San Francisco 49ers: How Will Age and Carlos Hyde Affect Frank Gore's Carries?

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San Francisco 49ers: How Will Age and Carlos Hyde Affect Frank Gore's Carries?
Jeff Lewis/Associated Press

One of the top stories for the San Francisco 49ers this offseason has been what the future holds for Frank Gore.  Gore turned 31 in May, and the end of his career is closer than the beginning of it. The question is how many carries Gore will have and how many will be given away to backs like rookie Carlos Hyde, redshirt second-year player Marcus Lattimore and last year’s backup Kendall Hunter.

There have been plenty of attempts to forecast Gore’s carries total for the 2014 season, but those are based on quite a few assumptions. In order to get a prediction, you have to try to figure out whether age will deteriorate Gore’s skills quickly, or if he has another season or two before he slows down. There’s no way to guarantee that before the season actually begins, so they’re all very hypothetical in nature.

One theory that seems to make sense at first blush is that Gore’s carries will decrease as the season goes on. It’s been mentioned in several places. There are essentially two major points to this theory.  First, that older running backs need more rest as the season goes on, because of the added wear and tear on their aging bodies. Secondly, coaches are more likely to trust rookies as they have more time in the system, slowly bringing them into the offense as time goes by.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Do either of these theories actually hold water, or are they fallacies? I decided to go back and look at the performance of both rookie running backs and backs older than 30 years old to see if there’s a historical precedent to the usage patterns of running backs, to see if there were any trends that could help shine a light on Gore’s 2014 season.

First, some brief notes on methodology. I went back only to 1978 because I wanted 16-game seasons; if players do get tired later in the year, it would make sense to have as many games as possible in the sample. Secondly, I looked for any game where a running back had at least seven carries. Why seven? To qualify for the yards per rush attempt title, a player needs 6.25 carries a game. I figure any game where a player gets fewer than seven carries isn’t a game where they’re particularly involved in the game plan.

 

Age 31+

Since Gore will be 31 in this season, I looked only for players in their age-31 and older seasons. In theory, if older running backs tend to get used less and less as the season goes on, there should be fewer backs who get seven or more carries in a game, or the number of carries the backs get should drop off.

Bryan Knowles/Pro-Football-Reference
Age 31+ Running Backs, 1978-2013
Week # of Backs Total Carries Total Yards Avg Carries Avg Yards
1 89 1,235 5,033 13.9 56.6
2 89 1,384 5,384 15.6 60.5
3 91 1,312 5,113 14.4 56.2
4 97 1,387 5,515 14.3 56.9
5 99 1,401 5,740 14.2 58.0
6 105 1,486 6,398 14.2 60.9
7 96 1,409 5,479 14.7 57.1
8 88 1,304 4,955 14.8 56.3
9 95 1,462 6,011 15.4 63.3
10 92 1,273 4,887 13.8 53.1
11 85 1,236 4,725 14.5 55.6
12 82 1,159 4,533 14.1 55.3
13 88 1,251 4,990 14.2 56.7
14 99 1,413 5,411 14.3 54.7
15 99 1,410 5,714 14.2 57.7
16 87 1,257 4,960 14.4 57.0

Pro-Football-Reference

There is almost no trend whatsoever. There’re a couple of fluctuations up and down here and there, but nothing notably significant. I’d imagine that the drop-off in the 16th game for each team has something to do with teams either resting starters for the postseason, or evaluating talent for the year afterward.  Other than that, there’s not a lot to get from this data set.

That means that aging running backs needing more time off as the season goes on is anecdotal, at best.  Yes, you can find examples of individual running backs breaking down as the year goes on, but as a class, they seem to do just about as well at the end of the season as the beginning.

RED MCLENDON/Associated Press
Some players simply don't slow down in their old age.

Is it possible Frank Gore will be the type of back who will need more time off as the season goes on? It’s possible, but that hasn’t been the case in the past. In fact, the most carries Gore has ever had in a game happened in Week 16 of 2006, where he carried the ball 31 times. Six of his 14 games with 25 or more carries have happened in Game 13 or later—he’s never been the type of back to wind down as the season goes on.

It doesn’t seem to follow logically that Gore’s carries will go down as the season goes on due to wear and tear; not only has that never been the case in Gore’s career, but it’s not even generally true when it comes to running backs in the NFL. If you’re good enough to get carries in Week 1, you’re probably going to be good enough to get carries in Week 17.

 

Rookies

Ah, but not all these aging running backs had promising players behind them. Gore can be spelled not only by second-round pick Carlos Hyde, but also by Marcus Lattimore, who is essentially a rookie this season. Do rookies get used more often as the season goes on, thus possibly taking carries from Gore in that way?

Bryan Knowles / Pro-Football-Reference
Rookie Running Backs, 1973-2013
Week # of Backs Total Carries Total Yards Avg Carries Avg Yards
1 170 2,295 8,996 13.5 52.9
2 172 2,373 9,757 13.8 56.7
3 210 2,918 11,532 13.9 54.9
4 234 3,103 12,714 13.3 54.3
5 227 3,130 12,997 13.8 57.3
6 213 2,965 12,164 13.9 57.1
7 224 3,296 13,514 14.7 60.3
8 222 3,178 12,838 14.3 57.8
9 237 3,396 13,846 14.3 58.4
10 223 3,251 14,103 14.6 61.3
11 220 3,309 13,495 15.0 61.3
12 226 3,358 14,784 14.9 65.4
13 216 3,437 14,787 15.9 68.5
14 222 3,205 13,207 14.4 59.5
15 250 3,816 16,073 15.3 64.3
16 274 4,049 16,901 14.8 61.7

Pro-Football-Reference

Unlike with the older backs, there’s a clear trend of increasing usage as the year goes on for first-year backs. There’s significantly more backs coming into the sample over the first four games of the year, as the new players get acclimated to the offense and become prepared to be part of the team’s plans. There is a second increase at the end of the season, but that’s more likely to test players for the following year rather than a strategic decision on the team’s part.

Al Bello/Getty Images

There are also slight increases in the number of carries these rookies get, so not only are new running backs being worked into the offense, but ones who were already involved are being used more often as the season goes on. You’ll note that the rookies catch and pass the veterans in both average carries and yards per game as we pass midseason.

This bodes well for the fantasy owners of either Carlos Hyde or Marcus Lattimore, though likely not both.  As rookies work their way into the system and become trusted by the coaches, they quickly get increased workloads. It’s not at all out of the question for Hyde, as a highly drafted back, to get as many, if not more, carries than Gore by the end of the season.

If Gore’s numbers start dropping at the end of the season, it’s likely not because he’s aging and needs the rest. It’s far more likely to happen due to the increased prominence of the rookies, taking their rightful place in the offense. It’s not Gore declining, necessarily—though that may well happen. Rather, it’s the first chapter in what will hopefully be long and fruitful careers for Hyde and Lattimore.

 

All statistics for this article were obtained by Pro-Football-Reference.

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