"I really think Frank has three more good years," stated Harbaugh. "I truly believe that...but we’re in a game of taking it one year at a time."
Harbaugh has a reputation for heaping praise upon his players, which is an admirable, endearing quality of the high-energy head coach. But the fact that the 49ers have chosen to not restructure Frank Gore's contract via an extension this offseason is telling of two things:
- They are giving him the respect and money he deserves as the pulse of this offense, and one of the best running backs in the league, for the past nine seasons.
- The team doesn't feel inclined to bring Gore back after this year with the likes of Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James, and possibly a 2014 draft pick waiting to carry the load in his stead.
There have been many a forum debate and piece written about Gore's merits as a Hall of Fame inductee. The consensus would agree that, with a ring, Gore is a legitimate candidate. Without one, the career numbers and lack of proper national recognition until the 49ers returned to relevance in 2011 don't bode in his favor.
The unfortunate part about that is when you take a look at the whole picture-the sensational triumph over two devastating knees injuries and severe dyslexia in his scholastic career, the phenomenal campaigns from 2006-2010 despite being the sole weapon in a horrendous offense that often had to pass due to playing from behind, the untimely death of his mother, the consistent heart, toughness, and dedication despite all the trials and tribulations-Gore's story is every bit a Hall of Fame one. When that black cloud hung over the organization during his first six years in the league, he provided the lone bright spot. When they finally found success under Harbaugh, he continued to be the humble engine that made this offense run; from the Alex Smith tenure to the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, the team's ability to rely on Gore remained steadfast.
While every 49ers fan wanted to see the team nab that elusive sixth title for personal reasons over the past three seasons, I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that above all else, I wanted them to win it so Frank Gore could cap his career by hoisting a trophy he so richly deserves. Yes, perhaps a similar argument could be made for some other revered NFL players, but it would be a flat out lie to say anyone deserves football's greatest prize more than "The Inconvenient Truth."
It is well documented that the game is not kind to running backs; Jerome Bettis has spoken about not being able to get out of bed or walk down his stairs and former Houston Oilers' battering ram, Earl Campbell, is largely confined to a wheelchair and walker these days. Of all the positions in football, running backs take the most brutal punishment, both on the field and once they make their way off of it. One would think that stipulation would garner running backs some more attention from the voting committees but it doesn't really appear to bear any added consideration.
Given the beating these men take and the resulting notoriously short shelf-life they have, many were projecting Gore to shut down in 2013. With a couple of slow games to start the season, it seemed the detractors may have finally been right this time around (hard not to be when the same sentiment is rehashed year after year). But the nine-year vet bounced back, and helped galvanize the team to do so as well, during an important early-season turning point in weeks 4 and 5. His fourth-down scamper to pay dirt against the Rams in that week 4 contest was vintage Frank Gore, as was the game-clinching 51-yard run against the Seahawks in Week 14.
"And when they need it, they hand it to number 21," aptly noted Joe Buck during a third-down, nail-in-the-coffin, 39-yard run by the Niners' all-time leading rusher in a Divisional round victory over the Panthers. As much public disdain as there is for Joe Buck, he hit the nail on the head with that one, which begs the question of why the 49ers didn't give Gore a shot at the endzone on that fateful final series in Super Bowl XLVII, but I digress...
Some fans these days can be so quick to dismiss all that Frank Gore has done for this franchise and all he's still capable of at almost 31 years old. They point to his diminished speed when, in reality, speed was never his strong suit and subsequently isn't all that depleted. They note his ineffectiveness in the Championship game but discount the impact playcalling had on that, as well as the caliber of defense and 8-man boxes he went up against. Make no mistake; Gore is still one of the game's best.
Is the twilight of his career upon him? Logic and history would say it appears to be. That's just the cold reality of life as a running back in the NFL. But that final chapter has still yet to be written. Given his professional football pedigree, the way he trains, and the hunger with which he plays, you can guarantee Gore will be looking to silence the critics for, perhaps, one more time in San Francisco this season. If there is a football god out there and any justice in the cosmos, he'll be rewarded with a Lombardi trophy. At any rate, fans should take the opportunity in 2014 to enjoy witnessing what could be Gore's final act, and reflect back on the esteemed place he's carved out for himself in the franchise's storied history.