It’s a shame that the final image of Deebo Samuel on a football field for the 2021 season will be the All-Pro sitting, staring at the ground with his hands pressed up against his face and a towel draped over his shoulders.
The offense’s most versatile, electrifying, and important player for once looked to be stopped short of his desired destination. This wasn’t a defender he could beat to the edge or truck so hard that their mouthpiece went into low orbit.
He was facing the ending to what will go down as one of the most statistically anomalous seasons for a wide receiver in the history of the sport. There has never been anyone like him in the league before, including his own previous two campaigns.
It might be hard to accept right now, but Deebo will almost certainly never be this good again, but that’s okay. Nobody will be.
His accomplishments in 2021, born like most life-changing innovations out of necessity, would be foolhardy for any player or team to try to recreate. For all the Twitter draft experts and GMs looking to wow their fan base out there, you will not be finding another Deebo Samuel.
You will not find a Deebo-like player, Deebo Lite, or Diet Deebo. So, please, don’t saddle some poor incoming rookie with those unrealistic expectations and two or three designed runs a game that won’t go anywhere.
It took a special kind of alchemy to get to this point; Kyle Shanahan’s vision, Mike McDaniel’s play design, a desperately thin running back room, an offense built to tote the rock, and Deebo’s particular set of skills. Only all of these forces coming together at once could allow for this man to break free from the sport’s well-defined positional roles and fly in the face of 100 years of predetermined norms.
But, to be quite honest, it goes past just dancing across the line that’s a hyphen between wide receiver and running back. He transcends to an even higher plane reserved for the designation of only a select few: Football Player. Capital “F.” Capital “P.”
It’s not just that he takes on so many responsibilities, such as catching, running, blocking, and, at least once, throwing, but how he does it.
There’s a willingness, a joyfulness to his game. A feeling that he’s tapped into the essences of Jim Thorpe or Chuck Bednarik and now rides them like a cresting wave.
And don’t even get me started on Deebo’s style, his attitude, his utter disregard for the laws of physics. He’s simply built unlike any other player that steps on the field. The thickness around his midsection and lower half seems to give him the unyielding strength of a perpetual motion machine, allowing him to shed arm tackles or drag linebackers for extra yardage like he’s giving a bratty toddler a piggyback ride.
He appears to run with a perfectly calibrated center of gravity, allowing him to consistently maintain or regain his balance after pinballing off of would-be tacklers at will. His vision and field awareness would make you believe his head truly can swivel 360 degrees as he redirects himself on a dime to better take advantage of a lane that only he can see.
Then there’s his speed, my God, let’s talk about his speed. While running what would be considered an exactly average 40 time of 4.48 for a WR, Deebo has never looked middle of the pack on the field. He’s the very model definition of “game speed,” even reaching up to 21 miles per hour, according to Next Gen Stats.
There’s something so special about how when the ball comes into his grasp. His body explodes upfield as if he found several more gears to shift up to until the shifter breaks off, leaving anyone in his previous vicinity left to wonder if he simply teleported out of reach. His highlights make it look like when the ball touches Deebo’s hands. He turns himself up to 1.5x speed like you would an episode of a podcast.
That combination of qualities alongside the optimal coaching staff and teammates allowed for Deebo to fully break out this year into something far beyond any fan’s wildest dreams. He put up stats that look like typos. His season, including the playoffs, reads as such, 1,559 receiving yards, 502 rushing yards, and 16 total touchdowns, plus the one he threw.
Unless something miraculous occurs, Deebo just completed what will be his career-defining year. While that’s obviously meant as high praise, it could also be taken pessimistically. Career years are essentially unsurpassable peaks in an athlete’s journey. They can climb and climb, but they cannot reach the same summit for whatever reason.
However, in the case of Deebo, I don’t believe this to be a negative. The man was asked to do so much, to carry so much of the offense’s load that it was never going to be sustainable. He either caught or received a handoff on 173 plays over 19 games, and as we discussed earlier, he’s not one to go down easily.
Just consider the last two contests, in which we saw him take multiple big shots that resulted in a shoulder stinger and him hobbling off in Green Bay, then holding our collective breaths as he laid on the field in Los Angeles. Playing in the NFL puts the human body through a meat grinder on a week-to-week basis, and guys like Samuel can withstand more of the grind than most, but still, everyone has their limits.
Over this season, he occupied and thrived in the roles of a deep threat, possession receiver, safety valve, outside speed back, between the tackles, thumper, and home run hitter. That ability to be a master of all trades made the decision to put him in those spots easy, but his usage rates in them were all forced by circumstance.
In the future, I expect a more balanced approach to his deployment. We’ve all seen what he can do, but how far can that take him? Now that he’s established himself as something far more valuable than a WR1 or gadget player or back with good hands, he needs to maintain that level of play while decreasing his level of punishment.
Perhaps, an offense reshaped to fit a new QB who can throw the ball deep and outside the numbers will open up opportunities for him in less high traffic and dangerous areas of the field. Maybe that same quarterback can progress through reads to find other players. A healthier and more productive group of running backs will shoulder some of that burden. Wouldn’t that be an offense you’d want to watch?
This year’s team did what it had to do to survive and advance, and Deebo’s contributions were as necessary as they are astonishing. But here’s to hoping that next year he’s simply an important piece of an offense, not the entire offense.