & Hunter went down in 2012 coaching staff did not have a backup who was prepared to step in. The next game against the Rams, 49ers had just Ginn available to replace Hunter & Williams. Of coarse thats the game Ginn mishandled the pitch from Kaep. That play resulted in the only TD in the game for the Rams. How on earth can any player develop when the coaching staff gives him just 28 snaps all season.
    Jan 31, 2014 at 5:00 PM
  • Bob
    I'd like to see the 9ers give him a shot at slot receiver. He could be a faster quicker Welker. In addition they could use shifts to give him carries.
    Jan 31, 2014 at 11:40 AM
  • montv
    LaMichael James could be as legitimate a threat as Percy Harvin if the 49ers offensive coaching staff could wrap their heads around it. The guy has amazing quickness and great speed. Overall, they don't throw to their backs nearly as often as they should; if they use James like Seattle uses Harvin (when healthy) you'd keep opposing defenses back on their heels the entire game.
    Jan 31, 2014 at 10:22 AM
  • Jason Bennett
    49ers offendive line is a meat and potatoes o-line. Not the most agile group. This is not the 80s 49ers o-lines. This is more the Dalas Cowboys 90s o-line. More of a straight ahead ground attack. Outside of Joe Staley there isn't a ton(there is SOME) of athletisim in this group. This group is more built for Trap and Wham blocking than Pulling and screen passes. As for screens, the 49ers might feel they have to much of a liability with Goodwin blocking for Kap and don't want to put him at too much risk.
    Jan 31, 2014 at 9:53 AM
  • RishikeshA
    He's too small. I thought he would return a kick or two but it never developed. Ted Ginn was best return man the 49ers had since.........................
    Jan 31, 2014 at 6:20 AM
  • Tony
    LMJ is just too slow, small and is tackled too easy. I also am not convinced Lattimore can do the job. I like Lache Seastrunk, an RB with 4.37 speed who can outrun tacklers, 5'10", not easy to bring down and would be a threat to go all the way on every play.
    Jan 31, 2014 at 3:04 AM
  • James
    49ers have no outside running game besides Kaepernick. That's where James would best be suited. He's not a between the tackles kind of runner. Not sure why the 49ers don't run their backs to the outside. Maybe it's not a strength of the offensive line?
    Jan 30, 2014 at 11:34 PM
  • Sam
    give him a chance to play he can be a triple threat, running back, kick and punt return, and a pass receiver in the back field. He can make a difference.
    Jan 30, 2014 at 9:15 PM
  • sam
    I agree with the statement, the niners have enough talent in the back field that the should utilize running by committee and utlize the passing game to James and Hunter another weapon that will confuse the defense and the niners will have more yards per carry. James and Hunter should spilt most of the snaps next year.
    Jan 30, 2014 at 7:43 PM
  • Monsterniner
    The coaches don't know how to use him just like they didn't know how to use Ted Ginn and now he is almost a 1000-yard WR in Carolina. Greg Roman can be very good at times but also he can be really really bad in the passing game and a guy like LMJ needs playing time because clearly he has the skills to help this offense. I'm pretty sure that other OC's would use James way better that Roman.
    Jan 30, 2014 at 6:13 PM
  • His talents are indeed under utilized because 9ers coaching staff are so enamored of Frank Gore, as well they should be, that they are looking for another Frank Gore as rb!? So when #21 retires then the coaches will really be in a quandary that's why i'm hoping that #38(Marcus Lattimore) replicates #21 or we are doomed to a revolving-door style rb system w/c would stymie our quest4'6' crusade!! Don't want to talk about the OC's inadequacies regarding this situation because am still hoping he gets a position w/ another team so we can get David Shaw or Chris Ault as his replacement then our offense can really take off!?!?
    Jan 30, 2014 at 5:40 PM
  • Bret
    I don't see any mention of blocking. It's been pretty clear to me for a while that the reason James doesn't get on the field more is that he is by far the poorest blocker of the RB group. I do agree that for all their supposed creativity, this staff has the most basic, limited offense I've ever seen - wait, hold that, I saw Jimmy Raye's, so I guess that "one of the most limited" offenses. The creativity is just a bunch of shifting before they run of the same dozen plays over and over again. Good teams cram the line because we don't have the speed to get outside with Gore or to beat people deep with Crabtree and Boldin. By crunching everything up tight, it seems to me they are wasting the elite skills of their offensive line; more spread out there would be more one on one blocking (where their strength and athleticism would give them an advantage) and less 5 on 8! James and Kendall Hunter would excel in this and the team would be more explosive.
    Jan 30, 2014 at 4:44 PM
  • bruce
    I would like to see the team pull a page out of the chiefs play book, and get creative with the screen game, thats where James would be most explosive! Screens , draws, and zone reads! Theres no threat in the zone read with Gore in the game, thats why it isnt working as well, I love Gore but he is too slow, James would present a true threat to take it the distance! I would also like to see the team use Vance more vs zone coverage, hes more of a true TE that could sit down in the middle of the zone on a 7 yd curl, Vernon is more of an H-back
    Jan 30, 2014 at 3:55 PM
  • Phil
    As usual opinions and critisism flair controversy with only limited information. We only see a small portion of what the reality is. What do the coaches see in practice? Locker room? Attitude on & off the field? We view from afar by what we see during game time. Coaches & front ofc are around this kid 24/7. Obviously there is more to LMJ and his lack of playing time that we are not aware of.
    Jan 30, 2014 at 3:21 PM
  • niner
    team full of pro bowlers but last in passing red zone and third down efficiency. we see wide open backs every game. Kap admits he will throw to crabtree regardless of coverage. if teh coaches dont coach passing this is what you get. yes our wrs stunk this year but who picked them( wr oc and coaching staff) but brady ahd crap too. if we dont improve in passing all the probowlers in the world wont wina super bowl for us.
    Jan 30, 2014 at 3:05 PM
  • Craig
    Well stated. I've been feeling the same way the past two seasons. James obviously has the ability to make explosive plays, but the 49ers just seem to ignore him. Why do you draft a guy in the 2nd round if you aren't going to use him? Harbaugh and Baalke keep talking about all the plans they have to use him, but then they don't, except on special teams. And that was only because Kyle Williams was so bad. LaMichael James would be great in the slot and catching passes out of the backfield, but they hardly ever try this. The 49ers need to quit under-utilizing their talent. I think Kendall Hunter could be used in more creative ways as well.
    Jan 30, 2014 at 1:25 PM
    Response: Good points and, like you said, the fact that he was a second round choice only makes this more confusing. They obviously thought he could be an impact player but don't seem to want to find out.
  • Scarecrow
    Thank you! Why are we not using him like a Darren Sproles? Maybe "cursed" would be a better word choice. As in, "the 49ers 2012 draft class was cursed..."
    Jan 30, 2014 at 1:23 PM
    Response: They have drafted so well recently, it's crazy to look at how bad they did in 2012.

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