SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Through head coaching changes and quarterback switches, enduring miserable seasons and bitter Super Bowl disappointment, Frank Gore has been the constant in the San Francisco 49ers offense for eight years.
Multi-talented quarterback Colin Kaepernick may have given the Niners a new dimension when he became their starter nearly two years ago. But until recently, there had been little doubt to the offensive identity. The 49ers were a power running team reliant on Gore.
Perhaps that is why it was so stunning to see a healthy Gore relegated to the sideline for so much of last Sunday's loss to the Arizona Cardinals as the Niners frequently lined up with four, and even five, wide receivers. Gore had just 10 yards on six carries and played in just half of the team's 64 offensive plays after playing nearly 70% of the snaps in the first two games. And after averaging 17 carries per game from 2011-2013, during which he played in every game, Gore has just 35 total carries in the first three weeks.
Kaepernick admitted this week it was a little bit odd to see Gore absent from the huddle so often.
"But that was the game plan we had going in," Kaepernick said. "He's going to do whatever it takes to help this team win."
San Francisco's spread scheme worked well enough early against the Cardinals — Kaepernick led two 80-yard touchdown drives while mostly running an up-tempo, no-huddle offense — that it was fair to wonder if the 49ers were changing their identity. And if so, might Gore soon be phased out of the offense?
"I wouldn't categorize it," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "In terms of identity, we want to be about moving the ball, picking up first points, scoring points, scoring touchdowns."
The problem for the offense has been doing that consistently, regardless of the game plan. San Francisco has led at halftime of each of its first three games but has yet to score a second-half touchdown. The Niners have been outscored 52-3 after intermission, holding on to beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 before blowing leads to the Chicago Bears and Cardinals.
And that, more than the decreased workload, was what had Gore so grumpy last Sunday. But his smile was back this week, and he doesn't seem to be taking his lack of touches personally.
"I just feel that, for me, whatever works, I'm with it. If it's passing, it's passing, let's pass the ball. If it's running it, we run," Gore said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to win, and if we have to go out there and do spread again, I'm with it. That's what sort of player I am. I just want to win."
So which version of the Niners will show up Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles? There are signs San Francisco could revert to a power game if both tight end Vernon Davis, who sat out last week with an injury, and right tackle Anthony Davis (who has yet to play this season because of a bum hamstring) are cleared to return to the starting lineup. Both are critical pieces for a team that's thrived with a bruising, physical approach so frequently in recent years.
"We're a power team. I don't think there's ever a question about that," guard Alex Boone said. "Sometimes you have to change it up, you have to be able to mix it up. We should be able to get it done no matter what the play call."
Still, San Francisco is encouraged by their improvements in the passing game, even if it hasn't resulted in enough touchdowns yet. Kaepernick is completing 70% of his passes, and the Niners are happy to have their deepest wideout corps in years with Anquan Boldin and a healthy Michael Crabtree joined by offseason acquisitions Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd.
"We have a lot of great receivers," Kaepernick said. "It's going to depend on mismatches."
And maybe some Gore.