Frank Gore has been the one constant positive in a rather lack luster offense these past three years. He is the first running back in 49ers history to have three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons as well as to be the only offensive player remaining on the team to be named to a Pro-Bowl (2006). But even with all that, rumors have been circulating saying that Frank Gore is no longer the running back he used to be, and that it is time to start looking in a new direction.
Since his breakout season in 2006, Gore's stats have been slowly declining, and his injuries have increased. His yards per season have dropped from 06's 1,695 to this year's 1,036. His average yards per attempt is now 4.3 compared to 5.4 in 2006, and his touchdowns have fallen off slightly from eight to five, and to this year's six.
Surprisingly enough, his receiving stats have also fallen. His receptions per season has continued to fall by nine catches on average per season, finishing with 43 this season. Also accordingly, his receiving yards have fallen from 485 yards in '06 to 373 last season.
Despite these stats he has been continually picked as a top ten RB in fantasy football, even though he finishes in most stat categories in the middle of the pack among active running backs. Also, his prediction in '07 of having a 2,200 rushing yard record breaking season, along with many analysts and fans in '08 saying he was going to have close to a 1,000 yard rushing and a 1,000 yard receiving season, and in both seasons not coming close, leads me to say he was a little overrated in both occasions. And while these stats show signs of downside, their have obviously been many extenuating circumstances.
As I have already mentioned before Gore has had injuries. Whether it was a broken bone in his hand, multiple sprained ankles, or a few miscellaneous knee and leg injuries, he has always seemed to be hurt. But despite this onslaught of traumas he continues to play almost every week. In fact although he has been on the injury list almost every week, he has only missed a total of three games in the last three seasons, which has made him one of the most resilient and toughest backs in the league. This is definitely an underrated aspect of his game. Beyond his own health issues there has also been two huge issues outside of his control; the lack of a consistent QB and offense, and the yearly changing of offensive coordinators.
When Gore was under Norv Turner's influence in 2006, he flourished. He had his highest career rushing and receiving numbers and it was his only season to be selected to the Pro-Bowl. Some of the reasons why this happened was one part consistent QB play by Alex Smith, one part coordinating skills (especially in play action), one part improved offensive line play (didn't hurt to have Larry Allen), and one part the fresh and explosive legs of Frank Gore.
Unfortunately since then, the offensive coordinators have not exactly been run friendly. Jim Hostler could not game plan a game to save his life, and Mike Martz for the first part of the season was not too creative in the run game and he liked to leave Gore in to block a lot. These two coordinators combined with a carousel of quarterbacks, O-line injuries, the lack of fear of a deep threat, and an inconsistent passing game, has led Gore to anguish in eight and nine men defensive boxes the last two seasons. Gore through all of this was still able to produce, which is amazing, but one thing is leaving me from saying he is underrated... and that is because he has had some anomalies in his game.
While Gore did still produce throughout 2008, it wasn't an even production. Against opponents with a run defense in the top 15 he averaged only 42.5 yards a game (there was 6 games out of a possible 14) as well as only 1 touchdown. Compare that to his 92 yards a game average and 5 total touchdowns against teams with less than top 15 defenses, it is a little worrisome.
I know some say the lack of great stats was because of the passing game, but in the three games Shaun Hill was QB against top 15 defensive teams, he averaged a QB rating of 97.13 and averaged 278 passing yards per game. Not exactly incompetent play and Gore was still a non factor. Not to mention his longest run of the whole year was 41 yards that came in the first game against the Arizona Cardinals, and in total over the last two seasons he has only had 13 rushes over 20 yards, which doesn't even reach his 15 he had in 2006.
In the end I think Gore is a tough, strong runner who can push piles. He has a knack of getting 2 or 3 yards even when he looks like he will be tackled for a loss, and he is still a major factor in the passing game. But his lack of explosiveness these last few seasons, and his inability to create his own "holes" and "advantages" is stopping him from reclaiming his past glory. It may be just wear and tear, but it would not surprise me if the 49ers were able to grab another productive runner, one that could share carries with Gore while offering a different dynamic running style, that his stats would go up. Gore may never repeat the stats he had in 2006, but he is an integral part of this team who will be an offensive leader in the locker room for years to come.
Overall: Somewhere in Between