Frank Gore is out for the season with a cracked hip. The injury was suffered early in Monday night's 27-6 dusting of the Arizona Cardinals.
For the first time since Week 2, the 49ers are only one game back in the division race. No elaboration is needed to express the ridiculousness of this, as they are still nursing a crummy 4-7 record.
The silver lining in Gore's injury is less tarnished than some may believe, however.
While 49ers fans are certainly praying that Gore heals well through the offseason (many wince while recalling Bo Jackson's career-ending hip injury), the starting running back's absence will deny the 49ers offense the predictable crutch they had been leaning on for the first 10 games.
In fact, was there a single team the 49ers faced this year who didn't game-plan their defense around stopping Frank Gore first and foremost?
Now their adversaries will need to look at all the 49ers' weapons, and they will likely come up scratching their heads. How do we cover all these weapons? Where has that guy been? That's different than the last time we faced them.
Gore's reliability was strangely one of the offense's downsides. Over and over, Frank Gore up the gut was the call, and defenses would typically catch on before the end of the first quarter. In a way, Frank was simply too good of a running back for the 49ers offense to resist overusing him.
Enter Brian Westbrook.
The former Philadelphia Eagles standout shined in Gore's absence. Having patiently waited for his time behind Gore for much of the season, Westbrook exploded for 136 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Everybody knows of his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, but the 31-year-old also rushed very well between the tackles and moved his feet quite nicely in traffic.
Essentially proving there's still some good fuel left in the tank, he had sat on the shelf for all but one play per game—until Monday night.
One can say (in perfect hindsight) that using Westbrook more earlier in the season could have lessened the wear on Gore and improved the 49ers' horrendous record. One could also argue, though, that the empty workload kept the veteran Westbrook (who had missed significant time over the last couple seasons with concussion issues) fresh as insurance for such an occasion.
Gore's absence should also mean increased carries for rookie running back Anthony Dixon. Although he is a larger target for defenders to hit, Dixon has shown creativity in his moves, a willingness to block hard and a nose for the end zone.
Sure, Frank Gore's tenacity, durability, speed, power, toughness and simply amazing athleticism gave the 49ers the best of both backs in one. There's no doubt there will come a time in the near future when 49ers fans will think, "We could really use Frank right now." Without him, though, the team will be forced to get creative, and thus less predictable.