Perhaps overlooked in all the discussion of the San Francisco 49ers’ near-miss, quarterback Alex Smith’s resurgence and head coach Jim Harbaugh’s selection as Coach of the Year has been a singularly important item.
Running back Frank Gore had a hell of a season.
It was, in fact, his second-most productive year as a pro. Gore gained 1,211 yards on 282 carries—figures second only to the numbers he posted in 2006, his second year in the league. In that season, he carried 312 times and gained 1,695 yards, quickly establishing himself as one of the NFL's premier rushers.
The 2011 season was satisfying for Gore in more than just one respect. In addition to putting up excellent numbers, he also showed no obvious ill effects from the hip fracture that ended his previous season in late November 2010.
Gore wasn’t immune to injuries in 2011. He dinged both a knee and an ankle, but played in every game and showed he was one tough customer.
Now, it’s time to ask what he can do in 2012. Can he break the 1,500-yard barrier again, and lead the 49ers deep into the playoffs or, now that everybody can smell it, the Super Bowl?
Perhaps so. But the greater question is this: Should he?
Next season will be Gore’s eighth, and he’ll be 29 years old. That’s certainly a time for a peak performance.
But consider this: Gore, although built like the Great Wall of China, is relatively small at 5’9” and 217 pounds. Over the course of a season, the pounding of 300 or so carries exacts a high physical price, especially on the upper body.
Gore has shown he can take it. But what will be the cost to his long-term career and his ultimate contribution to the 49ers?
In cold, hard business terms, Gore is an asset—a highly valuable one. Used properly, he can probably deliver another five or six years to the franchise. But if the 49ers insist on making him their centerpiece, his longevity could be threatened, ultimately to the disadvantage of both Gore and the team.
Not that Gore should be employed sparingly. He’s a tough and talented runner who averaged 4.3 yards per carry last season and frequently set up the 49ers with short-yardage situations with strong runs on first down.
But as with anything from running backs to swear words, Gore will be weakened by overuse. Instead of plunging him into the line 20 times a game, the 49ers would be wise to keep his workload at between 12 and 15 carries while emphasizing two other aspects of the offense: Kendall Hunter and Alex Smith’s passing game.
Hunter, who at 5’7” and 199 pounds is even smaller than Gore, demonstrated in his rookie year that he has strong ability and tremendous potential. In 112 carries, he averaged 4.2 yards and scored two touchdowns. He’s good at getting outside, and offers a complement to Gore’s punishing inside game.
Smith, meanwhile, has given us a glimpse of what he can do. Given a healthy Joshua Morgan (or another competent wide receiver) to go with tight end Vernon Davis, Smith can elevate his passing game and take pressure off the run as the 49ers’ primary offensive weapon.
That translates into an opportunity to preserve Gore, already the highest-gaining back in 49ers history.
A more balanced attack, particularly in the red zone, will only benefit the 49ers in the coming season. For both Gore and the team as a whole, it’s the right strategy for the long term, as well.