Niners running back Frank Gore (No. 21) has the respect of all his teammates. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
The 49ers’ running back of the future is waiting in the wings in rookie Marcus Lattimore, but there’s certainly no guarantee that future will be in 2014. Meanwhile, two younger, quicker backs on this year’s roster – Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James – rarely get enough game action to get tired.
The reason? Old Man Frank Gore seems to be anything but old.
Gore, who celebrated his 30th birthday in May, is having one of the best seasons of his nine-year NFL career at an age when most backs start heading downhill.
NFL history is filled with tales of elite running backs suddenly becoming shadows of themselves at 30, as time, thousands of hits and injuries take their toll.
As ESPN.com NFL analyst Tristan H. Cockroft wrote a few years ago, “I’ve run the numbers and I’ve rarely seen a theory in sports that has stronger statistical evidence than this one: NFL running backs hit a wall once they turn 30. Nay, they hit a concrete wall, and it practically stops them flat.”
Yet Gore, at the halfway point of this 2013 season, is the outlier.
As the 49ers (6-2) catch a break at midseason with their bye week – before resuming their schedule Nov. 10 against the Carolina Panthers at Candlestick Park – Gore ranks third in the NFL with 618 yards, is third with 146 carries, is second with seven rushing TDs and leads all players (including quarterbacks) with seven runs of 20 or more yards.
As Bill Williamson of ESPN.com wrote this week, Gore in many ways is on his way to a career year.
After stumbling twice in their first three games, the 49ers reverted to a run-first offensive game plan that features giving the ball to Gore early and often and letting him pick up yards behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. He’s on pace for 1,236 yards, 292 carries and 14 touchdowns. The rushing and carries totals would rank as the second best of his career and the TDs would be a career high (his best total was 10 in 2009).
Even more telling than Gore’s numbers is the fact the 49ers knew they had to start giving the ball to Gore more after their 1-2 start. The Niners may have a dynamic young quarterback, but Gore has been the foundation for San Francisco’s offense for many years, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman knew it was time to start feeding him the ball – even if he is over 30. Roman and his teammates knew from training camp that Gore hadn’t lost a step.
“We definitely want to get Frank Gore going,” Roman told reporters early this season. “Frank Gore’s one of the best backs in the league and one of our leaders. … Frank Gore’s going to be a big part of what we do this year. Frank churning out those yards for us is very important to our success.”
Since then, that’s exactly what Gore has done.
Not only has he been a key to the running game, but his work ethic has inspired his teammates and his ability as a receiver and pass blocker – the 49ers rank him as perhaps the best pass-protection blocker among all NFL backs – hasn’t gone overlooked.
Before the season began, Gore said he’d heard all the talk about his age and that this might be the start of his decline. When a preseason rating of the best players in the league put him at No. 32, he took it personally and said he was determined this season to show he’s as good as ever.
“They said he’s turning 30 and he might not have (any) more left,” Gore said. “I like that type of stuff. Whenever (the 49ers) let me get on the field, I’m going to go hard and prove everybody wrong again.”
So far, so good.