Michael Robinson is tough, and, one would assume, talented. You don’t go from playing quarterback for the Big-10’s 11th team to becoming a full-time special teams demon and part-time running back in the NFL without skills. And heart. And muscles. And the respect of the coaching staff, who have kept Robinson on the team for years despite his less-than-average skills with the ball in his hands.
Today Robinson is no longer a San Francisco 49er, which is a surprise to many. Ever since Mike Nolan took over as head coach, the 49ers’ borderline-arrogant refusal to worry about special teams melted away. Sure, they may not be able to complete 10% of their passes on third down, but their coverage teams, punting and placekicking were better than at any point during the championship years.
Robinson was a huge part of that. When drafted he seemed like a multi-skilled player who could be the antithesis of the formulaic players the 49ers had previously gone for. The idea of Robinson playing RB, QB and special teams all during the same game excited the fanbase, just because they’d never seen anything like that around here before. Instead Robinson became more and more of an exclusive special-teamer. He’d throw his body around while kickoffs and punts soared to the sky and made their way back down, in a fearless manner he never fully seemed to match whenever the quarterback handed him the ball and sent him on his way to another passionless carry for no gain. To give credit to Robinson, his yards per carry decreased as his career went on, perhaps due to the toll all that special teams work took on his body.
Still, the 49ers continued to hand him the ball through the 2008 season. The pinnacle of Robinson’s ball-toting mediocrity came on a Monday night in Arizona, when he was stopped at the goal line to end a game the Niners lost 29-24 (to be fair, he never should have been given the ball in the first place).
Now the 49ers have a new goal line threat in Brian Westbrook, the most talented rookie runner they’ve drafted since Frank Gore in Anthony Dixon (who led the NFL in rushing yards this preseason, for those of you who keep track of that stuff) and a fullback who probably would have received the ball against Arizona on that frustrating night if Nolan hadn’t cut him for some reason that hasn’t been explained to this day.
That’s four running backs total for those who are counting. For observers fretting over who will become the new “leader” on special teams, it might behoove you to remember if and when that question was ever asked between 1981 and 1995. The 49ers’ biggest worry, in this writer’s opinion, is that of the four backs on the roster, two of them have been worked to death over the last several years and come into this season with injury concerns, one is a rookie and the last one is only there to block for the first three.
Just goes to show you how important — or unimportant — the position has become. Robinson will get a job from some NFL coach who prizes special teams leadership the same way Nolan did, but he’ll probably never carry the ball again in an NFL game. Mike Singletary and Trent Baalke apparently believe that if one of their runners goes down, there will always be someone available who can come in and plug right into their system. Preferably a tailback with a little more burst when taking a handoff from Alex Smith, provided he isn’t beaten and battered from covering kicks and punts.