The major knock against Garner during an injury-riddled five years with the Eagles, from 1994 through '98, was that he lacked the durability to be a full-time starter. Niners offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg thinks that's a bum rap. "Charlie's toughness," he says, "is probably the most overlooked part of his game."
At 5'9" and 187 pounds, Garner runs like a man possessed, spinning, juking and bouncing off defenders. Since signing as a free agent with San Francisco in July 1999, he hasn't missed a game and has been a bright spot on a rebuilding team. "If we stay with our blocks, we know he's going to make someone miss in the secondary," says center Jeremy Newberry. "Until we played Dallas, he had only had 12 to 14 carries a game this season because we'd trailed so much. [Garner ran 36 times against the Cowboys.] All he needs is the chance to make something happen."
In Philadelphia, which drafted him in the second round out of Tennessee, Garner averaged 4.6 yards per attempt, but he was never the featured back. He made 17 starts for the Eagles and never had more than 116 carries in a season. When the 49ers signed Garner they envisioned using him in much the same role, rotating him with Lawrence Phillips as a replacement for injured star Garrison Hearst, who had fractured his left ankle in a 1998 playoff game. By season's end Phillips had been waived and Garner had produced 1,764 total yards (third most in the NFL) in his first full season as an every-down back. In addition to averaging 5.1 yards a carry, he had caught 56 passes for 535 yards.
The 49ers are now starting to think that Garner, who is averaging 5.1 yards per carry, might be their featured runner for some time. Hearst has undergone two operations to repair a degenerative bone in his left foot since fracturing his ankle and is only now beginning to run. "I always hoped and prayed and tried to be patient when I was in Philadelphia," Garner says. "I never saw this coming. This is what all that waiting in Philadelphia was for. I'm not going to let this opportunity go to waste."