In just a couple months, Frank Gore will celebrate his 30th birthday. Yes, the dreaded 3-0: the ominous age pundits and fans often proclaim to be the beginning of the end for NFL running backs. There's certainly some validity to this notion; Running backs take a beating more than any other position and there are several examples of players who have slowed significantly at that age (LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, Brian Westbrook, etc.).
There are, however, plenty of other instances in which running backs enjoyed some of their best seasons at ages 30 and beyond. In 2004, Curtis Martin rushed for a career high 1,679 yards at age 31. This also shouldn't be seen as an anomaly considering Martin rushed for 1,308 yards (the third highest total of his career) the year prior at age 30.
Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Ricky Watters, Garrison Hearst, and Thomas Jones are a small sample of others who have churned out great seasons in their early 30's. In fact, all of those backs eclipsed the 1,200 yard-mark at age 30 and beyond. So with a field that spans from the immortal Barry Sanders to the simply solid Thomas Jones, great success post-30 might not be as unattainable as many may think.
Beyond that precedent set by the aforementioned players, there are several other factors that stand in Gore's favor:
- Success/Health in 2012 – Gore is coming off of his second best season, which also happened to be his longest (19 games)
- Skill set – Another boon for No. 21 is that his strength is not his speed, but rather his initial burst, anticipation, and vision. His low center of gravity and bulkier frame allow him to bounce downfield like a bowling ball. His smaller size and shiftiness permit him to slide through holes, obscured from the defense behind a massive offensive line. Unlike lightning speed and pure power, those traits don't necessarily fade with age.
- Motivation – Frank Gore has heard from the doubters and naysayers before. He heard them in Miami after he had surgery on both of his knees, he heard them in the 2005 Draft when he slid to the third round amid durability concerns, and he's heard them the past couple years when offseason banter questioned whether he would "slow down." This is nothing new to the Niners all-time leading rusher and it's something he welcomes with open arms. As a humble, relentless workhorse, Gore thrives on defying the odds and proving critics wrong. This will merely be another obstacle to hurdle.
So while I highly doubt Gore will have any reservations about his age, there's another development this spring that will demand some concern – the league's latest rage-inducing rule change.
This past week, the NFL announced a new rule in which the ball carrier will no longer be able to charge forward with the crown of his helmet. Doing so will land perpetrators a 15-yard penalty and possible fine. As a running back, let alone a physical one, this directly affects Gore and will warrant some adjustments this offseason... or will it? That's the real question in San Francisco and every other NFL city: Will this rule change affect the instincts and playing style of running backs?
There seems to be an underlying consensus that it won't. Matt Forte has already announced on Twitter that he's creating a "lower the boom" fund in anticipation of fines. On ESPN Radio NY, Arian Foster intimated that players are instinctual and their style is second nature, so changing that (whether one truly commits to it or not) would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. The commitment aspect of that statement bears some thought. With each new rule, Roger Goodell seemingly makes an increasing number enemies amongst NFL fans and locker rooms. There's a sentiment that Goodell is indelibly changing the game of football and eradicating the physical elements that made the game what it is (or once was). Animosity toward these changes could be met with a significant lack of compliance, but that lack of compliance could potentially cost teams and alter outcomes, equating to a very precarious situation for players.
Gore is the ultimate team player and doesn't strike me as a personality that would get too riled up over something like this. However, he's also not going to change what's in his blood, heart, and brain as a football player. The 49ers all-time leading rusher has built his career upon a hard-nosed and physical running style, so the degree of this rule's enforcement by officials will play a huge role in it's impact. Also keep in mind that Gore doesn't quite punish defenders as much as he used to. He more so tends to anticipate his blocks, stiff-arm, and stave off arm tackles. Regarding Frank Gore's continued elevation in age, he stands a good chance to do so gracefully. His work ethic, drive, skill set and talented supporting cast should lend to continued success.
Still, these are two significant developments to follow in 2013.