49ers need to wind down Frank Gore

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 grantcohn@gmail.com.

This article has 53 Comments

  1. Whether is is Hunter or someone else, I sure hope they start spreading the running load around more. Too many talented guys in the backfield to be having just one guy carry the vast majority of the load.

    1. I think they will Scooter. I just can’t see Hunter, Hyde, or Lattimore staying on the bench for long.

        1. I say Hyde will take over the carries and Lattimore the pass catching.

          1. Mr. Hyde has hands like a receiver. Is that what your eye in the sky tells you?

            1. That may be true, but I like Lattimore’s hands more at the moment. Plus it would keep both from burning out too quickly if one was used more for rushing and the other pass catching.

        2. Razor
          I have KHunt getting the bulk but we’ll have ti wait to see.
          Either way, its going to be fun.

  2. I say continue to run Gore into the ground. He’s a workhorse who rushed 1000+ yards. Where I’m from and learned game of football, averaging 4yds per carry is great. Worst of his career or not, every three carries he gets a 1st down. Gore should get majority of the carries with Hunter or Hyde following closely behind. What I did notice was every time Gore ran 17+ times we won. Feed him the ball.

    1. Ky40er: You have to consider the number of Gore’s carries in relation to the Niner’s winning the game a “chicken or the egg” type of stat. Usually when a team is winning and ahead they try to control the ball by running. The teams the Niner’s lost against were the better teams and most had good running defenses. So it is more likely that Gore didn’t run more in the losses because he was not being effective to begin with.

      I remember in the 2012 season Gore was pretty much gassed towards the end of the year and losing his effectiveness. He did benefit from two weeks off before the first playoff game. The last game was a gimmie and the Niners could rest their starters if the chose to do so. Then they had that bye week as well . When he returned he was fresh as a daisy. Last season they had no rest at all going into the first playoff game. I wouldn’t expect Gore to even match last years performance.

      Gore still has and will never lose his ability to find any hole the offensive line gives him. He is, however, much slower and no longer possesses the ability to push the pile when the hole is not there. That fact becomes more obvious as he gets tired towards the end of the season.

  3. I think the high number of carries for Gore was partly due to an inefficient passing game, especially in the first half of the season.

    1. Thank you!!

      And it wasn’t the first half, try 10 games of 16 the 49ers passed for less than 200 yards….anyone remember 91 vs Carolina at the Stick?

      Gore does need anywhere between 15-20 carries a game and a passing attack that will cause defenses to have to cover more ground, not keeping 7, 8 or 9 men stacked in the box.

    2. Partly. Gore averaged 18.7 attempts per game during the final three games of the regular season.

        1. Yeah, and so was the NFC Championship. Hunter should have gotten more carries.

              1. The numbers say otherwise.

                Incorrect. His rushing yards were down last season compared to even his injury shortened season. Granted it isn’t by much, but the numbers seem to indicate that he could have close to if not above his first season results. He rushed more with with less results in 2013 and the playoffs, with only the TDs category improving (albeit by one).

              2. He had more burst than Gore. Hunter averaged 5.2 ypc on first down, 5.2 ypc on runs outside the tackles and 2.6 yards after contact per carry — all better numbers than Gore posted.

              3. …close to if not above his first season results in that injury shortened year.

              4. Hunter’s averages were better than Gore’s.

                Because he had less carries. That easily skews any comparison between Gore and Hunter.

              5. He had more burst than Gore. Hunter averaged 5.2 ypc on first down, 5.2 ypc on runs outside the tackles and 2.6 yards after contact per carry — all better numbers than Gore posted.

                Again Grant, you’re comparing someone with few carries to someone with more carries, which skews the numbers more often than not.

              6. Grant, at this point in his career, I’ve got more burst than Gore. Hunter clearly was not the same runner to my untrained eye….

          1. In the NFC Championship Game?

            Not arguing against any of what you wrote. Only giving a likely reason. It is very likely that we see Gore’s carries reduced this regular season. They have more bullets right now.

    3. bingo!

      plus after the way Kaep passed in the Green Bay game, I think defenses gave more looks that made game planning for the run game more likely.

  4. 4.1 yards per carry, you say is the “worst” of his career, that’s still a great number to average, lets just call it his lowest, worst makes it sound like its somehow bad. Eddie George, a very good back, averaged 4.1 yards per carry only twice in his career, and those were his HIGH’s for his career, he was under 4 ypc 6 of his 8 seasons (and the dude got 10,000 yards).

    I truly believe if the niners had anything that resembled a 21st century passing attack that gore could easily average 4+ ypc, 15 to 20 carries per game, and be churning out 1200 yard seasons for the next 2 to 3, barring any major health setbacks.

  5. I agree Grant. In fact, I would say that a trip to the Super Bowl this upcoming season depends on it.

    1. If the 49ers reduce the amount of times he rushes during the regular season, he could be more dangerous and an X factor during the playoffs.

      1. You’ve got to get to the playoffs first, and last time I checked, Godell hasn’t made it any easier for a 7-9 team to enter…..

  6. “That’s the 49ers’ fault for using him too much during the regular season”. Isn’t that what they pay him $6 million a year for? Hunter did not have the burst in 2013, and Crab’s vacancy forced Harbaughs’ hand in my opinion…

  7. When you have to start a pitch count with an aging RB, it’s time to put that horse down. It’s a young mans game.

  8. FGore is the heart and soul of the team and I have waved the FGore banner for the last 3 yrs when the talk of him slowing down was first broached.

    But FG’ production in the playoffs has been underwhelming. This season has to be a transition year or FG where he needs to begin to release his strong grip as the primary runner and allow Hunter or another comparable RB to share the load.
    Gore is a warrior, and like a true warrior he will never surrender his position.

    Harbaugh will need to somehow make FG understand that sharing the load is not only a benefit for him but for the team as well.
    I expect to see Gore throw a few tantrums on the sidelines during the transition but Harbaugh can’t back down on this.

  9. My Gore observations…

    – Long runs seem to wear him out faster than short inside runs. It’s almost like a long run knocks him out of the game. (like the last long run in the super bowl)

    – His game longevity varies wildly week to week. Some games he can carry the rock all day. Others he’s limited in the 2nd half even when his first half YPC is great (like the Colts game).

    – I wouldn’t be surprised if someday after retirement Gore reveals he had hip issues.

    – He greatly improved his ball security compared to the first half of his career. Fumbles are fewer and farther between.

    As for Hunter… if he is healthy he will get big time carries. 4.6 YPC in 2013 is great when you consider he was still recovering from injury. His 2012 YPC was even better… around 5.2 if I remember correctly.

  10. Five of the Niners first eight games this season will be against top ten run defenses from last season. Three of those five are division games. It will be interesting to see if the offensive game plan changes to a more pass oriented attack in these games. They have new toys to try out in both the rushing and passing games, but I would hope they are not too stubborn about wanting to run the ball against AZ, STL, Philly and Denver when they now have an awesome arsenal of offensive weapons to choose from. I will want to choke Roman out if I see more run, run, run, punt against the better run defenses again this year. Now, in our first two games, Dallas and Chicago, I wouldn’t be surprised to see triple digit rushing games from both Gore and a combination of Hunter, Hyde and Lattimore.
    I can’t wait for the season to start! Go Niners!

  11. Good column Grant…I like how you forgot to mention your favorite Big 10 running back… I’ve always liked Hunter and really hope they keep him around for a while. I could see our post-gore era consisting of Hyde, Hunter, Lattimore combination.

    And I know Rocket sees him as a gonner this year, but if that was the case why would he be getting so many reps in practice?

    1. It was interesting — Hunter was the starter and Hyde was the change of pace back.

      1. That’s more expected than interesting given Hunter’ veteran experience.

  12. I agree they need to cut Gore’s carries. They needed to do that last year, but obviously didn’t have enough faith in the backups. This year with Hyde and Lattimore if healthy, that won’t be the case. The RB depth chart all hinges on Lattimore imo. If he’s healthy, I think they try to trade Hunter. If he’s not, then he likely goes on PUP or something along those lines until they can see if he is able to regain his form, and the rotation becomes Gore, Hunter/Hyde.

    Preseason will be a real dogfight at the position this year.

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