Frank Gore Is the Perfect RB to Defy Age Barrier Dooming Other NFL RBs

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Frank Gore Is the Perfect RB to Defy Age Barrier Dooming Other NFL RBs
John Cordes/Associated Press

Frank Gore is an anomaly.

As the No. 65 overall pick by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005, expectations for the Miami (Florida) product were tempered at best after an injury-riddled collegiate tenure that had produced a pair of torn ACLs. Sure, the talent was there, but Gore was taken in an era when coaches had reckless abandon for their running backs, especially those who could carry it 300 or more times effectively.

So the NFL, even in retrospect, can be forgiven for Gore's draft fall. The fear of a back falling off in his late 20s due to wear and tear is palpable enough, but the addition of two knee-shredding events can scare the bravest of scouts from giving a strong recommendation to his bosses.

More than a decade later, the violent legs of a 5'9", 217-pound back continue to churn at a fast rate, but a May 14, 1983 date of birth has most shying away from Gore.

Like that cloud of doubt that enshrouded the beginning of his pro career, Gore is set to turn a few heads as he defies all conventional, well-researched logic that says a wall, and eventually the end of his career, lurks right around the corner.

 

Long Odds

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Mountains of evidence laugh in the face of Gore's seemingly futile attempt to blast through the so-called age barrier that permeates around the worst job in the wide world of sports.

While conventional wisdom points to the dreaded age of 30, research shows that the number is merely when a back tiptoes on the precipice of the cliff before a strong wind blows him right off—some backs hit pillows on the way down in the form of alright seasons, others fully face-plant.

A continued study by Football Perspective's Chase Stuart shows that backs ages 25-26 hit a peak before slowly snowballing into a decline that eventually forces them to shelf the pads forever.

For perspective, let's gander at the age and pertinent numbers of two running backs mentioned by Stuart who were just a few years ago the cream of the crop before wasting away on this offseason's free-agency market—Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew:

Maurice Jones-Drew, 25 and Beyond
Year Age Games Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD
2010 25 14 299 1,324 94.6 4.4 7 5
2011 26 16 343 1,606 100.4 4.7 6 8
2012 27 6 86 414 69.0 4.8 1 1
2013 28 15 234 803 53.5 3.4 1 5

ESPN

Chris Johnson, 25 and Beyond
Year Age Games Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD
2010 25 16 316 1,364 85.3 4.3 8 11
2011 26 16 262 1,047 65.4 4.0 4 4
2012 27 16 276 1,243 77.7 4.5 5 6
2013 28 16 279 1,077 67.3 3.9 2 6

ESPN

Coincidentally, as we will see later, some of Gore's numbers follow a similar trajectory.

But nothing is ever that straightforward, especially in the NFL. Back in 2011, ESPN's Tristan H. Cockcroft brought to light another facet of decline that deals not with age, but with the amount of carries bestowed upon a back each season.

The result? Backs who receive 370 or more carries have disastrous outputs the season directly after being asked to tote the rock that many times. That theory has held mostly true since being proposed.

But it's important to note that backs who made it to that carry total masterfully dodged injury issues and generally put up career seasons. The wear and tear from that overuse, logically speaking, will always lead to subsequent injuries, if not the general nature of the position prohibiting a back from ever reaching that threshold again.

J. PAT CARTER/Associated Press

Point being, there is no exact science to a back bucking the age barrier that dooms most at the spot.

That helps to explain why most who set out to disprove the age-barrier facet of the position point to a few select names such as Curtis Martin, who highlights a very small list that quickly becomes an echo chamber of those on the hunt to disprove.

Curtis Martin Career Stats
Year Age Team Games Rush Yds Avg TD
1995 22 NE 16 368 1,487 4.0 14
1996 23 NE 16 316 1,152 3.6 14
1997 24 NE 13 274 1,160 4.2 4
1998 25 NYJ 15 369 1,287 3.5 8
1999 26 NYJ 16 367 1,464 4.0 5
2000 27 NYJ 16 316 1,204 3.8 9
2001 28 NYJ 16 333 1,513 4.5 10
2002 29 NYJ 16 261 1,094 4.2 7
2003 30 NYJ 16 323 1,308 4.1 2
2004 31 NYJ 16 371 1,697 4.6 12
2005 32 NYJ 16 368 1,487 4.0 5

ESPN

Other oft-cited players, such as Jerome Bettis, for example, hit a wall at the age of 29 and never surpassed the 1,000-yard mark again, but instead endured as a committee back. He didn't shatter the age barrier in a rare manner by any means.

So the question is, can Gore be an outlier like Martin?

 

Defiance Personified

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Perhaps the root of the question in Gore's case should be altered to "How much longer can it last?"

Everything about Gore's career to date has flown directly in the face of the proven numbers. He has not only remained one of the most consistent backs of the last decade and change, the Hurricanes product has also seen peaks and valleys that throw him way off the tried and true charts:

Year Age Games Rush Yds Y/G Avg 100+ TD
2005 22 14 128 613 43.8 4.8 1 3
2006 23 16 312 1,695 105.9 5.4 9 8
2007 24 15 260 1,102 73.5 4.2 2 5
2008 25 14 240 1,036 74.0 4.3 3 6
2009 26 14 229 1,120 80.0 4.9 5 10
2010 27 11 203 853 77.5 4.2 4 3
2011 28 16 282 1,211 75.7 4.3 5 8
2012 29 16 259 1,212 75.8 4.7 3 8
2013 30 16 276 1,128 70.5 4.1 3 9

ESPN

Observers will astutely point out that Gore has not only been eerily consistent, he has breached the 300-carry mark just once in his career, a far cry from the dreaded 370-mark previously touched upon.

To help illustrate just how smooth Gore has been since entering the league, here is a Rotoviz chart comparing his average number of rushing attempts per game over the years to notable backs from his draft class:

Credit: Rotoviz

It's vivid that Gore's success stems from being a workhorse in a run-first approach. The 49ers under Jim Harbaugh finished with the eighth-most rushing attempts in the league in 2011 (498), the fourth most in 2012 (492) and the third most last season (505).

Barring a sudden change in philosophy, Gore's chances will be there once again in 2014.

 

Hurdles

Beck Diefenbach/Associated Press

What exactly stands in Gore's way, other than potential health issues and the limitations of the human clock that naturally slow us?

Many will point to the stable of backs on the roster, which—while mightily impressive—is a pretty flimsy argument. 

Kendall Hunter is a change-of-pace back who won't be asked to carry the load on his own and in three seasons has carried the rock more than 100 times once. Oregon product LaMichael James has yet to prove deserving of this spot and was at one point an alleged commodity on the trade block.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Marcus Lattimore is an intriguing, feel-good story who has enough sheer talent to carry a roster on his back, but injury questions linger and there is little chance Harbaugh and Co. will wear him down in what amounts to his rookie season.

"I'm trying to take [Gore's] job, but I know that's going to be the hardest thing in the world," Lattimore told Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today.

Indeed. That leaves rookie Carlos Hyde—a similar back to Gore in that he seems to get better the more carries he receives as a game goes on—but unless he can demonstrate a mastery of the playbook, pro speed and pass protection, he'll become yet the latest example of the 49ers' collegiate-esque redshirt system.

That leaves Gore to run behind an offensive line that has, for all intents and purposes, done quite well by him—especially in the Harbaugh years—according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) metrics:

49ers' Run Block Grade/Rank
Year Run Grade League Rank
2007 -27.3 28
2008 46.2 22
2009 31.7 26
2010 73.5 7
2011 93.4 1
2012 188.9 1
2013 69.4 2

*PFF, measurements only date back to 2007.

Let's go ahead and add in the fact that, in the confines of this run-first approach, dating back to 2011, the 49ers have just two losses in the regular season in which Gore has received 20 or more carries. Nine of the team's 11 losses the past three seasons in which Gore has been active are games in which he carried the ball less than 20 times.

Suffice it to say, his opportunities aren't going anywhere in 2014.

 

The Precipice

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

It's cruel in a way, but Gore knows what he has signed up for this season.

He's set to make $6.45 million in the final year of his contract, per Spotrac, so even the worst of gamblers can bet the house on him being ridden by the coaching staff until there is nothing left, both to bring along younger backs slowly and to put the team in the best possible position to contend for a title.

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Gore is, at his very core, the last of a dying breed. He's a workhorse with ungodly stamina and toughness in an era when front offices walk a tightrope with backs to ensure they don't pay one past a perceived expiration date. And in that vein, Gore has been worth every penny.

It's poetic that Gore, he of already conquered long odds, is the right man for the job to join Martin as an anomaly.

The furthest thing from disposable like so many he has charged past on his path, Gore's legs continue to churn up the hill, and where the peak resides nobody knows.

One thing we do know? The age barrier is quickly fading in the rearview mirror.

 

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