I started thinking about this issue during the Bills game and a little more when someone suggested in a FanPost packaging Gore in a deal to get Tom Brady. The 49ers have a young, major impact player on offense in Frank Gore and on defense in Patrick Willis. The question is who is more valuable to the team. When a team is 4-8 it's probably a little difficult to assess "most valuable," but I think it's still worth doing.
One other reason for doing this is to get an idea of fan attitude towards the two of them. Frank Gore has struggled at times this season and some people have been quick to jump on him and suggest changes. People here recognize his abilities, but sometimes people can forget about the good thing, particularly when the shiny new toy, Patrick Willis, comes along. So, I thought I'd look at the arguments for and against each guy being more valuable.
I start with Gore because he is the longer tenured 49er. Gore has certainly struggled at times this year, but he's still managed to put up some rather impressive numbers. Considering how poorly the offense has been at times over the past couple of years and his numbers are all the more remarkable. This season he's sitting at 926 yards and 1,280 total yards. If Gore puts together a decent performance this Sunday, he'll become the first 49ers running back to rush for 1,000+ yards in three straight seasons (not even the great Roger Craig did that).
So, why is he more valuable to the 49ers than Patrick Willis? Well, when he's on his game, he is an unstoppable force of nature. He's not the biggest guy on the field but he's got the ability to run guys over like nobody's business. He has shown a combination of shifty moves and an ability to break arm tackles with the best of them. Just as impressive is the fact that he's led the team in receptions the last two years and is tied for the lead this year with Isaac Bruce. FInally, when he's dominant, Gore can seemingly single-handedly win games on his own with his running and receiving performance.
Why is he not as valuable? Often times if the offensive line is struggling, Gore can really struggle to get going. His numbers are solid but his yards per carry has been down a bit this year and last. Physically, he lacks the breakaway speed that the great running backs seem to have. He doesn't need to have Devin Hester speed, but when he gets into the secondary he sometimes lacks that next gear necessary to break the 50+ yard touchdown runs. He can make solid plays, but not always the big, huge plays that can completely change the momentum of the game.
Bamm Bamm has been in the NFL for less than two full seasons and already predictions of the Hall of Fame abound. He led the NFL in tackles as a rookie, set a single season record for tackles with that number, was defensive rookie of the year and made the Pro Bowl. In his second season, Willis is #2 in total tackles and leads all linebackers in pass deflections. Last season saw the highlight of him running down Sean Morey to save a touchdown and this year saw an amazing interception return for a touchdown. Needless to say there has been NO sophomore slump for Bamm Bamm.
Why is Patrick Willis more valuable than Frank Gore? He brings a dominant athleticism that allows to make huge plays no matter how poorly the rest of the defense is performing. As bad as the defense has been at times, it seems like he makes a huge play every game, more often than not seeing him streak across the field to make a tackle in the back field. When he's not getting large tackle totals, it's often because teams are scheming away from him. And even then he still makes an impact. In week 1 he only had 5 total tackles, but he also had two pass deflections. This past week saw him garner 14 tackles, one forced fumble and a pass deflection.
Why is he not as valuable? One could argue his high tackle totals are simply due to a poor defensive line that allows ball carriers through for easy tackles. Of course, tackling a running back is no easy task, so that might not be saying much. Also, it's debateable whether a single defensive player can impact the entire defensive game on his own. Of course, tell that to Lawrence Taylor, Champ Bailey or Deion Sanders.
Going into this post I was thinking I could find sufficient reasons to vote for either Frank Gore or Patrick Willis. After posting the reasons and trying to think of additional reasons, I don't know how I could argue anybody other than Patrick Willis. He is approaching that level of being a guy who can single-handedly impact a game on defense like some of the all-time greats. Given that he's only a second year player, the sky really is the limit for him.
Now this definitely not a knock on Frank Gore. Gore brings so much to the table and I would obviously not be looking for a new running back. Rather, it's more a matter of Gore's dependence on the offensive line and the rest of the offense in his performance. He's put up great numbers for some bad teams, but I'm not sure he's at the level of impact that Patrick Willis has so quickly reached.
So am I off-base with my assessment? Two years ago Frank Gore was far and away the MVP of this team. However, times can change and I think Patrick Willis has grabbed that title from Gore.