I was wrong. Frank Gore still has it.
Back in early August I wrote about Gore’s age becoming a concern for the 49ers. He’s 30 years old, which historically is when running backs start to fall off. I said 30 is over the hill for guys who play his position and that San Francisco should be worried. Gore said he’s “not ready to pass the baton yet” and that he “still want(s) to be the man” in the 49ers backfield.
The last few weeks have proven just how mistaken I was and how well Gore knows himself. There’s no question he can still ball.
Since that Week 2 debacle against the Seattle Seahawks, when the 49ers were in such a hole they had to rely almost exclusively on the passing game, Gore has averaged 6.6 yards per carry. That’s ridiculous for a guy who gets most of his touches between the tackles. And following a Week 5 win over the Houston Texans – a game in which he ran for 81 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries – right guard Alex Boone called Gore “the best running back in the NFL.” While that might be a stretch, through five games in 2013 Gore has the seventh-most rushing yards in the league and is tied for the fourth-most rushing touchdowns. Of players with at least 50 rushing attempts, he has the fifth-highest yards-per-carry average. It’s easy to argue that at age 30, Frank Gore is still a top-five back in the NFL.
That’s unreal for someone 11 rushing attempts shy of the 2,000-mark for his career. He’s taken a beating for eight-plus NFL seasons and despite that, Gore is still the workhorse for a 49ers offense that, without him, would be in bad shape.
Colin Kaepernick has not progressed the way many thought he would in the passing game. And opposing defenses have figured out ways to keep the dual-threat quarterback from wreaking havoc on the ground. That puts the onus squarely on Gore, and he hasn’t disappointed. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have lost a step.
During training camp Gore said he’d upped his offseason workout regiment and felt he’s in the best shape of his life. But everybody says that, it’s almost become a training camp cliché. What we’re seeing now though is he wasn’t just talking the talk. He has backed it up and then some. Gore looks every bit as quick and powerful as the running back who put up four-straight 1,000-yard seasons in his early- to mid-20s. In a league where 1,000-yard rushers are becoming rarer every year, he is on pace for a 1,200-yard season.
But this has become such the norm in San Francisco that nobody is talking about it. When coach Jim Harbaugh met with the media Monday, the only question about Gore was in regards to a minor injury the running back suffered in Sunday night’s win. Harbaugh reported the franchise’s all-time leading rusher is just fine. In the coach’s Wednesday press conference, Gore wasn’t even mentioned.
Gore’s success this year has been even more important because his backups have underwhelmed. Kendall Hunter, coming off an Achilles injury, is averaging just four yards a carry after going for 5.2 per run a season ago. LaMichael James only has 31 rushing yards on the year year. And while Anthony Dixon has two touchdowns, his longest run of the season went for just six yards. If Gore’s body had forced him to pass the baton, there’d be nobody there to take the handoff.
The question now becomes whether the nine-year veteran can keep it going. There are still 11 games to go. Two of them, including Sunday’s game at Candlestick Park, are against the Arizona Cardinals’ third-ranked rush defense. Two others come against top-10 run-stuffing units as well. And the 49ers face Seattle again in Week 14; the Seahawks limited Gore to just 16 yards on nine carries in Week 2. So things will not be easy.
But if Gore has proven anything the last three weeks, it’s that he’s up to it. And he has to be. Because maybe Kaepernick will find the magic he had in 2012, or maybe he’ll continue to look like more like a game manager on Sundays. And following Wednesday’s news about Aldon Smith, it’s looking like the team’s best pass rusher might be out a lot longer than expected.
In today’s NFL running backs come and go, that’s just the nature of the position. But since Gore’s sophomore season in 2006, he has been the unquestioned alpha of the 49ers offense. The only thing to slow him down have been injuries. But he’s stayed healthy the last two years, and the 49ers have to hope he can do so again. Because without Gore, any chance San Francisco has at returning to the Super Bowl will be sidelined along with its bell cow.