Gore has earned those honors for the past two seasons, totaling 2,425 yards and 16 touchdowns.
He has also served as the leading rusher in a top-flight rushing attack. It’s one that’s powered behind the premier run-blocking offensive line in all of football.
That league-leading supporting cast returns again this year. The pistol read-option, run-heavy offensive attack led by quarterback Colin Kaepernick will put Gore in prime position to duplicate his Pro Bowl numbers.
Yet, we must play devil’s advocate.
Gore, despite being a veritable iron man year in and year out, is on the age-old wrong side of 30. He also represents one of many mouths to feed on a stacked 49ers offense. Each player can receive only so many touches.
Kaepernick himself will be looking to run roughshod over opposing defenses for a full season—not just seven-plus games, as he did last year.
So, will the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher repeat his 1,200-plus-yard statistical production from 2011 and 2012? Or will he finally have to take the proverbial backseat on the gridiron?
Let’s entertain the key reasoning behind both arguments and conclude with Gore’s prospects for 2013.
No. 1 RB Status vs. Father Time
Frank Gore has repeatedly proclaimed his status as the 49ers’ go-to every-down running back.
Even with a talented and crowded backfield, he’s never viewed a deep RB corps as an encroachment on his number of carries. He’s always taken it as a good thing for the squad—notably when Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James would all be vying for touches in 2012.
“It feels good to be back out with the team,” Gore said. “Change is good…”
It’s that team-first mentality and humble self-confidence that keeps Gore on top of his game.
He doesn’t see competition; he only sees motivation.
That said, the 30-year benchmark has often been the ominous harbinger for men at this position throughout NFL history.
Recent prolific rushers such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Edgerrin James and “The Bus” Jerome Bettis all fell off the productive train during their later years. There are surely examples to the contrary, but running backs simply take a constant and brutal beating.
Gore himself has endured 2,333 bruising touches at the pro level and an additional 373 in college. That doesn’t even take into account the multitude of surgeries he’s suffered through.
Yes, Gore would certainly scoff at such negative notions, telling the Associated Press (via The Washington Post):
I love [the yearly obstacles], Gore said Thursday outside of the 49ers’ locker room. I feel like every year it’s something with me. I have to overcome everything, every year. Now that I’m 30 I just have to keep working and training hard.
But despite his hard work and unmatched resiliency, there’s only so much one man can withstand on the football field. Even Gore acknowledged the years of wear and tear before the start of last season.
“I took a little longer this time because we played a little longer last year," Gore said. "I had a few more bumps and bruises to get back together. So I took a little longer.”
After another prolonged campaign that included three postseason contests, the 49ers are holding him out of nearly all offseason workouts. Smart—yes—but it’s another reminder that athletes aren’t invincible.
It takes them longer and longer to get back together—especially for running backs.
Experience, Hunter’s Injury, James’ Expanded Role vs. Touches for RBs, Kaepernick
Another point in favor of Frank Gore’s continued production is his extensive experience as the leading back behind Colin Kaepernick.
Gore logged 193 combined carries with Kaepernick under center (playoffs included). That averages out to 17.5 per game over 11 contests. He caught 12 passes from No. 7 in addition to his two-touchdown and multiple 100-yard playoff performances as well.
In comparison, Kendall Hunter’s experience with Kaepernick added up to just nine carries and one reception. A notable touchdown run notwithstanding, Hunter didn’t have the chance to grow with his quarterback in the same way Gore did.
Hunter’s torn Achilles tendon has continued to impede his development with Kap up to this point due to the lengthy recovery process, though he will be at training camp, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
LaMichael James, on the other hand, did showcase some explosiveness with Kap manning the read-option. He rushed for a combined 5.3 yards per carry, one touchdown and impressive 26- and 17-yard scampers.
Aiding Gore’s cause with regard to James, however, is No. 23’s expanded role in other parts of the field.
Dylan DeSimone, 49ers lead columnist for Bleacher Report, notes that James will serve in an integral role in the passing game and as a returner on special teams. This will help keep the rock in Gore’s hands as the primary ball-carrier out of the backfield.
Then again, all of these offensive touches could still land in the hands of these aforementioned 49er playmakers.
Hunter has averaged seven rushing attempts per game in the regular season and five in the playoffs. He has proven his abilities as a rusher with a career 5.2-yard average and will look to further that in 2013. His progression to full health remains on track for a return well before Week 1.
James is also a valuable asset in the run game. The previously cited Bleacher Report scribe corroborates that assertion by acknowledging James’ value as “a perimeter dynamic and unique element in the read option.”
He’ll become even more fluid in the offense with a full offseason of development.
Last but not least, we cannot forget about Kaepernick as a rusher out of the pistol formation.
Kap accrued 50 carries (6.3 per game) after filling in for Alex Smith in Week 10. He racked up another 25 rushes in three playoff contests. Along with 779 yards and five touchdowns, this astounding rushing productivity from the quarterback position came in his first real action.
Imagining what he can accomplish in that role during his first full season as a starter through 16 games does not bode well for Gore eclipsing the 1,200-yard mark in 2013.
Not Enough Balls to Go Around
Frank Gore required 258 carries for his 1,214 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012. He attained those numbers with Colin Kaepernick starting just seven games, Kendall Hunter missing the final five games and LaMichael James playing in only four.
Can he really expect to replicate those tremendous stats with Kap, Hunter and James potentially hitting the gridiron for all 16 games?
Some pundits might argue that Michael Crabtree’s injury leaves a substantial void in the offense. That would then place more emphasis on the 49ers ground attack—with Gore at the front and center.
While we agree somewhat with that hypothesis, we would counter with San Francisco’s much deeper depth chart at wide receiver.
Anquan Boldin is an accomplished possession receiver and has already established rapport with Kaepernick. A.J. Jenkins has also shined in camp, according to Maiocco, and adds to a talented corps of wideouts that includes Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham and Quinton Patton.
Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald, meanwhile, will join forces as a formidable receiving duo in two-tight end sets. The rookie has already made his presence felt in the offseason, according to Maiocco.
At the end of the day, Gore will have a fine campaign this season to the tune of 220 carries for 1,000-plus yards and six touchdowns. His role as a receiver may increase, as in years past, but don’t expect him to make the Pro Bowl for the fourth time in his career.
He will team up with Kaepernick, Hunter and James as one frightening four-headed backfield monster.
49er fans will certainly find comfort in that gridiron dynamic.
To hell with Hawaii and pro football’s silly all-star game.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16