The San Francisco 49ers play in Santa Clara, and if Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team” (ha), the Niners wouldn’t mind being “Earth’s Team.” The rest of the globe prefers a different kind of football, of course. But the 49ers, throughout their history, have shown a penchant for seizing every opportunity possible to throw their name out to the global masses.
The latest move came last night, when they won the Jarryd Hayne sweepstakes. Well, in actuality the 49ers will give Hayne $100,000 guaranteed to come to Santa Clara and work to make his NFL dreams come true. The 49ers are reportedly expected to sign Hayne, who was twice named player of the year in Australia’s National Rugby League, to a futures contract. At the end of this post I’ll provide a few hawt takes on the signing, but first a look at the 49ers’ international pattern.
The 49ers signed Okoye in 2013. Jim Harbaugh called him an “adonis,” which is probably why they signed him to play on the defensive line despite no American football experience. He still holds the British record in the discus, and played some rugby as well. Okoye spent 2013 on injured reserve and 2014 on the 49ers’ practice squad.
If my addition is correct (along with Wikipedia’s numbers), 68 NFL games (18 regular season contests) have taken place outside the United States. 16 of those 68 were in Canada, and the 49ers were involved in one of those games: a preseason game against the Seahawks in 1998.
As for the 52 international games that took place in nations other than Canada, the 49ers were a part of 10 of those games (19%). They’ve played three preseason games in Tokyo, one exhibition in Berlin, a regular season game in Mexico City, a preseason game in Barcelona, and four games in London (two of which counted in the standings). The only other team that comes close is Dallas — the Cowboys have also played a game in Canada, and nine in other countries (three times in London, four times in Mexico, twice in Tokyo). Apparently the Cowboys aren’t satisfied with simply claiming America as their own.
The current coaching staff
Jim Tomsula, Steve Logan (Quarterbacks Coach) and Thomas McGaughey (Special Teams Coordinator) have NFL Europe experience.
What does it mean? Probably two things. First, the 49ers wouldn’t mind being known as the most popular team in Europe and Asia (the Cowboys probably have the Mexico market pretty well cornered). Second, they aren’t afraid to look in unconventional places for talent, either on the playing or coaching side. Are the Okoye and Hayne signings kind of gimmicky? Sure, but it’s cool that the 49ers are taking chances — if one of these guys pans out, it’ll change the way NFL teams look at international scouting and rugby in particular.
Hayne’s potential impact
This is a curious move. Hayne himself has plenty of moves, as you can see in this video:
He can run fast (4.53 in the 40) for a guy his size (6′ 2″, 226 pounds), and it’s evident from the highlights that he can break tackles and he’s got some wiggle. It’s also pretty obvious that he’s MUCH faster than just about everyone he faced in Australia, and that won’t be the case in the NFL. Whether his package of speed, strength and agility can translate to a brand new sport, as Hayne trades a t-shirt and skimpy shorts for a uniform that includes a helmet and pads, remains to be seen.
He’s listed as a running back, and by all accounts he’s going to get some chances to show what he can do as a returner and/or coverage specialist. As a rugby star, there’s no doubt he’s tough enough to handle contact. The question is whether he can avoid it.
He’ll need to learn a lot: an entire playbook, how to let blocking lanes develop, and pass protection. Unless he’s a phenomenally quick study, this seems unrealistic in year one.
The two primary responsibilities of a returner are (1) catch the ball and (2) don’t fumble. After that, it’s about avoiding contact. That’s why you don’t see a lot of bowling ball-shaped returners, because the job is about avoiding angry, muscular dudes. It’s pretty tough to break a tackle when the guy pursuing you has been running at full speed for 40 yards. The 49ers have had an awfully difficult time finding a returner since Ted Ginn left, so there’s nothing wrong with giving Hayne a shot. But if he thinks he’s going to run through packs of would-be tacklers like he did on the rugby pitch, he’s in for a rude awakening.
Special teams gunner
If we can assume that Hayne, 27, is tough and plays angry (he’s a rugby guy, so this is probably safe), this is where he can contribute immediately. And with Bubba Ventrone retiring to go coach for the Patriots, and Kassim Osgood not getting any younger, and Blake Costanzo probably done, and C.J. Spillman currently playing for the Cowboys, the 49ers could use some special teams dynamos. It was slim pickings by the end of the 2014 season when it came to coverage guys, in large part because the 49ers suffered so many injuries.