Frank Gore has put his body through an unworldly amount of pain over his lengthy football career, yet he continues to churn out 1,000-yard campaign after another. Now entering his ninth NFL season, the all-time leading rusher for the San Francisco 49ers turns 30 years old in May. Once an NFL running back finds himself on the wrong side of 30, the questions of whether said back can maintain a high level of play into the future start rolling in ever so frequently.
Gore has been doing everything he can in recent years to stave off the doubters. After missing five games in 2010 to a broken hip, No. 21 responded with consecutive seasons of over 1,200 yards rushing. He’s been phenomenal during the Niners last two playoff runs, averaging over five yards per carry in each. Frank the Tank has suffered more significant injuries during his tenure with the 49ers than I can count on one hand, yet he always finds a way to be there when his team needs him most.
But longevity is a luxury rarely afforded to professional football players (outside of kickers and punters), especially running backs. There will unfortunately come a time when the Red and Gold must prepare for a backfield that no longer includes No. 21. The 49ers’ front office has done well to plan ahead in that regard, drafting Kendall Hunter in 2011 and then LaMichael James in 2012.
Perhaps 2013 is still a tad early to be writing off the soon-to-be 30-year-old Gore, though. What he lost in top-end speed he’s made up for with a level of vision and patience few can match. It also doesn’t hurt that the five starting linemen in San Francisco just so happens to be the best bunch of run blockers you’ll find in the NFL. Additionally, the Niners now have numerous offensive playmakers surrounding Gore that were nowhere to be found just a couple of years ago.
In other words, Gore doesn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting these days. Michael Crabtree has finally proven himself to be a legitimate No. 1 WR in this league, and Vernon Davis is always there when called upon. Colin Kaepernick gives opposing defenses a worsening headache with every step he takes on the gridiron as well, so as a result, there is much more free grass for Gore to roam. These advantages Gore lacked throughout the early years of his brilliant career could be exactly what is allowing him to remain productive at an age where most top-end backs kick off an inevitable decline.
Running full steam ahead into an eight-man box is now a thing of the past for the one they call “The Inconvenient Truth.”
Heading into 2013, I believe Gore will be fully capable of handling around 250 carries or so for yet another season. Hunter will be back from injury, and James’ role in the offense may expand, but No. 21 is still far and away the most talented option in the 49ers’ backfield. Gore is under contract through this season and the next, and he’s given us no reason to doubt his ability to finish out his current deal playing at a high level. I made the same case for him a year ago and will happily continue to do so every year until he hangs up the cleats.
The question will still be asked time and time again until the Niners take the field to open the 2013 season, but for now, it’s probably safe to assume the Frank Gore we’ll see this year is going to be the Frank Gore Bay Area fans have seen over the past decade. If it does indeed prove to be his final season with the Red and Gold, well, let’s just hope it ends with him hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
For now, though, let’s continue to sit back and enjoy the show.