At 30, Gore not ready to yield for three-headed monster

At 30, Gore not ready to yield for three-headed monster
May 14, 2013, 7:15 am
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When will Frank Gore's performance drop to the point that the thee-pronged approach becomes a viable option? (AP)

I'm a big believer -- we are big believers -- in a three-headed approach.
—49ers general manager Trent Baalke

Running back Frank Gore turns 30 today.

Typically, that kind of birthday announcement serves an obituary for someone who plays his position in the NFL. But the 49ers' Frank Gore is not your typical running back.

Gore enjoyed his breakout season in 2006, his second year in the league. The 49ers traded Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets during the exhibition season to open the way for Gore to become the undisputed every-down back.

That season, Gore rushed for a franchise-high 1,695 yards and eight touchdowns while carrying the ball 312 times, the most attempts in 49ers history.

He has eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in seven of the past eight years. Then only time he did not reach the milestone was in 2010, when he gained 853 yards in 11 games before his season ended with a hairline fracture of his hip.

Following that injury it was understandable for people to wonder whether there would be a noticeable decline in Gore's play.

While Gore has lost a step from his earlier days in the league, his production is as good as ever. Gore returned from his hip injury with back-to-back seasons of more than 1,200 yards -- his two highest rushing outputs since 2006. Moreover, Gore also gained 319 yards and four touchdowns in three playoff games last season.

"I really believe he’ll be in the Hall of Fame someday," Jim Harbaugh said in the week leading up to the Super Bowl.

Gore ranks 34th on the NFL's all-time rushing chart with 8,839 yards. He is No. 3 on the active list behind Steven Jackson (10,135) and Adrian Peterson (8,849).

There are plenty of examples in which running backs were productive after age 30. Emmitt Smith rushed for more than 1,000 yards as ages 30, 31 and 32. His career ended with three unproductive years. Curtis Martin, the most recent running back elected to the Hall of Fame, rushed for 1,697 yards at 31. But he played only one more season.

On the other hand, LaDainian Tomlinson -- and many others -- fell off sharply. The league's No. 5 all-time rusher did not have a 1,000-yard season in the three years he played into his 30s.

Gore has two seasons remaining on his contract, which pays him $3.3 million annually. Gore is taking part in the 49ers' offseason program for the second year in a row. Previously, he worked out with his own trainers near his offseason home in Miami.

Through much of Gore's career with the 49ers, he took on a huge workload because the 49ers did not have anyone reliable behind him. With the addition of Kendall Hunter in 2011, the 49ers finally added a strong No. 2 running back.

Hunter is returning this offseason from a partially torn Achilles. He is expected to be ready for the opening of training camp.

The 49ers have as much depth as they've ever had at running back. Hunter rushed for 473 yards on 112 carries before his injury. LaMichael James played in four games at the end of last season, and he averaged 4.6 yards on 27 attempts as a change-of-pace back.

Recently, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke explained that the 49ers' future at running back, ideally, does not include one player, such as Gore, on the field for nearly every snap.

"I'm a big believer -- we are big believers -- in a three-headed approach," Baalke said. "In other words, having a group of backs that bring to the table something a little bit different than the other one so you can do a lot of different things. But also having those backs be able to do enough things the same so you don't become so predictable on game day."

Perhaps, the 49ers got their most important post-Gore piece to the puzzle when they selected South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round. Like Gore, Lattimore's college career was derailed by knee injuries.

The 49ers are just fine with the idea of sitting out Lattimore for the entire 2013 season. The club wants to ensure that when he next steps onto the field, he is 100 percent recovered from the dislocated knee and three torn ligaments he sustained in late-October.

After all, there is no urgency to rush a running back into action as long a Frank Gore is still around.

The 49ers' future could consist of a three-pronged approach of Lattimore, Hunter and James. But when will that group take over? When will Gore's performance drop to the point that it becomes a viable option?

Based on his play at 29, Gore is certainly not ready to let the three-headed monster take over just yet.