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No one inspires the football imagination like Deebo Samuel

© Kevin Jairaj | 2022 Jan 16

There is a beautiful simplicity to the way Deebo Samuel plays football.

He was the rebirth of the 49ers’ season. With his increased backfield load, taking five carries in Week 10, he led a 31-10 drubbing over the Los Angeles Rams.

From that point on, San Francisco has gone 8-1 with him in the lineup, losing to the Seahawks in the one game without him. This team is 28-13 with him when he plays more than two snaps, and 4-8 without him since he was drafted in 2019.

George Kittle succinctly summarized what he’s done for the 49ers this season.

“Uh, everything,” Kittle said. “We go out in every personnel and they don’t know what we’re going to do.”

It’s fitting that Samuel termed himself a “wide back.”

He’s a battering ram who delivers blows which receivers do not deal. He has been a simultaneously elite wide receiver and running back this season, racking up 1,845 all-purpose yards, 15 touchdowns, and breaking the league’s rushing touchdown record for receivers with eight, en route to a first-team AP All-Pro nod.

And he can throw it, too. Of course he can.

“That was a seed,” Samuel said, laughing about the throw. “That was a dot.”

That laughter is on brand, too.

He’s had some of the more endearing celebrations this season, lying down and kicking his feet up after one touchdown and flashing a comically large chain to the camera after another, both of which were meme-worthy.

He plays with a tangible joy that shows up pregame from the way he throws the ball to fans — who are mostly ill-equipped for that exercise — to the moment he and Trent Williams set the tone by leading the 49ers out of the tunnel last Sunday.

It’s a vibe of pride and pleasure in embracing the aggression football demands.

This is a brutal sport which requires players put aside the reasonable concerns for their health and safety and envelop themselves in the reality that they are gladiators, flying around a football field for 60 minutes for the promise of shared glory.

Samuel is the perfect, all-encompassing weapon who thrives amidst that chaos and delivers damage on a constant basis.

In the regular season finale, Jalen Ramsey made it a point to get after Samuel. On one play, Ramsey ran full force to try and hit him as hard as he physically could.

Ramsey ended up on his ass, then got up chirping, seemingly unaware or in denial of the reality that Samuel, running about half speed, just demolished him. Samuel looks at him as if to say, “You know you’re the one on the ground, right?”

Samuel knows there’s no one quite like him. He said earlier this year he doesn’t watch tape of other receivers.

Why? He’s entirely unique. It’s not practical for him to watch tape of players who are, for all intents and purposes, playing a different position than he is.

“I know you can learn from other guys, but not if you’re not kind of built like them with certain body movements,” Samuel said. “For myself just to see how they come in and out of breaks, how certain guys match up or the things that guys like to do when they face guys like me, even though there’s not that many. When it comes to running routes, like, how can I get this edge on this guy?”

Don’t take that to mean Samuel doesn’t work hard, or just shows up on Sunday without practicing — though Kyle Shanahan has indicated he’s capable of that. Samuel’s offseason work is what set up this breakout season.

He took painstaking care to make sure he was healthy coming into this season after an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, focusing on an improved diet and folding in yoga and pliability exercises to his routine. He lost some weight and increased flexibility.

Shanahan knew Samuel had to make some lifestyle changes, engaging in a crucial conversation with the receiver last season, which he recalled on KNBR in December of 2020. He said Samuel kept getting injured because he wasn’t positioned to be in great football shape, and that injuries are the only thing that could prevent him from succeeding.

“I was just telling Deebo that I know he was so down that he might end up missing the rest of this year, and I was like, ‘I know it seems like a bad thing, but it’s a positive thing if you make sure that this hamstring injury is what you learn for the rest of your life on why every day in this league matters and how much you have to work in the offseason, how much you have to take care of yourself so you can play for a full year,” Shanahan said.

“Because that’s the only thing that’s going to hold a guy back like that.”

Shanahan has waxed poetic about Samuel at various points this season. It’s clear there’s a familial element to their relationship.

You can almost see a twinkle in Shanahan’s eye talking about Samuel and his newborn son, Tyshun Samuel Jr.

It’s that work ethic, joy for the game and unteachable football talent that endears Samuel so much to Shanahan.

“Deebo is one of the most aware of people I’ve been around and one of the smarter receivers I’ve been around,” Shanahan said. “It’s extremely natural to him. He works hard, but not the stuff that you can’t work at, just how he sees it live and the feel he has and the poise as he has. That’s what is so cool.

“You see a lot of guys play pretty physically in this league, but guys have to really go to a certain place to get to that level and Deebo doesn’t, that’s just naturally who he is. He’ll be asleep right before kickoff and he’ll come out and not hesitate on the first play. So when you’re like that, it allows your heart rate to be level, your breath to be level and you have a certain point to you, so you can kind of do the more instinctual stuff and yet still be violent enough to play at the level he does. It’s not something you see in a lot of athletes.”

That rarity is something Shanahan encouraged his staff to build around.

Offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said Samuel’s creativity with the ball in his hands demands creativity from the coaching staff, and Shanahan has promoted that.

“It is really cool to watch him play, it changes kind of your job description a little bit to where you’re trying to give a guy opportunities and not necessarily thinking exactly about defining stuff,” McDaniel said. “You’re more abstract about, ‘Hey, how do we get the ball with space?’ So that is a unique thing that we’ve kind of grown into. But Deebo would make any coach look great.”

Football, stripped to its core, is just putting the ball in your best player’s hands. For all the creative motion, attention to detail in blocking angles and timing, the Samuel branch of the Shanahan offense is really that simple. Find a way to get the ball into that guy’s hands.

It harkens back to the most nostalgic memories of football. Forget all the minutiae and frills of modern football.

Samuel is just playing football at recess.

He’s that kid that uses every millimeter of the field, cutting back and weaving his path through anyone unfortunate enough to have the challenge of tackling him. If he does go down, he’s taking a handful of kids with him.

That was clear in the 49ers’ 23-17 Wild Card win over the Cowboys, when Samuel called his shot.

For someone as control-oriented and neurotic as Kyle Shanahan to look at a player in the playoffs, in a moment when his team can essentially ice the game, and assent to his request for the football, well, that takes a level of belief that’s difficult to come by.

But to no one’s surprise, it worked. Samuel was essentially surfing like a defensive end, following a cloud of blockers and defenders until he saw daylight when it seemed like none existed.

His suddenness, from the moment of seeing that opening to exploiting and accelerating through it is unparalleled. He was in the end zone from the moment he saw his path.

He’s out-leveraged by two Dallas defenders with 20 yards to go and still, the inevitability of him finishing this play in the end zone is obvious.

McDaniel said he’s never witnessed a player calling his shot like that before. Not in the NFL.

Alright, we get it, Samuel’s great. Duh.

But what makes him more than that is both the mystery and obviousness of what he’s accomplished. That moment before he finds that gap, there’s almost a silence. Something spectacular is going to happen, you just don’t know what form it will take.

He is a veritable artist. There is a beauty in how he feels the game. He processes everything so much quicker than everyone on the field, and if you do reach him, Samuel carries a Mack truck-level force in that sturdy frame.

Samuel is the essence of what a football player should be: fast, strong, aggressive and proactive in embracing its brutality.

There are receivers who take handoffs and running backs heavily involved as receivers. But there is no one like Deebo Samuel.

There is no one as creative, incisive and suspense-inducing as Samuel. There is no one who creates the same bated-breath tension over whether he’ll get the ball, and then is so unreasonably difficult to stop even when it’s clear it’s coming his way.

He is playing a brand of football so pure, it should be preserved in amber. It encourages us to appreciate how beguiling football is at its most basic.

 

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