The San Francisco 49ers looked a lot warmer on Saturday. After playing in a meat locker in Wisconsin, they enjoyed the sunny weather and grassy field of Charlotte, and they enjoyed beating the Carolina Panthers into submission.
Frank Gore, the only offensive player who managed to play effectively against the Panthers in their regular-season matchup, was bottled up for most of the game, but he eventually broke lose for a 39-yard run that would all but guarantee the Niners their third straight NFC Championship Game berth.
It's something that we've seen time and time again, and it never gets old. Four years ago, Frank doesn't stop running on that play until he reaches the back of the end zone. The tank may not be as implacable as he was when he entered the league as the 65th pick in the 2005 draft, but it's still a joy watching him run with the football, bouncing off tacklers and shooting through holes. He's like a human pinball.
Earlier this season, quarterback Colin Kaepernick called his running back a future Hall of Famer. Is he right? I'll give you the answer somewhere in this slideshow, but I won't tell you where so you can read all my awesome analysis.
Let's break it down!
Usually, the players who make the Hall of Fame were pretty good at playing football. The voting committee is still trying to take back Bob Griese and Michael Irvin, but a few mistakes shouldn't discredit hundreds of inductees.
Throughout his nine-year career, Gore has rushed for roughly 10,000 yards and scored 70 touchdowns. He's rushed for 1,000 yards seven times, gained over 2,100 yards in his first year as a starter and compiled nine 100-yard rushing games in a single season. Gore is also the 49ers' all-time leader in rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns.
Joe Perry, the 49ers' lone Hall of Fame running back, totaled fewer rushing yards than Gore in his 14-year career.
With five Pro Bowls and a second-team All-Pro selection in 2006, Gore would be an easy selection if he retired today, but he still has a few things left on his to-do list.
Several Hall of Fame running backs have thrived in the playoffs, some even carrying their team to Super Bowl ecstasy. Emmit Smith. Walter Payton. Jim Brown. Franco Harris. Purely unstoppable, even when the best teams stood in their path. The one exception was Barry Sanders, who played for one of the most inept franchises in sports and still holds the distinction of being the best running back in the history of the game.
While Gore's prime years came when the 49ers were stuck in football purgatory, he's seized the opportunity during the Jim Harbaugh era, playing a vital role in every one of his team's playoff victories. He led all running backs in rushing yards during last year's postseason and dazzled in the Super Bowl as the Niners staged their frantic second-half rally. His fourth-quarter breakaway nearly completed San Francisco's epic comeback; the only question is, why didn't he get the ball again?
He doesn't care. He just wants it again this February.
Though it's not a prerequisite for Hall of Fame entry, Gore is one of the rare players who will never take off his uniform. Not even after he retires. He'll always be a 49er. Just like Michael Jordan will always be a Bull and Derek Jeter will always be a Yankee.
Being immortalized as a member of a franchise doesn't require a lifetime service. Joe Montana's final playing days came with the Chiefs. Jordan finished his career (regrettably) with the Wizards.
Both legends combined to win 10 championships. And it could have been more.
How you play is big in building a legacy, but part of it is also being likable.
Gore has always epitomized class throughout his career. Remember the contract dispute he had with the 49ers a few years ago? He didn't complain. He didn't stop playing. He just showed up to camp and worked his ass off. A month later, he was awarded a $26 million extension.
He's been with the team through the good and the bad, and he plays equally hard on every snap.
Montana. Rice. Young. Lott. Add another lifer to that list.
Before he makes the Hall of Fame, Gore would still like to go to a few more Pro Bowls. He had another fantastic season, rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and scoring nine touchdowns.
Though most running backs usually begin their decline in their late 20s, Gore has remained consistent and injury-free the last three years, and a big reason for that is Jim Harbaugh.
When playing under Mike Singletary, the 49ers utilized a smashmouth offensive scheme that teams often countered by stacking up the box. Gore took the most punishment during those years, and he even suffered a hip injury that would sideline him for the final five games of the 2010 season.
After Singletary was fired, the Niners finally started throwing the ball forward again, and Gore no longer had to worry about trying to beat eight defenders off the snap.
With the passing game getting stronger, Gore still has a few more productive seasons ahead of him, and that shouldn't be too hard playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
Consistency. Longevity. Math. What's missing?
It starts with a C.
You guessed right, controversy.
During his decade-long stint with the 49ers, Gore has never been involved with any controversy on or off the field. He's never thrown any of his teammates under the bus, instead preferring to blame himself whenever things go wrong.
A few months ago, he took the blame for the loss in New Orleans when he couldn't haul in a catch with 10 minutes left in the game. A lot of us blamed the refs. Some of us blamed Kaepernick. No one blamed Gore.
Being a gentlemen on the football field is harder than it looks, and like so many past 49er greats, Gore's success comes from an ability to internalize his emotions and channel them effectively.
Believe it or not, voters still base their decisions on integrity and sportsmanship, which is a big reason why some of the greatest athletes who ever played have failed to win a unanimous vote.
As a team player, an amazing athlete and a great guy, Frank Gore deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. One hundred percent.
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