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Trying to assess the impact of position coaches as 49ers change venerable RB coaches

The 49ers made a notable change at running backs coach. Can we really fully assess it?

The San Francisco 49ers are moving on from veteran running backs coach Tom Rathman, with new head coach Kyle Shanahan hiring Bobby Turner away from the Atlanta Falcons for the same role. Additionally, they are hiring Mike McDaniel to serve as the run game coordinator. McDaniel had been listed as coaching wide receivers previously, so I am checking with Falcons folks to get a better handle on things.

Rathman was viewed by many as one of the best RB coaches in the NFL, but by all accounts, Turner has a similar reputation. He is reportedly going to be one of the highest paid RB coaches in the league.

We get attached to certain position coaches and can get flustered when they leave. Rathman was beloved by fans, and we heard nothing but positive comments from his players. A similar line could be said of former 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Players talk glowingly, and fans love them.

When position coaches are hired or fired, we take whatever information we have about the position, and connect it to the coach. But it is hard to really know how much impact coach X had on player A. Comments by players and coaches around the league certainly help, but there are few real tangibles to connect to.

I bring this up in particular for the running backs coach in order to try and make some sense of the change. Rathman served as running backs coach for the 49ers from 1997 to 2002, the Lions from 2003 to 2005, the Raiders from 2006 to 2008, and the 49ers from 2009 to 2016.

In his first stint with the 49ers, he coached Garrison Hearst to the three best seasons of his career. Hearst tore up his ankle in 1999 playoffs, and the team replaced him for two years with Charlie Garner. In those two years, Garner had the only 1,000 yard performances of his 11-year career. His subsequent Raiders pay-day came thanks to that.

Rathman followed that with three seasons in Detroit that included first round pick Kevin Jones. He then went to Oakland for three seasons, where he was part of the coaching staff that turned Justin Fargas into a strong running back, including the one 1,000-yard rushing performance of his career.

Rathman returned to the 49ers in 2009. Frank Gore was his started for six years, and Carlos Hyde was his starter for two years. We have heard nothing but glowing praise from both men.

Bobby Turner coached the Denver Broncos running backs from 1995 to 2009. He coached Washington’s running backs from 2010 to 2014, and then the Falcons running back in 2015 and 2016.

In his time with Denver, the Broncos churned out 1,000 yard rushers with ease. Terrell Davis put together a Hall of Fame career, but then we also saw big performances from Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns, and Tatum Bell.

In Washington, Turner’s first two years were with Ryan Torain and Roy Helu producing sub-standard year, but his final three years he got to work with Alfred Morris who put up three straight 1,000 yard seasons. In both Denver and Washington, Turner was working with Mike Shanahan, so it is hard to determine how much was scheme vs. his specific coaching.

Turner spent the last two years in Atlanta, where he got to work with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Coleman dealt with injuries in 2015, but he burst out in 2016 in the receiving game, and the duo was critical to the Falcons offensive success.

We don’t really know who gets credit for what. Mike McDaniel reportedly had a significant role in coordinating the run game this past season. That makes it even harder to figure out who gets credit for what. Turner gets his share of praise, so I am not overly concerned about the loss of Rathman for the time being. But what to assess with regard to each coach is not exactly crystal clear.