The deal is reportedly worth $21 million over three years, with nearly two-thirds ($13.5 million) guaranteed. It’s about a 40 percent increase on an annual basis over the $4.9 million Frank Gore was slated to earn.
Except that a general manager has to wonder. Running backs are the Ni-Cad batteries of the NFL. They run at full speed and then their production tends to drop off steeply.
Consider that over the last five years, only LaDainian Tomlinson, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Thomas Jones ended among the top five in rushing more than once. Gore did just once, in 2006, but perhaps that’s a good thing.
Running backs have the shortest careers in the NFL at less than three years per player. In the same vein, quarterbacks on average have one of the longest (kickers and punters earn that distinction) at 4.4 years. But those who know the game understand that running backs take a lot more punishment than quarterbacks, hence their short careers.
Which brings up an interesting point about Gore’s three-year extension—namely, why? He’s going into his eighth year. He’s coming off a hairline fracture of his hip, and his production in 2010 ended up being the second-lowest of his career.
But the 49ers came through with a three-year extension starting in 2012. Here are five reasons why the Gore deal represents a new era for the San Francisco 49ers.
Gore held out the first four days of training camp. Later, there were reports that he was unhappy with the progress of the negotiations, none of which Gore explicitly explained to the press. At the same time, head coach Jim Harbaugh always took the high road, saying that Gore was an essential part of the team and that a deal would be worked out.
And it was. When asked about Gore’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, being in Santa Clara to meet with 49er officials, here was Harbaugh’s response when asked by the media (courtesy of the 49ers PR office):
“It’s been my experience, and I’ve said this before, I’ve never seen it go well to benefit anybody, a player or organization, when you start talking about contracts in the media. So I just choose not to do that. I’m very optimistic because Frank’s a ‘says what he means, means what he says’ guy. Our organization is the same exact way. Like we’ve said, we’ll deal with this man to man with Frank and with his agent, Drew, but Frank is a great guy.
Frank is a true 49er. I’ve said that from when I first got here, that’s how I thought I would feel about Frank Gore. Now I know how I feel about Frank Gore. The guy is awesome. Somebody should do a movie. Somebody should do the Frank Gore story, because it’s an awesome story.”
Better yet, this issue was handled by Harbaugh and the front office, but not someone from the owner’s office. There were no Jed York or John York statements. They let the football people handle this issue.
Gore, for the most part, has been the focus of the 49er offense since he became a full-time starter in 2004. Yet for all the touches—rushes and receptions combined—the total of 1,646 represents 1,371 rushing attempts and 270 pass receptions.
That number represents 25 percent of San Francisco’s offensive yardage in his career. Such a heavy percentage suggests that Gore would be on the downside of his career, but looking over other running backs from the same period, you can see that Gore hasn’t had the high-use years like other star backs.
In 2006, Gore finished third in rushing with 1,625 yards on 312 carries. He also had 61 receptions for a total of 373 touches. He wasn’t even close to the league lead in that category. The Rams’ Steven Jackson ran from scrimmage 346 times and hauled in 90 passes for a whopping 433 touches. But there’s a downside to such production. It’s called wear and tear.
Few players can withstand being that much of a focus of an offensive strategy. Jackson’s numbers dropped in ’07 to 237 carries, and he missed a total of 10 games over the next three seasons.
Gore, counting last year’s hip injury that forced him out after Week 12, has missed 13 games over six years, a remarkable record of durability. Add into the fact that he never really got started in his rookie year of 2003 due to his rehabbing the second of two serious knee injuries suffered during his college days at Miami.
The 49er front office knows that Gore is among the best backs in the league. And though running backs tend to have short careers, LaDainian Tomlinson has been an effective back for most of his 10 seasons, and the same goes for Jackson, who is entering his eighth year. That the 49ers consider Gore most likely to continue to have an effective role for years to come, it suggests that the organization is willing to pay the (not so) high price for quality production.
Thanks to the talents of Frankie Albert, Joe Perry (pictured), Hugh McElhenny, Ken Willard, John Brodie, Gene Washington, Jimmy Johnson, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Bryant Young and…well, you get the idea…the 49ers have one of the most star-crossed organizational rosters of all NFL teams.
Keeping Gore “as a 49er forever” is an attempt to return some stability and tradition to an organization that has had less and less to celebrate. Much of the reason for the team winning just 46 of their last 112 games—.410 winning percentage over Gore’s career—can be laid at the top of the organization.
Poor coaches, poor pro player personnel directors and a young man who happens to be the owner's son who is now, ostensibly, in charge. It all adds up to years of drudgery. There have been no playoff appearances since Gore arrived, yet he has been the most stable, consistent performer in that time.
Gore ranks third among all-time 49er rushers and is just 930 yards from surpassing Roger Craig and then Joe Perry to claim the lead. There’s a good chance it will happen this season.
With few things to market this season, Gore’s presence will be important. The front office came through with a raise that will set Gore up nicely. Granted, it’s not a five-year deal for more than $40 million that Carolina laid on DeAngelo Williams, but then it’s not what some teams do when their running backs last longer than five years—let them go.
Harbaugh, in talking to the media on Tuesday, pointed out what Gore means to the team. Namely, he tends to be quiet and set an example through actions rather than words.
His first days on the University of Miami campus proved what a talented player he was, and yet had had to overcome not one but two major knee injuries to get drafted in the third round.
Without those knee injuries, there was a good chance that Frank Gore would have Heisman attached to his name—that, and a first-round selection in the draft and lots more dollars in his pocket. But knee injuries tend to do to running backs what SEC investigations do to Ponzi schemes: make people avoid getting involved.
That the 49ers want to show other players and perhaps their fans that people like Frank Gore deserve to be rewarded.
“Yeah, it’s a great story,” said Harbaugh, going so far as to say that the Frank Gore story should be made into a movie.
“He’s a guy that really deserves all the credit. The way he’s worked. He’s so astute on so many fronts, and a guy that makes his life, changes his life, impacts other people in a positive way. He’s a team guy, he’s a great football player, and he’s got a big heart, most of all that’s what I like about Frank. He’s just enjoyable to be around. He works his tail off. I love his work ethic.”
Right guard Chilo Rachal, when talking about Gore, said the best thing about his running is his patience. He stutters his feet behind the line, letting the linemen gain leverage, and just like that he’s through the hole.
Moreover, for all of Gore’s statistical excellence, there’s the feeling that he can be as good as ever this coming season. As frustrating as the preseason games against New Orleans and Houston have been, there’s the feeling among the coaches that Gore will continue to average about 20 touches a game, like he has done for his career.
With weapons on the offense like Braylon Edwards, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, Gore won’t have to be the main focus. But then again, he’s one of the best in the league at picking up blitzes, so his presence will always help, even when he doesn’t touch the ball.
But it’s best to remember that over his career, the 49ers have averaged about 57 offensive plays per game, which is about 10 percent fewer than the league average. Gore had fewer opportunities due to the team’s overall inadequacies. For example, for all the derision that former coach Dennis Erickson garnered, in 2003 the 49ers ran 1,010 plays from scrimmage. In ’04 it was 974. Since then, they topped 900 only twice in five years, and that as barely.
If the offensive line improves, giving quarterback Alex Smith the time to spread the ball around to maximize Harbaugh’s offense, then there’s no doubt that Frank Gore will be a vital part of what is needed: a deep, steady improvement and a return to ranking among the NFL’s elite.