This is my Tuesday column on Frank Gore.
SANTA CLARA — Frank Gore exchanged knuckles with the 49ers’ PR guy as he walked off the practice field before 2:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. The key moment of Gore’s day.
Gore left just as the OTA got competitive. He stretched with the team and warmed up with the running backs. He even wore his helmet. But when Harbaugh blew his whistle to signal the beginning of team drills — offense against defense — that was Gore’s cue to go inside and relax.
Last week, Harbaugh said Gore “hasn’t come to the practices yet, but he’s doing his workouts.” Harbaugh did not talk to reporters after Tuesday’s OTA, so we assume the same holds true for Gore this week — he’s a healthy scratch.
Holding out Gore is the right thing to do. He has no business being on a practice field in June. Nothing good could happen to him if were to participate in these OTAs. He knows the plays already, has run them a million times. He’s not going to get any better at them. He’s 31 years old. Practice only can wear him down at this point in his career.
The 49ers are a run-first offense, so their top priority should be keeping Gore fresh for the playoffs. When the 49ers played the NFC championship game in Seattle last season, Gore had nothing left. He rushed 11 times for 14 yards in that game. That’s the 49ers’ fault for using him too much during the regular season.
The first three games last season, the 49ers gave Gore just 13 carries per game — a reasonable number for a running back as old as him. But the 49ers started the season 1-2, and at the end of Game 3 Gore publicly screamed in Harbaugh’s face and demanded more carries.
“Suit yourself,” seemed to be Harbaugh’s response. After Game 3, the 49ers gave Gore 18 carries per game, just rode him into the ground. Eighteen carries per game is way too many for Gore. He averaged 16 carries per game in 2012. That average should have gone down in 2013, not up.
For the good of the 49ers, Harbaugh can’t give in next season if Gore throws another tantrum during a game. Of course, Gore wants the ball every play. Every great player does. But Gore would be more effective now if he could share the load with someone else.
The 49ers forced Gore to be the load-carrier last season. They handed him the ball 276 times and he averaged just 4.1 yards per carry — the worst average of his career.
For some odd reason, the 49ers seemed to forget about Gore’s backup, Kendall Hunter. Hunter carried the ball just 78 times in 2013, but he averaged a whopping 4.6 yards per carry.
Check out these first-down rushing stats. Hunter averaged 5.2 yards per carry on first down last season while Gore averaged 4.4. Hunter seemed to be the better option. But the 49ers gave Gore four times as many first-down carries than they gave Hunter. Strange.
Hunter ran three times in the NFC championship game against the Seahawks. He still outrushed Gore, who rushed 11 times.
It’s time for Gore to share the load with Hunter. Both guys should average roughly 11 carries per game next season. If Hunter continues to outperform Gore, the 49ers should give Hunter most of the carries. Play the best running back, not the one who yells the loudest.
The 49ers seem to get this. They’re making Gore sit out and giving all of the starting-running back reps to Hunter.
“Kendall looks good,” Patrick Willis said after practice as he stood next to the field. “I’ve always been a fan of his since he came in. Him and Frank in that backfield, those two are very dangerous. (Kendall) is quick. He told me today, he said, ‘Pat, you’re everywhere.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to be when you’re back there, you move fast.’ I know he’s going to be a big-time contributor for us this year.”
He better be. Frank Gore needs a breather.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.