As we move forward in the 49ers offseason, I want to take a look back and different players on the team and different units. While Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson did what they could to make contributions, the 49ers running back unit begins and ends with Frank Gore. No matter what the team does with Maurice Hicks, I'd expect the 49ers to give Thomas Clayton a bit more of an opportunity during the regular season in 2008 than they did in 2007.
In the meantime, let's return the discussion to Frank Gore. Gore absolutely blew up in 2006, rushing for 1,685 yards at a 5.4 per carry clip. 2007 saw his numbers decline and finish with 1,102 yards at 4.2 per carry. I'd say most of us are of the mindset that this decline was due primarily to the lack of a passing game and the struggles of the offensive line. Even the best running back will struggle to make things happen when he's always facing 8 men in the box and his team is trailing most every game of the entire season. I was concerned about the number of carries Gore was receiving each game, but in fact he only averaged 2.2 less carries per game this season versus last season. Not exactly a large number.
The problem with looking at Gore's 2007 performance and how he'll do in 2008 is that they're so predicated on improved play by the offensive line and an improved passing game. Is anybody else annoyed by that? And of course there is the Mike Martz factor. While Martz has indicated some usage of the Norv Turner system, we know Mike Martz brings a lot of other things to the table. How many times will 49ers fans grow frustrated by Martz abandoning the running game? At the same time, Martz emphasized in his teleconference that the offense would be built around Gore. Is he just telling people what they want to hear or will we see a renewed emphasis in the power running game and the checkdown passing game to Gore?
Gore as a receiving threat
Alongside his rushing abilities, Gore has been a solid receiver out of the backfield. He had 61 receptions for 485 receiving yards in 2006 and 53 for 436 in 2007. During his time with Mike Martz, Marshall Faulk was a dual threat on the ground and through the air. Even with the likes of Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, it was Faulk making receptions out of the backfield that forced defenses to be even more honest. One of the things that truly intrigues me about Mike Martz is what he'll do with Frank Gore.
I don't think Gore is quite on the level of Marshall Faulk as a oass receiving back, he definitely has shown he can make an impact in that part of the game. Maybe he makes the leap from sub-500 yards a season to 700+ yards? He averaged 8.2 and 8.0 yards a reception the last two seasons, so I think it becomes a matter of getting more yards after the catch or moving him further downfield. When the Rams won the Super Bowl, Marshall Faulk had 87 receptions for 1048 yards at a 12.0 per catch clip. The one difference I see is that Gore is good for those checkdowns which are naturally going to result in fewer yards. While Gore is a decent receiving back, I wonder if his hands are good enough to make him more of a threat. One way to improve the YAC is improving the screen passes they use, but I don't see Gore becoming a deeper threat due to his hands. Thoughts on this?
I really think there are too many questions to make particularly accurate predictions for Gore in 2008. I suppose you could say no worse than 2006, no better than 2007? I do think his receiving numbers will go up in the Martz offense. When he struggled early on I had brief worries that we had seen the best of Gore and maybe he was somewhat of a flash in the pan (I'm watching out for the lightning bolt). But he showed he still has the ability to put the team on his back. Considering how much he struggled, his 1,102 yard rushing total is rather impressive. Not quite the close to 1,700 yards of 2006, but given the circumstances, it was impressive in its own right. Let's hope he bounces back for 1,500+ in 2008.