Injuries have decimated rosters across the league in 2020, and perhaps no team has been hit harder than the San Francisco 49ers.
They've had a carousel of starters at what feels like every position, including the bread-and-butter spot in coach Kyle Shanahan's offense -- running back. The 49ers' backfield has featured Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, Jeff Wilson and undrafted rookie JaMycal Hasty. Yet, the rushing attack finds a way to get it done no matter who gets the call, something New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is well aware of heading into his team's Week 7 game against San Francisco.
With Coleman on injured reserve and Mostert, who's already missed two games, likely to join him there after suffering a new injury in Week 6, one would think that the 49ers' run game production would slip. The fact that it is still ranked 11th in the league after all the substitutions is a tribute to the coaching staff, and to one humble Shanahan assistant in particular: running backs coach Bobby Turner.
This season marks the 71-year-old's fourth with the 49ers and his 25th in the NFL. My admiration for him and his exceptional teaching dates all the way back to the beginning of his coaching career in the pros. As the director of pro personnel with the New York Jets from 1997 to '99, I studied thousands of players, including one who had captured the attention of the entire league: Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis (now a colleague of mine at NFL Network). Here was this young player who had gone to Long Beach State before transferring to Georgia and entering the league to little fanfare as a sixth-round draft pick (196th overall) in 1995. Of course, he became a star in short order, rushing for 1,117 yards and seven TDs as a rookie before earning a Pro Bowl nod in Year 2 with 1,538 rush yards and 13 rush TDs.
Davis' quick rise from humble NFL beginnings got me thinking: Why did THIS player in particular become one of the league's best out of nowhere?
I discovered in my research that Turner was the Broncos' running backs coach, and that's when he first got on my radar. I did some more digging and found that Turner had a hand in developing NFL talent in college before he moved on to the next level, coaching Robert Smith at Ohio State and Mike Alstott at Purdue. Davis' rise to stardom was no coincidence, as Turner's imprint was all over the Broncos' success during his 15 seasons in Denver (1995-2009). The Broncos had a back rush for 1,000 yards 11 times in that span, including a four-year streak that saw a different 1,000-yard rusher each year from 2003 to '06. Furthermore, eight of the top 11 single-season rushing performances in franchise history -- including the top six -- occurred on Turner's watch.
Not surprisingly, when Turner left Denver to join Mike Shanahan's staff in Washington, he helped sixth-round draft pick Alfred Morris to the best single-season rushing campaign in franchise history (1,613 yards) as a rookie. Turner is a common denominator in all these exceptional rushing performances.
I finally got to watch Turner work up close when he was hired by Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and OC Kyle Shanahan in 2015. Part of my job at the time as the team's assistant general manager was to understand what type of players our coaching staff wanted at every position, so the scouting department and I had a clear vision of whom to evaluate. Naturally, I spent a ton of time with Shanahan and Turner and learned a lot about the outside zone scheme, which was different from anything I had scouted for during my career as a personnel director.
The Falcons' top backs heading into the 2015 season were Devonta Freeman, a 2014 fourth-rounder, and Coleman, who was a third-round pick that year. I watched Bobby coach these two very different backs and develop them as players and young men. Each player quickly evolved into a major factor in the offense and was a key contributor in the team's run to Super Bowl LI. Bobby won them over in a heartbeat, and it was obvious why.
Turner is an old-school, no-nonsense coach, but he's very positive, process-driven and detail-oriented (we were alike in this regard). I watched him speak hard truths to his players at times, and I saw how Freeman and Coleman responded, doing everything he asked of them without question. Turner speaks and works from a place of truth, love and mentorship, which is a big reason why his players and peers admire him. I've seen some coaches manipulate players and use fear to get results during my nearly 30 years in the NFL, but Bobby taught through constructive criticism that helped his players improve. He always does things the right way, and in turn, he's earned enormous respect from everyone who crosses paths with him.
Turner has coached alongside Mike and Kyle Shanahan since he got his NFL start, and I know their appreciation for Turner is second to none. Kyle's attention to and demand for detail is at as high a level as I've seen, very similar to his father and Belichick. When you're wired that way, you must be surrounded by the same type of people, and Bobby's precision pairs perfectly with Kyle and his vision for the offense. Some might want to point to the Shanahan scheme as the primary driver of their running backs' production over the years, and there's no doubt that it has worked wonders a lot of the time. That said, I know that scheme alone doesn't produce these kinds of results. It takes so much more than that, including a position coach who creates an opportunity for players to be the best version of themselves.
After getting to know Bobby and watching him work firsthand, I can say with certainty that the success of running backs under his tutelage is not a coincidence. His influence showed up on the stat sheet in the mid-1990s with the Broncos, and it's easy to spot this season in San Francisco. He's more than worthy of the Pro Football Writers of America's Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman Award, which annually honors lifetime achievement by an NFL assistant coach. In my opinion, this recognition for Turner is long overdue.
Perhaps the reason he isn't more widely celebrated is because of that aforementioned humility. He doesn't seek the spotlight. Make no mistake, though: The sheer amount of success he's had and the way he's achieved it makes him even more impressive than the players and units he's coached.