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What the “F”?

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Coach said that Juice, Trent Taylor, Kittle and Dirty ‘Tini all play the “F” position. So what is it?

Kyle Shanahan made an interesting and slightly confusing comment in his press conference Wednesday: that his playbook was scrambled because all of the 49ers who can play the “F position” were injured.

Wait, the what position?

I know this is probably hard to understand, but we have an ‘F’ position and that ‘F’ position when we are in 21 personnel is [FB Kyle Juszczyk] Juice. When we’re in 12 it’s [TE George] Kittle or [TE] Cole Hikutini. When we’re in 11, it’s [WR] Trent Taylor. It’s all the same position.

Uh, OK. Where does the ‘F’ position line up?

If it’s Trent Taylor, he’s probably not going to be in the backfield like Juice is. He’s probably going to be out wide, but it’s all the same spot and that allows you to mix and match a lot of different things and do a ton of different things while you’re doing some of the same stuff over and over again.

Clear as mud, coach. Thanks a million.

People have been talking about the ‘F’ position for years, including in San Francisco under offensive coordinators Norv Turner (2006) and Greg Roman (2011-2014). Delanie Walker had a lot of success in the role. When Chris Harper signed in 2013, as a soon-to-be-failed replacement for him, the team’s website described the position this way:

“Harper will have to learn the nuances of playing on the line of scrimmage as a blocker and out wide as a pass-catcher. Reading defensive fronts will be a challenge, but it’s one he willingly accepts. ‘I’m going to be a lot of different roles, moving out, playing inside a little bit and playing outside a little bit, doing everything basically,’ Harper said before explaining the toughest challenge of all. ‘I never got in a three-point stance before, so that’s going to be different for me.’”

Not much clearer, huh? Various descriptions over the years call it the same as a “move” or pass-catching tight end, or the same as the H-back (a fullback/TE hybrid), or “in a three-receiver set in [Bruce] Arians' [Steeler’s] system, the F [was] an outside receiver who runs a lot of double moves and deep routes.” Players who fit include the 6’0” 248-pound Walker, 5’9” 174-pound Taylor, or 6’5” 235-pount Cole Hikutini. Got it yet?

The F Back role evolved as a variant of the Air Coryell offense’s H-back, in Norv Turner’s flavor of the system. This 2012 blog post has detailed diagrams from the Steeler’s 2004 playbook, which describes the position as “FB or 2nd TE (F) or 3rd WR (F).” The playbook charts positional variations, lists their personnel packages — F is part of the “Heavy” and “Detroit” packages — and describes precise alignment positions. For example, in the Up/Box formations,

“Position yourself 1 yard outside offensive tackle to weakside and 1 yard deep off the LOS. (UP - 3 PT / BOX- 2 PT)”

That precise early definition seems to have blurred a bit into a jack of all trades, a player who might line up as at fullback, halfback, inline TE, in the slot or out wide. A move TE who can block and even lead block, as well as make a sharp double move. An offensive weapon, you might say.

Former Titans WR Damian (“Not Damien”) Williams put it this way: “In baseball terms, it’s a utility player. You’re the guy who’s going to move the most.” He means “move” literally there — not just lining up in different places, but very often going in motion.

Shanahan’s forthright comments reveal two interesting things about his offense. His plays are flexible enough that he can plug Juice, Kittle, Dirty ‘Tini or Taylor into the same role despite them lining up in very different positions.

The traditional formations are essentially window dressing for his actual plays, as he can motion any of these four players into any number of blocking, running or receiving roles. (Sending Taylor to block a tackle remains a bad idea, however.)

That’s the good news. The bad news is that even this radical flexibility can’t overcome the 49ers horrible rash of injuries this year.

The team seriously needs to get an outside set of eyes on the new strength and conditioning/sports science team, because something is really not working.

But going forward, if the team can get a handle on injuries, the outlook is very good. These comments give a glimpse of why Shanahan has been so successful, pushing the flexibility of the “F” position to its extreme and giving his offense the ability to run almost any play from almost any formation.