However Kyle Juszczyk — a 32-year-old fullback, a “wife guy” who went to Harvard, as everybody round him will remind you — is significant to the perfect offense within the NFL. “Juice,” as he’s higher identified, can run, catch, block, educate, sneak, line up wherever, maintain for kicks, repair issues mid-play, arrange his well-known teammates and assist unlock the schematic genius of Coach Kyle Shanahan. His ability set is tough to see on TV, and the information collected by the pc chips in his shoulder pads doesn’t actually stand out. However he’s there on the sector, down after down, pushing the 49ers ahead in refined defiance of the human intuition to derive worth from numbers.
“He’s instrumental in a lot that we do,” mentioned Chris Foerster, San Francisco’s run recreation coordinator and offensive line coach.
“He actually can do something,” tight finish George Kittle mentioned. “He’s been a man that we’ve been capable of construct [our offense] round.”
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But even Juszczyk (pronounced USE-check) generally doubts his personal worth. Up to now few years, the 49ers have assembled soccer’s model of the Avengers, and Juszczyk’s touches have declined from about 34 per 12 months to 19 this season. He sometimes wonders: How a lot am I actually contributing to my workforce’s success?
“I’m like some other participant; I wish to contact the ball,” Juszczyk mentioned final week. “I at all times have a objective, a quantity, as a result of numbers are simply simple. … However I feel I’ve had a better appreciation, in all probability in my final three years or so, of the impression that I do have on this workforce outdoors of simply touching the ball.”
The story of Juszczyk’s progress isn’t just a narrative of the 49ers’ offense, which this season scored extra factors than some other and has put San Francisco on the doorstep of the Tremendous Bowl. It is usually a narrative of how, within the lighter, sooner fashionable NFL, a fullback has carved out an extended and profitable profession that exhibits no indicators of stopping. Juszczyk insists he feels higher than he did at 26.
“There’s not a second that goes by within the day that I’m not serious about, ‘How can I take advantage of this time to assist my longevity?’ ” he mentioned. “That’s an enormous factor for me — longevity. I wish to stay till I’m 150.”
IN 2017, SAN FRANCISCO nonetheless hadn’t regained its footing from the successful-but-dysfunctional tenure of Jim Harbaugh. The workforce had completed the earlier two seasons 5-11 and 2-14, and ESPN had ranked the group because the worst in North American skilled sports activities. CEO Jed York guess large on Shanahan, a first-time head coach, to repair it.
Early on, Shanahan and Normal Supervisor John Lynch created a “imaginative and prescient assertion” for the rebuild. They determined that, to reestablish the “49er Manner,” they might prioritize discovering gamers with 10 traits, together with “toughness/physicality” and “contagious competitiveness.” Of their first free agent class, they signed a participant they thought checked each field, regardless that touchdown him required $21 million over 4 years — the richest fullback contract in NFL historical past.
Two years later, a 49ers personnel govt, talking on the situation of anonymity, mentioned the workforce had overpaid for Juszczyk. However the govt additionally believed he was price it.
“[Juszczyk is] product of the best sort of stuff,” he mentioned. “Good, hard-working … and he might assist change the tradition of the locker room.”
Over the previous seven seasons, because the 49ers have change into one of many NFL’s finest groups, Shanahan has used Juszczyk as a chess piece. Shanahan’s model of the West Coast offense depends on trusty instruments, reminiscent of presnap movement and play-action, however his biggest ability could also be game-planning to take advantage of the weaknesses of every protection.
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Considered one of Shanahan’s edges is personnel. Many of the NFL depends on gentle personnel, with extra broad receivers, and defenses have advanced to restrict explosive passing assaults through the use of two-deep coverages. However Shanahan makes use of heavier personnel, with extra operating backs and tight ends, and he runs the ball extra usually. These tendencies power defenses to make troublesome decisions. They will attempt to cease the run with a light-weight field or herald larger, slower gamers, which makes them extra weak to the move — and regardless of the selection, the protection can be much less ready to cease it.
San Francisco’s offense is filled with versatile all-pros: Kittle, operating again Christian McCaffrey, wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Juszczyk is a novel complement; he makes the personnel heavy. He’s 6-foot-2, 235 kilos and can assist disguise the intent of any play by lining up at fullback, operating again, tight finish or broad receiver — and he can at all times movement to a special place earlier than the snap. The uncertainty exasperates the 49ers’ opponents.
“You’re attempting to learn your keys, and on the similar time generally your keys mislead you due to what [the 49ers] do,” then-Washington coach Ron Rivera mentioned in December.
Or Juszczyk can simply bulldoze dudes. One of many foundations of Shanahan’s offense is a run idea referred to as “outdoors zone.” It’s a play during which offensive linemen caravan towards the sideline, blocking zones relatively than particular defenders, and a operating again has to hit the open gap. The scheme may be increase or bust. One of many methods a protection can torpedo it’s by setting the sting to forestall the operating again from getting outdoors. However Kittle believes no protection can set the sting if he and Juszczyk are combo blocking.
“We’re profitable 95 % of the time, in my view,” Kittle mentioned. “Simply that connection that we’ve got with out having to speak about it or do something, it’s particular. … [We can block from] all angles, completely different formations. It’s only a very particular second to share.”
Defenses additionally should respect Juszczyk as a playmaker, even when he’s lined up as a large receiver. He has shockingly smooth arms, and in 2019, when he caught a slot fade for 49 yards, NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth yelled, in disbelief, “Who of their proper thoughts runs these sorts of routes with a fullback?”
Brewer: The 49ers appeared dangerous and nonetheless gained. It is precisely what they wanted.
However Juszczyk and his thinning rank of friends are getting fewer touches nowadays. In 2014, fullbacks accounted for 1.4 % of all offensive snaps throughout the NFL season, in keeping with TruMedia. That determine has decreased steadily to a low this season of 0.7 % — greater than half of which got here from simply 4 gamers: Juszczyk, Houston’s Andrew Beck, Miami’s Alec Ingold and Baltimore’s Patrick Ricard.
If San Francisco needed to substitute Juszczyk, it could in all probability convert an enormous operating again or a lighter tight finish, because it did when Juszczyk was harm briefly in 2019. However there’s no pure successor as a result of there are simply too few fullbacks in fashionable soccer. Many excessive faculties and faculties run unfold offenses with lighter personnel, and never many youngsters develop up taking part in fullback. TruMedia’s faculty fullback knowledge solely goes again to 2021, nevertheless it exhibits a transparent decline. Excluding the service academies, which use the place greater than each different Division I program mixed, fullbacks accounted for 0.20 % of offensive snaps in 2021, 0.19 % in 2022 and 0.14 % in 2023.
Since 2018, just one participant has been drafted as a fullback (Baltimore’s Ben Mason), in keeping with Professional Soccer Reference.
“I’m terrified of, after I do retire, what’s going occur with the place?” Juszczyk mentioned. “I don’t know if it’s going to proceed on.”
Within the meantime, Juszczyk has needed to adapt his thoughts in the identical means he has needed to adapt his physique to suit the numerous roles that fall below the umbrella of fullback. In January 2020, within the first spherical of the playoffs, San Francisco beat up Minnesota, and Juszczyk felt like “it was probably the greatest video games of my profession. I keep in mind, I blocked my a– off. I put so many guys in numerous positions.” However he targeted on two numbers: 50 snaps, zero touches.
Two days later, NFL Community analyst Brian Baldinger did a virtually seven-minute evaluation praising Juszczyk for a way he had “affected the sport in all 50 snaps.”
“I really feel like that was a kind of aha moments,” Juszczyk mentioned. “Touching the ball much less, it type of compelled me to open up my eyes. [I’ve been] discovering my worth in different areas and having a better appreciation for it.”
However Juszczyk has discovered to not struggle frustration, to just accept it when it comes.
“I feel that’s simply the character of being a competitor,” he mentioned. “It’s a superb factor as a result of … I feel that’s what helps drive me to proceed to push to be the participant I’m.”
And he feels comfy bringing it up along with his boss.
“I like that he’ll come and speak to me about it each every so often,” Shanahan mentioned. “The cool factor about Kyle is, after I’m trustworthy with him and I inform him the explanations [he’s not getting the ball more], he doesn’t disagree. He understands [why his teammates] get the ball just a little bit extra. Then it’s simple, as a result of he’s a wise man who’ll do something to assist us win.”
ON JAN. 13, JUSZCZYK was sitting on the sofa at house throughout the 49ers’ bye, watching the primary spherical of the playoffs, when Taylor Swift walked on display screen carrying a jersey jacket his spouse, Kristin, had designed. The broadcasters joked that Swift will need to have acquired a customized reward from Nike. Juszczyk took to social media, writing a number of posts: “Arriving in her jacket made by Kristin Juszczyk” and “She’s an absolute star!”
The Juszczyks went viral. Kristin gained 400,000 followers on Instagram. Us Weekly wrote a narrative detailing the timeline of their relationship. Folks journal blogged in regards to the fullback’s supportive posts, and reporters crowded round him at work. It was in all probability essentially the most well-known he had ever been.
The subsequent week, San Francisco nosed by Inexperienced Bay within the divisional spherical as Juszczyk had one other comparatively nameless night time: 26 snaps, zero touches. However he threw a number of key blocks, together with two for McCaffrey on landing runs. He reminded a good finish to go in movement earlier than a play.
Even when stats are crude shorthand for worth, it’s doable Juszczyk, who has at all times measured his productiveness by touches and yards, has simply been trying on the flawed ones. By superior metrics, this 12 months was probably the greatest of his profession.
But Juszczyk’s true worth stays elusive. He’s the one participant left from his free agent class, and his presence has helped foster the tradition Shanahan and Lynch got down to create. He signed a brand new deal in 2021 that ties him to the workforce via 2025. The group has put his face on stadium banners, and the fan base has carried over a convention to have fun him by hollering a chant that feels like a boo however isn’t: “JUUUUICE!”
“I really feel like I’ve actually been embraced,” Juszczyk mentioned. “Not too many groups do you actually hear a lot in regards to the fullback. Loads of followers in all probability couldn’t even let you know their names. Nevertheless it’s actually cool that right here … all of the [49ers] trustworthy are very conscious of me and my identify. … It means loads.”
This season, 49ers followers have stayed prepared. If Juszczyk touches the ball, at house or on the highway, hundreds of voices thunder in appreciation: “JUUUUICE!” The loudest was in all probability in October, when he scored a landing in opposition to Dallas, but when he makes a splashy play this postseason, cowl your ears. Possibly one of the best ways to quantify Juszczyk’s worth is with decibels.