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I can still remember it like it was yesterday. We returned to our seats from the halftime masses to watch the third quarter kick off sail into the end zone. It was the first time I had ever been to a 49ers game with a fan of another team - a Seahawks fan - so we had been bouncing a little jawing off of each other. The 49ers held a two point lead thanks to one heroic 79 yard touchdown run by Frank Gore, but Seattle was crawling back into it. The lead was tenuous at best - I was nervous. Serious bragging rights were on the line.
On first and ten from the 20, Shaun Hill took the snap from center and handed it to Frank, who disappeared momentarily into the offensive line. Not two seconds later he reappeared on the other side. A cut here, a cut there and he was gone - 80 yards to pay dirt.
This is what 49ers fans have been accustomed to seeing from Frank for the last six years. The veteran tail back has always had a knack for slipping through impossible crevices and breaking tackles in open space. He was an explosive running back with home run hitting capabilities - but he's not anymore.
Call him a work horse, call him a bell cow, but don't call the man soft - Frank Gore has been the heart and soul of the 49ers for the better part of a decade. In an era of offensive ineptitude, Gore was the bright spot. Through years of coaches who couldn't tell a slant route from a screen pass, he never spoke a word of protest.
Even when his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, urged Gore to hold out in hopes of getting one final contract, he couldn't keep himself off the field. After three days of no showing, loyalty overcame greed and Gore was back. He was awarded a three year 21 million dollar deal, but it should turn out to be more of a "thank you" than a payment for services rendered.
Frank Gore has missed time with injuries in each of the last three seasons. Albeit only a few times this season, Gore lost snaps to various knee and ankle issues this year. In 2010 Frank missed the last several games of the season after suffering a hairline fracture in his hip. In 2009, Gore missed starts due to a high ankle sprain. Entire seasons of averaging 25 carries a game seem to have finally caught up to him.
Frank just didn't exhibit the usual explosiveness in 2010. Despite splitting carries with Kendall Hunter, Gore was still the centerpiece of the 49ers offense. However physical deficiencies held him back from exhibiting the explosiveness he possessed in years past.
I was surprised to find out that Gore's second best year as a 49er was 2011. Although Frank rushed for over 1200 yards this year, his longest run was 55 yards and he didn't seem to possess the same finishing ability that he did in years past. It saddens me to say that Frank Gore has lost a little more than a step, and given the shelf life of running backs in the NFL, it won't get any better in 2012.
The 49ers all-time leading rusher isn't going anywhere for the next few years and you should expect to see 21 in the backfield for a good portion of next season. But if I were Trent Baalke, I couldn't be doing any wrong by window shopping some of the running backs available in free agency. Stud tailbacks like Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte will all be entertaining suitors, and although Rice will probably resign with Baltimore, Lynch and Forte will be open to exploring other team's offers. Lynch's success may be the result of a contract year, but Matt Forte would add some nasty pop to the 49ers run game. Forte, Gore and Hunter would be a deadly combination - and it would be worth every penny.
If that route isn’t pursued, a serious look should be taken at running backs in the draft. After several years of running back whiffs (Glenn Coffee, anybody?), the 49ers have found a weapon in Kendall Hunter, but the scat back seems too small to be a feature tailback. One way or another, the 49ers need a running back for the future.
As Frank Gore's health continues to deteriorate, the 49ers rushing prowess will become more of an illusion than an actual threat. Even in 2011, the idea of Frank Gore burning you was more real than having him actually doing it. As 49ers fans, we've reached that moment in a player’s career where it's time to consider moving on from that love affair that we've all enjoyed. Gore's best years were wasted on terrible football teams, but it hasn't been for nothing. How many seasons went by when Frank Gore was the only bright spot? How many seasons passed when Frank was the only 49er to crack ESPN's top ten plays? Frank deserves some help now. Adding one more sure thing at the running back position might just be the key to easing Frank Gore into retirement the way we all want it -with a Super Bowl ring on his finger.
By Kyle McLorg
@Ruthless_Sports on Twitter