Profile of running backs coach Robert Turner Jr. of the 49ers, an integral part of the team.
During a recent video press conference, San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan spoke about racism and other surrounding issues plaguing our nation. In that same presser, he mentioned the lack of black head coaches and general managers in a league with predominantly black players.
The lack of representation of black head coaches in the NFL points to a somewhat systemic problem because it’s not due to a lack of talent in the coaching pool. That conversation is one that needs to be had league-wide and requires all 32 teams to do their part to solve the problem.
In the meantime, though, we can still recognize the achievements of some of the league’s black assistant coaches. Here we start with the 49ers running backs coach, Robert Turner Jr., an assistant coach who has been a key part of many teams in his career.
The Start of the Journey
Shanahan and his father, former NFL head coach Mike Shanahan, both get a lot of credit, rightfully so, for their offenses. Specifically their running games. Both coaches have produced highly potent rushing offenses in their careers.
One individual who is rarely mentioned but who was along for the ride with both Shanahans is Turner. He began his NFL coaching career in 1995 as a running backs coach under Mike on the Denver Broncos.
In that same season, Turner got to work with a rookie running back named Terrell Davis. In his rookie season, Davis rushed for 1,117 yards. In his next two seasons, he rushed for 1,538 yards and 1,750 yards, respectively.
In his fourth season, David rushed for a whopping 2,008 yards, which to this day is the fifth-best rushing performance in a single season.
In years two through four, Davis would earn first-team All-Pro selections. And although year four would be his last full season due to injury, Davis would go onto be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017.
In four seasons working with Davis, Turner helped coach him from a great player into a Hall of Famer. Mike Shanahan deserves a lot of credit for Davis’ success from a coaching standpoint, but so does Turner. And he’s often the forgotten piece of the puzzle in Davis’ career.
After Davis, Turner wasn’t done developing high-level talent at the running back position. In 2000, he coached rookie running back Mike Anderson to a season of 1,487 yards rushing which put him at fourth overall in that stat for the season and earned him the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
In 2002 he coached rookie running back Clinton Portis who ran for 1,508 yards. He was also fourth overall in yards rushing in the league that season. He too earned the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award for the 2002 season.
Therefore within a three-season span, Turner coached two rookies running backs to rookie of the year honors.
Turner was with the Broncos from 1995 through 2009, the full length of time Mike Shanahan was head coach there, and he was a part of two Super Bowl-winning teams. In 2010, when Shanahan got hired by the Washington Redskins, he brought Turner over as his running backs coach.
In 2012, Turner again worked magic with a rookie. Running back Alfred Morris would rush for 1,613 yards and finish second in the league in rushing yards behind only the eventual MVP, Adrian Peterson. Morris’ performance would end up being the fourth-best rushing performance from a rookie in NFL history.
In 2015 Turner headed over to the Atlanta Falcons to join Kyle Shanahan who was the offensive coordinator of the team. In the two seasons with the Falcons, Turner helped starting running back Devonta Freeman earn two 1,000-plus yard seasons.
A footnote, Freeman has not had another 1,000-plus yard season since Turner left.
In 2016, Turner and Shanahan coached the team to Super Bowl LI. While the Falcons would ultimately come up short in the big game, it is important to note they had the No. 1 offense in the league.
In 2017 with Kyle Shanahan headed to the 49ers for his first head coaching gig, Turner joined the staff as the running backs coach.
In 2019 Turner produced another prolific rushing attack totaling 2,305 yards rushing. His three-man running back committee of Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert all rushed for over 500 yards in that season. That feat was accomplished for the second time in franchise history and hadn’t been done since 1954.
In his 25 years as an assistant coach, Turner has coached players to multiple 1,000-yard seasons, Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections. Although he has never gotten the nod to become a head coach or even an offensive coordinator, his importance to the numerous teams he coached cannot be denied.
Turner deserves a lot of credit for his exemplary coaching and mentoring of young running backs. And even though his name is not mentioned much (if at all) on game days, he is an integral part of this current 49ers squad. So next time you are wowed by the likes of Mostert on a big run, remember the name, Robert Turner Jr.