Grant Cohn: Keeping Tom Rathman on 49ers staff would have been mistake

Deleting Tom Rathman from the 49ers’ coaching staff was the right move.

You’re out, Tom.

This has nothing to do with the type of person Rathman is or his quality as a running backs coach. He’s an excellent coach and was a fabulous fullback for the 49ers and the Raiders. He has a great history. Keeping him would have been a sentimental mistake.

This move was about style. Rathman’s isn’t suited for the dominant aspect of Kyle Shanahan’s run offense, the outside-zone scheme. Rathman’s expertise, his entire history and lineage in the NFL - 29 seasons - is the power scheme.

Those two schemes are total opposites.

Power is all about muscle. Knocking defenders backward and creating a new line of scrimmage on their side of the field. Caving in part of the defensive line with combination blocks and double teams - two O-lineman slamming into one D-lineman. Pulling another O-lineman through the area the offense just caved in. Making one big hole for the running back, often between the tackles.

Jim Harbaugh used to call this style of running “grinding the meat.” It eventually wears down the opposing defense, turns it into ground beef. This is the style the great Bobb McKittrick coached under Bill Walsh.

The outside-zone scheme is not the old Bill Walsh run game. If McKittrick were alive today, even he couldn’t coach on Kyle Shanahan’s staff. Zone blocking would be as foreign to him as it is to Rathman.

Zone blocking is all about quickness, not muscle. Offensive lineman run laterally toward the sideline like a conga line, forcing the big, burly, slow defensive linemen to run with them. Stretching the defense horizontally and creating creases in it.

The goal of zone blocking isn’t to make just one hole in one particular spot, as it is with power blocking. The goal is to create as many creases as possible. Give the running back options. If the offensive linemen outflank the defense around the edge, the running back can take the ball outside. Or if a defensive lineman over pursues the running back and loses gap integrity, the running back can make one cut and burst through the crease that defensive lineman just created. Stopping the outside-zone scheme requires extreme discipline from all 11 members of the defense because the run could go anywhere.

The 49ers’ new running backs coach, Bobby Turner, is an expert in coaching the outside-zone scheme. It’s his specialty. Every coach has a specialty. He won two Super Bowls in Denver.

Turner invested the past 22 years in the outside zone. Has spent more than two decades studying it and coaching it in the NFL. He built his pedigree on this type of running game, constantly refining how he teaches it. The science of it. The physics of it. The angles. The nuances. The fundamentals. The mechanics. The drills. The reads. The pre-snap study of the opponent’s layers and positioning to determine where the run might hit.

Turner is not the same coach he was five years ago, or the coach he was in Denver under Kyle Shanahan’s dad, Mike Shanahan. Turner has grown and evolved. Compared to Turner, Rathman is a single-cell organism when it comes to coaching the outside-zone scheme.

The 49ers also hired an offensive line coach who specializes in this scheme - John Benton. He coached with Kyle Shanahan on the Houston Texans. Benton understands how to teach the offensive linemen’s footwork in the run game. How to choreograph their steps. Which step to take first. Where they should hit the defensive linemen. Where to aim.

Asking Rathman to teach these things would be like asking someone who only speaks Spanish to teach Greek. He’d be picking up the language along with his students.

Rathman would have to learn all of the stuff Turner and Benton know already. Rathman would find the work daunting, starting over after 29 years studying and perfecting something else.

“Everybody has to understand the business,” Rathman recently said on KNBR. “What happened to me is very similar to what happens all throughout the league. You get a new head coach, he’s got his guys that come with him. (Shanahan) promised Bobby Turner a job to coach running backs. It just happened to be the same position I was coaching.

“(Shanahan) should feel comfortable with the guys that he brings in here and works with. I don’t think there was going to be a role (for me) that was going to be very comfortable. I say let them mentor those kids, let them develop those relationships without me being in the back. I don’t think it was going to work.”

Rathman understood he had to go.

It’s not personal, Tom. It’s strictly business.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette