The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deebo Samuel didn’t fit in anywhere. So he now plays everywhere.

Whether he's lined up as a receiver or in the backfield, Deebo Samuel can do it all for the 49ers. And for San Francisco to advance to the Super Bowl, he probably has to. (Aaron Gash/AP)
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The play ended with Deebo Samuel picking up a crucial first down before hopping, limping, staggering in pain toward the San Francisco sideline. Samuel, the 49ers’ most effective multitool player, had taken a beating from all angles.

He had given the Green Bay Packers one, too. The play began, after all, with the 49ers’ best wide receiver lined up in the backfield. He was handed the ball as a running back, zipped past a defensive lineman, bounced off a cornerback and plowed into two more defenders before finally hitting the frosty grass of Lambeau Field. Less than a minute later, kicker Robbie Gould — his field goal attempt made 10 yards easier because of Samuel’s run — sent the 49ers to a 13-10 victory and into Sunday’s NFC championship game against the Los Angeles Rams.

But Precious Martin, Samuel’s stepmother, at home watching on television, was concerned after seeing him hobble off the field. Two months ago, San Francisco Coach Kyle Shanahan had begun using her stepson in an unusual football experiment. Samuel is 6 feet and 215 pounds, stocky for the prototypical NFL wide receiver, so a few times a game Shanahan called plays that required Samuel to carry the ball as a running back. It worked, so the 49ers gave Samuel more carries, pegged him to return kicks, even let him throw a touchdown pass against the Los Angeles Rams. This, in addition to Samuel’s responsibilities as a wideout, and he leads the team in both rushing and receiving touchdowns.

Deebo Samuel is forcing his way into the NFL’s elite, one YAC at a time

“I want to get him the ball on almost every play,” Shanahan told reporters this month, because when Samuel has at least five carries, the 49ers are 8-0.

Martin saw Samuel limp to the sideline, so she texted a man she knew to be at Lambeau. “You know I’ve been calling and texting,” she wrote to Mark Hodge, who had been Samuel’s coach at Chapman High in South Carolina.

Hodge scanned the sideline, looking for No. 19, and saw him moving around and trying to keep blood flowing to his battered and cold extremities.

“Yes mam!!!” he replied. “He’s ok.”

More than perhaps anyone outside the 49ers’ team facility, Hodge understands the tenuous balance of deploying Samuel’s versatility while trying to avoid overusing him. He wasn’t shaped for any one position in high school, either, so Hodge did what Shanahan is doing and played him all over the field. Chapman’s offensive coaches used to hold up posters to signal where Samuel should line up in its spread attack — a Minnesota Vikings logo for running back, Big Bird for the Y receiver, a photo of the school principal for quarterback — and Samuel’s teammates adjusted accordingly.

He played defense, too, stepping in as needed at safety, cornerback, even the occasional pass rusher. But that’s not uncommon in high school football, and Samuel set school touchdown records and collected interceptions and tackles. But this masked the obvious conundrum: Samuel was accumulating dozens of hits everywhere because he wasn’t a perfect fit anywhere.

When he attended recruiting camps, major college scouts were reluctant to offer scholarships. Samuel was too short to play wide receiver, too thin to be an every-down running back, too small to play linebacker, too big to play safety. Hodge says Samuel didn’t receive a major offer until the playoffs of his senior season, and these days the coach likes to rub recruiters’ noses in it.

“I bring that up often: ‘Remember you were the guy who didn’t think Deebo Samuel was good enough to play for you,’” Hodge says. “He didn’t fit all the marquee builds and so forth, and to be frank with you, these guys had already predetermined who was legit and who was not legit.”

The 49ers’ gambling defense knows when to hold ’em. That’s what makes it so good.

Samuel was good enough to play at South Carolina, where he became a dynamic wide receiver and kick returner. It was also where Hodge’s former protege kept getting knocked around week after week and where his stepmother’s fears were initially realized. He would test himself against bigger opponents and charge into defenders with abandon, almost welcoming the contact. It can be just as breathtaking to watch him as it is nerve-racking, especially after he crumpled to the turf with an injured hamstring, as he did as a freshman, or a broken leg, as he did as a sophomore. Since the 49ers drafted him in 2019, he has missed games with injuries to his hamstring, groin and foot.

Samuel, in other words, plays a particularly grueling brand of a menacingly violent game, but he’s too good to just park on the sideline. His very presence on the field is enough to confuse defenders, and the truth is, putting Samuel in motion forces opponents to reveal their intentions and acts as a presnap cheat sheet for San Francisco’s greatest offensive weakness, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. So taking Samuel off the field during the postseason isn’t just questionable — it’s borderline irresponsible.

Like Marshall Faulk when the Rams deployed a running back like a wide receiver to win the Super Bowl following the 1999 season, San Francisco’s use of a wide receiver as a running back has one of the NFL’s most decorated franchises two wins from hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time in 27 years.

“Using him like they’re using him is really hard on a defense,” said Mike Martz, the Rams’ offensive coordinator two decades ago and the mad scientist who effectively normalized backs who catch passes out of the backfield. Like Samuel, Faulk was too quick for linemen to chase down and too physical for defensive backs to tackle. “It’s a game of matchups. It was so unusual, it got my attention what they were doing with him. And he was the reason they were winning.”

So what is Shanahan to do? He has inverted Martz’s Faulk concept, which actually reduced how often Faulk absorbed the punishing hits that are now known to dramatically shorten the careers of NFL running backs. Samuel has taken on a dramatic increase in contact, becoming a centerpiece of San Francisco’s power rushing attack. In playoff wins against Dallas and Green Bay, Samuel had a season-high 10 carries in each game, along with three catches in each. He was beaten up after both, but San Francisco also advanced. For now, the coach says, the answer is to limit Samuel’s practice participation rather than his Sunday snaps.

“The more you get hit, of course, the more it’s a sacrifice,” Shanahan said this week. “And the more handoffs we give him, the more passes he catches, he’s going to take some hits. But Deebo has handled it well. He’s one of the main reasons we’re here, and I think it’s one of the things that’s given him the opportunity to be one of the best players in the NFL. So the more you do that, the more risks there is. But I think our team and Deebo are very happy how far he’s taken us here so far.”

Hodge says Samuel wants the carries, the catches, the punishment. He’s a competitor, the high school coach says, always has been — even if those who care about him are just as captivated by his play as alarmed by it.

On Saturday before the game in Green Bay, Hodge says he spent a few minutes at the team hotel catching up with Samuel. They talked about how rare it is to be new or even different in football. How unusual it is for one player to unlock an entire offense.

“You're doing stuff that hasn't really been done in the modern age of football, ever,” Hodge says he told Samuel. “If it's important and it's a kick return, you’re back there. If it's a pass play and it's important, you're back there. You're changing the NFL right now.”

Thinking about Samuel limping off the field, the coach takes a long breath.

“He’s changing the game, but we worry about him. I worry about him all the time,” Hodge says. But, like most everyone else, he also can’t look away.

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