A breather for the Bell Cow? It could finally happen

The Bell Cow’s busiest days could be behind him.

Asked at the NFL Combine whether running back Frank Gore would maintain his typical workload in the Niners’ offense, general manager Trent Baalke had an interesting response.

He praised Gore. But then he went on to suggest the dynamics of the backfield could be changing, at least slightly.

“Frank is definitely a bell cow … coach (Harbaugh) has come out and said we’re going to take every advantage in using Frank, like we have over the years,” Baalke said. “But we’re also going to develop some young guys. We’ve got Anthony Dixon, who we’re high on. And obviously we’re going to look to supplement that position moving forward, whether it’s through free agency or the draft or a potential trade. One of those three scenarios is going to land us another running back.”

A third running back? In recent years, it’s been unclear that the Niners had anyone besides Gore capable of accepting handoffs.

Consider that in the 23 full games Gore has played since 2009, he’s had 426 of the 466 carries given to 49ers running backs, or 91.4 percent. Is that a lot? Well, it’s a higher percentage than Kansas City’s Larry Johnson had in 2006 when he set the NFL record for carries. Johnson had 416 of the 470 carries given to Chiefs running backs, or 88.5 percent.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time Baalke has suggested a more balanced division of labor might be forthcoming.

Last March, when Glen Coffee was still on the roster, Baalke mentioned the Cowboys’ trio of Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice when discussing the NFL’s shift to backfields by committee. Baalke felt it was a model worth emulating.

“If you look at the league right now, it’s certainly gone to a two-pronged attack, guys that complement each other, different styles that bring a little different element of preparation to the defense’s standpoint,” Baalke said. “You’re always looking for something a little bit different. But if you look at the backfields that are really starting to have a lot of success, it’s not only the two-, it’s the three-back system that’s becoming even a little bit more.”

Baalke followed up by drafting Dixon in the sixth round a month later and signing Brian Westbrook when Coffee unexpectedly retired.

If Baalke intended for those two backs to help spell Gore, though, Mike Singletary didn’t follow through with that vision. In the season’s first 10 games, prior to Gore’s broken hip, Dixon and Westbrook combined to average 1.5 carries a game, which would have translated to 24 carries (24!) in a 16-game season.

This season, though, Gore’s workload really might be lessened.

For starters, Gore, who will be 28 in May, will have added another year and the most serious injury of his NFL career to his bio. In addition, he’ll be a free agent after the 2011 season and the Niners might want to have a better idea if Dixon – or Mystery Back No. 3 – can be a primary NFL running back if they don’t re-sign Gore, who will be 30 in the second year of his next contract.

Finally, Harbaugh, who employs a variety of formations and personnel packages, likely sees value in incorporating more than one running back into the offensive game plan.

Does that mean Gore will ever spend prolonged stretches on the sideline?

Don’t count it. But you also might be able to count the number of 49ers backs who touch the ball on more than one finger.

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