If the San Francisco 49ers were so sure that running back Frank Gore was on the cusp of a monster year, one question must be answered: Why, then, would they sign Rock Cartwright, Brandon Jacobs, Jewel Hampton and draft LaMichael James in the off-season?
The answer: the team may be secretly worried that the offense is more one-dimensional than at first glance and that Gore, who gained over 1,200 yards last season despite missing some time with injuries, could be on the downturn.
Looking at that list of free agents the team brought in, it’s not one filled with training camp bodies or workhorse running backs of the future. That list is a “now” list, with only James being seen as a player for the future, and even he isn’t the workhorse type.
In 2011, the Niners’ backfield was, in essence, Gore and Kendall Hunter. Gore had 282 pounding carries, gained 1,211 yards and scored eight times. Hunter had 112 carries, 473 yards and 2 touchdowns. Each had similar receiving numbers, together averaging about one catch for about 20 yards and no touchdowns per game.on
Even fullback Anthony Dixon is looking for carries, and if Gore slows or gets hurt again, this group of backs will be scrambling for the rock and could — could — take over if Gore is banged up, putting extra pressure on quarterback Alex Smith to get things done. When he was first on the free agent market, many wondered if Jacobs was finished. Lately, there reports that he’s leaner and running with purpose. James, the rookie, has also impressed even though he’s listed fourth on the current and premature depth chart. And before you say Kendall Hunter, let’s not assume he’s the guy who can carry the load. From the looks of things, one has to wonder if only Cartwright is on the bubble while the other four running backs are kept as insurance against Gore’s potential mid-season durability problems.
During the season, Gore and Hunter made up what was called one of the best running games in the league. It was true then… maybe not so much now.
Tight end Vernon Davis had the most receptions (97) and wide receiver Michael Crabtree had the most yards (874). Davis scored six times, Crabtree four. If Smith once again relies that much on those two players — receivers Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn and tight end Delanie Walker had 20 or less receptions — then the offense overall will be counting on what may become a backfield by committee in 2012.
Note: What the Niners will get out of bringing in veteran Randy Moss remains to be seen. He’s a boom-or-bust player now who could take the pressure off the backfield and Smith or drop more of it like a bomb if Moss just doesn’t work out.
If Gore needs and extended break or is injured, could the 49ers simply rotate the rest of the backfield in his absence? Certainly. Hunter, Jacobs and James make an interesting trio, each with something different to bring to the field. Maybe it’s no accident that San Francisco loaded up at a position already thought to be loaded.
The latest word out of the Bay Area is that Gore is looking good, quick, spry and powerful. A good sign that, but it’s training camp. The Niners have to worry about how he looks in November and December, when the team could be in the race for No. 1 seed in the NFC.