When the 49ers and Seahawks played for the NFC championship in January, the Seattle defense had one primary goal:
Stop Frank Gore.
“They’re going to get Frank Gore the ball,” Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril said before the game, adding: “It all starts with Frank Gore.”
The Seahawks accomplished their mission, holding the Niners’ veteran running back to 14 yards on 11 carries, and won the game, 23-17.
That wasn’t the only reason for Seattle’s success, of course, as both the Seahawks defense and offense came up with bigger plays in crunch time to earn a spot in the Super Bowl.
But it does point out how crucial Gore has been to the 49ers’ offense for so many years, and raises a question: How long can Gore keep it up?
At the age of 30, when most running backs hit a wall, Gore kept going. In the 2013 season, he rushed for 1,128 yards in the regular season for nine touchdowns. That gave him three straight seasons with more than 1,100 yards, following 2012 (1,214) and 2011 (1,211). Yet Gore’s per-carry average dropped to 4.1 in 2013, a significant change from 2012 when he averaged 4.7.
And as Bryan Knowles at Bleacher Report noted, Gore was much less effective in the second half of the season. On the same number of carries (162) in the final eight games as the first eight games, Gore had 108 fewer yards and averaged less than 4 yards per rush. And he had two of his three 100-yard games in the first half, along with a streak of seven straight games in the early to mid portion of the schedule in which he had at least 70 yards rushing.
Yet when the playoffs came around, Gore was big against the Packers and Panthers. He gained 66 yards vs. Green Bay and 84 vs. Carolina before being stuffed by the Seahawks. That was more a tribute to the Seattle D than Gore's ability.
Though the 49ers have young running backs Marcus Lattimore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James waiting to step into larger roles, it doesn’t seem likely that Gore is ready to slow down or step aside.
Plus, what Gore gives the 49ers is far more than a running back. He’s also a leader and perhaps the best-blocking running back in the NFL. According to stats by the website Pro Football Focus, Gore was in pass protection 160 times in 2013 – more than any other back in the league – and didn’t allow a single sack. He allowed just one quarterback hit and three pressures.
Already, Gore has begun his rigorous offseason conditioning program. Lately, he’s been working out with 49ers linebacker Nick Moody and Giants outfielder Michael Morse. Each year since he’s been in the league, Gore has put in the work to keep himself at the top of the running back ladder.
The 49ers owe Gore $6.5 million for the 2014 season, and based on what he did as a 30-year-old, it seems likely he’ll continue to be a key part of the team’s offense. His numbers may drop a bit, but he’s still running behind one of the best lines in football, and with Lattimore, Hunter and James, he may even get a few plays off to keep himself fresher.
And, Gore’s speed still seems intact.
Looking back on the 49ers’ season, Gore broke off a 39-yard run in the playoffs vs. Carolina and a 51-yarder against Seattle late in the regular season. Even late in the season, he still had that burst.
As far as head coach Jim Harbaugh is concerned, Gore remains one of the NFL’s best running backs.
“He runs the football very effectively,” Harbaugh told the media at season's end. “Nobody does it better. He blocks in protection. And he catches the ball out of the backfield. (He) does everything you’d want a back to do. And then he’s such a great example. Showers us with his attributes every day – the work ethic, the team attitude. (He’s) just a guy that says the right thing at the right time.
“That’s a pretty good list.”