How Deebo Samuel’s wizardry helped Niners turn season around

Team hoping its most versatile offensive weapon can overcome injury soon

It’s official. Deebo Samuel has morphed into a wizard.

The Niners’ Swiss Army receiver is gobbling up yardage from a variety of positions while emerging as one of the NFL’s most exciting players. Samuel’s kitchen sink was on full display Sunday against the Vikings, where a playoff-atmosphere crowd witnessed yet another historic performance from No. 19. Samuel led the Niners to a 34-26 victory that kept the team in the playoff picture.

“Yeah, I think we have definitely played our best football these last three games,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “They went out there and stepped it up and I was just really proud of everyone on the team and everyone involved in this building.”

It was an absolutely huge win for a Niners team that has now won three straight while resurrecting a season once considered lost. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had a solid game, connecting on 17 of 26 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown. Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell bounced back from a broken finger, showing real toughness in gaining 133 yards on 27 carries.

The defense played strong, led by two sacks from Nick Bosa, while forcing turnovers and punishing Minnesota ballcarriers. But, before he left the game with a groin injury in the fourth quarter, it was Samuel’s open-field running that made the difference for San Francisco.

What’s so special about Samuel? His versatility. He lines up at receiver, in the slot, in a variety of spots in the backfield and even takes a few snaps as the lone tailback. (I’m waiting to see what he can do on defense.) But wherever Samuel takes the snap, the results are similar. The guy eats up the field like a lawn mower.

Going into the season, we all saw his potential as a wideout. As a rookie out of South Carolina, he caught 57 balls for 802 yards in 2019. Samuel was injured a bit in 2020, but it generally looked like 49ers General Manager John Lynch had found some real talent. No one foresaw a superstar.

The team actually thought Samuel would be a good No. 2 receiver, supporting young receiver Brandon Aiyuk in the passing game. Instead, Samuel went to work on his game and his body and emerged this season as a team leader and a gamechanger.

Meanwhile, over in the Niners’ offensive laboratory, Shanahan saw something else: Samuel’s potential as a running back. Shortly after starting running back Raheem Mostert went down with a season-ending injury in the first game of the campaign, the 49ers’ head coach started getting creative with the running game. Suddenly, you started seeing Samuel lining up in the backfield and doing some real damage on a series of quick sweeps and end-arounds.

At first, it was just for a play or two a game. The plays felt a little gimmicky and didn’t appear to have staying power. But over the past three weeks, all wins, Shanahan has relied more on Samuel in the backfield, with great success. In Sunday’s win over the Vikings, Samuel carried the ball six times for 66 yards, resulting in two touchdowns and a whopping 11 yards per carry average. The previous week, against Jacksonville, he toted the ball eight times, netting 79 yards and nearly 10 yards a carry. In the big win over the Rams, he averaged over seven yards a carry on five carries.

Not bad for a receiver.

I can’t remember another top-shelf receiver doing this in the NFL. Kordell Stewart used to line up at multiple positions for the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the day, playing quarterback, wideout and running back in a variety of formations. But he wasn’t a league leader at any one of those positions. Samuel is an elite receiver, hauling in over 1,000 yards through the air already this season. Marshall Faulk, in his heyday with the Colts, would occasionally line up at receiver (as do many running backs) and he was quite good in that role. But he never became a league-leading receiver. Samuel has become a truly impressive rusher.

For a receiver to do regular time in the backfield, running the ball like a tailback would? It just doesn’t happen. But it’s working, providing testament to Shanahan’s ingenuity and Samuel’s amazing versatility.

Consider these stats, courtesy of the 49ers’ communications staff:

• Samuel has scored a rushing touchdown in three straight games, which he’s never done before. In fact, he’s the first wide receiver to do so since the AFL and NFL merged back in 1970, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

• Samuel is the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era to register five rushing touchdowns in a season, according to Elias.

• Samuel surpassed 1,000 receiving yards against the Vikings, becoming one of only four Niners in the short time period of 11 games. He joins some good company there: Jerry Rice did it six times. Terrell Owens did it twice. And Dave Parks accomplished it once.

• The Niners haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since Anquan Boldin did it in the 2014 season. Deebo broke the six-season drought in record time.

That’s why the fourth quarter injury was so troubling. Samuel, with a big assist from Mitchell, has carried this team in recent weeks.

“My groin got kind of tight once I went to make a move. So I was just like, ‘Let’s not make anything worse.’ And that’s why I just went down,” said Samuel, who was then asked if he was worried. “(I don’t have) too much concern. We’ll just go see how it goes.”

After walking to the sideline Sunday, Samuel was visibly emotional. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans stepped in with some words of wisdom.

Asked what was discussed, Samuel said: “Basically just keeping my head up. Kind of went into a dark spot when I wasn’t able to keep playing. So you know how that goes with injuries, but just like all the guys was like, ‘Just keep your head up. You’ll be all right.’ This, that and the third. And that’s all it was.”

On Monday, Shanahan said he expects his top offensive weapon to miss one or two weeks, which is disappointing but not devastating.

“Talking to him about it, I think he was comparing it a little bit to what he had in the Rams game in 2019,” said Shanahan. “He missed Washington the next week and was back the week after that, so hopefully it plays out similar to that.”

Going into two tough road games, against Seattle and then Cincinnati, the sooner Samuel returns the better. The 49ers (6-5) have reemerged as a force to be reckoned with in the NFL’s power structure. The team is now ranked sixth in the NFC playoff standings, only one game behind the division leading Rams.

Deebo has everything to do with that resurgence, and the fans know it. As he left the field Sunday, the crowd chanted “Deebo! Deebo!” in thunderous praise.

Indeed, this team would not be the same without Tyshun “Deebo” Samuel, whose father gave him that nickname in honor of the fearsome bully that starred in Ice Cube’s popular “Fridays” movie franchise. Samuel’s stepmother, Precious Martin, later nicknamed him “Sweet Feet,” on account of his quickness.

I’m with Precious on this one.

asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

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