The idea seems preposterous on the surface. Frank Gore has been the face of the San Francisco 49ers franchise for the better part of the past decade. The franchise’s all-time leading rusher with 11,073 yards is coming off his eighth 1,000-yard season in nine years. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer and has suggested that he wants to finish his career in the red and gold.
So why even entertain the idea of letting him walk in free agency?
As much as we want to believe that loyalty matters in the professional sports world, its importance is probably right up there with what brand trash cans teams use in their locker room. We have seen it over and over again. Both athletes and the teams they play for expect loyalty from the other side, but fail to show it on their end. Heck, some of the most successful franchises in the recent history of the league are among the most cutthroat in the NFL.
Look at the New England Patriots, who are on the verge of releasing Vince Wilfork after he provided the team with years of tremendous play. What about Anquan Boldin being jettisoned from the Baltimore Ravens after leading the team to a Super Bowl title back in 2012? Heck, even Dez Bryant has recently questioned the loyalty of his Dallas Cowboys.
All sides may talk about loyalty, but it’s all about sustainability and creating the best possible opportunity of success moving forward. And no matter the respect San Francisco’s front office may have for Frank Gore, it’s time that it moves on from the near 32-year-old running back.
There are multiple reasons for this.
Gore’s lack of production in big games recently has to be a bit worrisome to the brass in Santa Clara. In his last three games against the division-rival Seattle Seahawks, Gore has put up a total of 71 yards on 32 attempts for an average of 2.2 yards per attempt. It’s not a coincidence that the 49ers averaged nine points per game in those three games. Gore may have success against some of the lesser run defense. See the over 300 yards he put up against the San Diego Chargers and Arizona Cardinals in the team’s final two games of the 2014 season. However, he simply hasn’t provided the necessary spark against some of the best defenses the league has to offer.
The cut-off point in terms of consistent success for some of the top running backs around the NFL seems to be about 2,500 rush attempts. Sure you have your Emmitt Smith’s of the world who still put up huge numbers after 3,000 rush attempts, but that’s an exception to the rule. A recent example of a running back with the same running style as Gore would be Atlanta Falcons veteran Steven Jackson, who himself started slowing down once he hit that 2,500 attempt plateau. Other recent examples include Eddie George, Jamal Lewis and Edgerrin James—three of the top running backs of the modern era.
Then you the roster dynamics in San Francisco. The team selected former Ohio State standout Carlos Hyde in the second round of the 2014 draft and view him to be the long-term solution at running back. Hyde averaged four yards per attempt in substantial playing time (83 attempts) behind Gore as a rookie. Much like Gore, the young running back also fits San Francisco’s down-hill rushing scheme to a T. Even if the 49ers were to go to a zone-blocking scheme under new offensive line coach Chris Foerster, Hyde has the athleticism to make it work. In addition to Hyde, San Francisco retained injured running back Kendall Hunter on an extension this past regular season. Despite recent injury issues, Hunter is averaging 4.6 yards per attempt in his career and is seen as a solid complimentary running back.
This doesn’t even take into account the tendency in San Francisco to select a running back in every draft. Since selecting Glen Coffee in the third round of the 2009 draft, the 49ers have picked a running back each season. Anthony Dixon (2010), Kendall Hunter (2011), LaMichael James (2012), Marcus Lattimore (2013) and Carlos Hyde (2014). It doesn’t take a genius to realize the trend here. There’s a strong likelihood that San Francisco will once against draft a running back in 2015. If that’s the case, there might not be any room on the roster for a 32-year-old running back with nearly 2,800 total touches under his belt.
Then you have San Francisco’s cap situation—currently just below the threshold entering free agency. With a ton of internal free agents and the potential of actually making a rare trek into the open market, general manager Trent Baalke and company simply might not be able to throw starter-caliber money at Gore.
A lot has been made about the dysfunction in Santa Clara since the team “mutually parted ways” with former head coach Jim Harbaugh. And for good reason. The criticism this front office has received was brought on by the actions of the front office itself. However, there should be no real criticism directed at this regime should it decide to let Gore walk in free agency. And no matter how hard it might be for fans to see Gore in another uniform next season, that might be the ideal scenario for both parties.
Photo: USA Today