Their surprisingly successful season in 2011 was brought on by the 49ers strong running game and hard-hitting defense. A big part of that success can be attributed to none other than the consistent workhorse back, Frank Gore.
If the 49ers intend to follow up on their progress in 2012, Frank Gore should get heavy touches in the upcoming season, though don't be surprised if the 49ers approach the ground game in a different manner.
This manner I speak of is that of the 'running back-by-committee' approach teams have adopted over the years.
Several teams have had success employing this method, though it could prove to backfire. The situation in Carolina is a perfect example.
Fans have fallen head over heels for that Cam Newton guy, but before the promising quarterback arrived, this was a ground and pound team, led by DeAngelo Williams. In the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Williams racked up over 2,600 yards on the ground and 25 rushing touchdowns.
Williams became one of the more feared backs in the league, but with injury concerns and decreased playing time his play suffered. Jonathan Stewart was a nice complementary back, but once the Panthers began experimenting with the lineup, their biggest strength on offense was reduced.
Also, the lack of talent on the team in general didn't help matters either, but that's another issue for another time.
How does this all relate to Frank Gore and the 49ers situation? It's simple. As fans have noticed, the depth chart at running back has increased considerably over the offseason. With the drafting of LaMichael James and the signing of Brandon Jacobs, the 49ers are loaded at the position.
I'm sure Harbaugh has a plan of sorts, but this could turn into a tricky situation for Gore if his playing time is decreased.
The addition of Kendall Hunter last year was a breath of fresh air, but the 49ers won the majority of their games behind the capable shoulders of Frank Gore.
While durability has been a concern for the power back, I can't envision the 49ers winning games with this 'committee' approach.
Teams who usually employ this method have strong aerial attacks, and I wouldn't count the 49ers under this list.
At the end of the day, Frank Gore will and should be the lead back, but fans can't ignore the signs of a reduced playing role for him.
While the organization—and some of the fans—may agree with this approach of reducing the workload for Gore, I suspect this could hinder the 49ers success in 2012.