The 49ers hope that Frank Gore returns to top form.
Frank Gore was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft. He had a knee injury while at the University of Miami, which caused teams to pass on him. The 49ers have gotten their money's worth and then some.
Since his arrival in 2005, Gore has been the Niners' leading rusher. From 2006-2009, Gore rushed for over 1,000 yards, with a career-high of 1,695 in 2006. He was a Pro Bowl selection in 2006 and 2009.
At a position where the average life span in the NFL is about four years, Gore will be entering his seventh season with the 49ers. He has taken a remarkable amount of punishment over the past six years. Arguably, no running back in the league took as many hard hits as Gore has in these six seasons.
In 2010, Gore finally broke down, as a severe hip injury and the resultant surgery caused him to miss the final five games of the season. His season ended with 853 yards rushing on 203 carries. His 4.2 yards per carry average was the lowest of his career.
Gore has said he doesn't know how or when he was injured, which means it was most likely the result of the cumulative effect of his work load. It did not appear to be one big hit which caused Gore's injury.
I do believe that Mike Singletary's game plan did play a role in the severity of Gore's injury. Not only did Singletary continue to run Gore up the middle time and time again, but he rarely took out his star player.
There were several games where it was apparent by the fourth quarter that the 49ers were simply not going to win. Yet, Singletary continued to keep Gore in the game and gave him the ball or had him blocking in pass protection.
I often wondered why Gore was still playing and being exposed to more punishment, when the game was already lost. We can thank Mike Singletary for that great strategy.
Gore is still recovering from his surgery and was not able to participate in the "Alex Smith mini-camp." The 49ers hope he will be ready for the regular season, but there is no guarantee.
Entering his seventh season, Gore does not have a whole lot of time left to be the star back that we are accustomed to seeing. His successful return is perhaps a bigger key for this season than Alex Smith's play at quarterback.
Honestly, if Gore can give the 49ers even three more solid years, that would be a huge bonus. We can hope, but it would be foolish to expect Gore to maintain his top level of play for too much longer.
Optimistically, it would be great to see Gore return to his 1,000 yard historical form. I do think it will be possible and Jim Harbaugh's more innovative offense will utilize Gore in ways where he may not be hit quite as often.
Harbaugh has used multiple backs and is likely to give Gore periodic rest to keep him fresh during a game. Gore will also be valuable as a receiver out of the backfield. He has shown a good ability to catch the football and it will be a lot easier running through a defensive back than a lineman.
My optimistic projection is for Gore to rush for roughly 1,000 yards and increase his yards per carry up to 4.8. The more prolific passing offense that Harbaugh will use should eliminate the eight or nine defenders in the box that teams used against the Singletary version of the 49ers.
I also expect Gore to catch over 60 passes this year and be a force in the passing game.
The key is that Harbaugh will not overwork Gore. Anthony Dixon and 2010 fourth round pick Kendall Hunter will be expected to play and contribute.
Gore's injured hip was a major injury. Although it was not the same thing that ended Bo Jackson's career, it was quite severe. We will see if Gore's body can take the pounding of an NFL season.
The worry is that if Gore breaks down again, it's further proof that his stellar career is nearing an end. If that happens, it will be sad to see because nobody in recent 49er history played the game harder or with more passion than Frank Gore.