Niners running back Frank Gore finished the 2013 regular season with the lowest yards per carry average (4.1) of his nine-year career.
He finished the postseason with an 11-carry, 14-yard performance in the NFC Championship Game.
He turned 31 on Wednesday.
You see where this is going?
Yes, you are reading yet another is-Gore-ready-for-a-rocking-chair story, a genre that debuted in 2010 when he broke his hip at 27.
Gore, of course, keeps stiff-arming Father Time. Last year, at 30, the age where NFL running backs supposedly plummet into a sinkhole, he ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing yards (1,128), sixth in rushing TDs (9), tied for second in runs of 20-plus yards (9) and earned his fifth Pro Bowl berth.
Not bad for a guy who entered the NFL when Colin Kaepernick was a senior at Pitman High.
Still, given Gore’s age and career workload, it’s fair to ask the question, again: Is this the year he succumbs to the demands of his punishing position?
Gore ranks second among active running backs in career rushing attempts (2,187) and is tied for 29th all-time. The two running backs he’s tied with – Shaun Alexander and Earl Campbell – are reminders running backs rarely flourish at Gore’s age. Alexander and Campbell had 24 of their 18,860 combined rushing yards after age 30.
The 49ers are obviously preparing for life without Gore, who is entering the final year of his contract. After drafting Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round last year, they selected Carlos Hyde in the second round this month.
Lattimore is still surrounded by questions about his surgically reconstructed knee and has yet to play an NFL snap. But Hyde, who was viewed by many as the best running back in the draft, arrives ready to compete for carries after rushing for 1,527 yards and averaging 7.3 yards an attempt last year at Ohio State.
Said general manager Trent Baalke after Hyde was added to a group that also includes Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James: “It’s going to create great competition.”
It’s obviously possible Gore could be pushed into a secondary role in what could be his final season with the 49ers. But there is also evidence Gore, at 31, won’t relinquish his bell-cow status. NFL history is dotted with examples of running backs who were exceptions to the rule.
At age 31, Curtis Martin led the league in rushing; Walter Payton ranked second; Thomas Jones was third and James Brooks and Fred Taylor each rushed for more than 1,000 yards and averaged over 5.0 yards a carry.
In all, 16 running backs have been 31 or older before embarking on a 1,000-yard season, a feat Gore will attempt to accomplish this season. If Gore does so, the former third-rounder will become just the third running back who wasn’t a first- or second-round pick to join that group. The others: Mike Anderson (sixth round) and Curtis Martin (third round).
Here’s the list of running backs who were at least 31 before embarking on a 1,000-yard season (listed in chronological order):
Thomas Jones (born: Aug. 19, 1978)
2009 (age 31): 331 carries, 1,402 yards, 14 TD, 4.2 yards a carry
Ranked third in the NFL in rushing and tied for third in TDs.
Ricky Williams (May 21, 1977)
2009 (32): 241-1,121-11-4.7
Fred Taylor (Jan. 27, 1976)
2007 (31): 233-1,202-5-5.4
Tiki Barber (April 7, 1975)
2006 (31): 327-1,662-5-5.1
Warrick Dunn (Jan. 5, 1975)
2006 (31): 286-1,140-4-4.0
Mike Anderson (Sept. 21, 1973)
2005 (31): 239-1,014-12.4.2
* Curtis Martin (May 1, 1973)
2004 (31): 371-1,697-12-4.6
Led the NFL in rushing yards and attempts.
* Emmitt Smith (May 15, 1969)
2000 (31): 294-1,203-9-4.1
2001 (32): 261-1,201-3-3.9
Ricky Watters (April 7, 1969)
2000 (31): 278-1,242-7-4.5
James Brooks (Dec. 28, 1958)
1990 (31): 195-1,004-5-5.1
Ottis Anderson (Jan. 19, 1957)
1989 (32): 325-1,023-14.3.1
* Walter Payton (July 21, 1953)
1984 (31): 381-1,684-11-4.4
1985 (32): 324-1,551-9-4.8
1986 (33): 321-1,333-8-4.2
Ranked among the top four in rushing yards from 1984-86.
* Tony Dorsett (April 7, 1954)
1985 (31): 305-1,307-7-4.3
* John Riggins (Aug. 4, 1949)
1983 (34): 375-1,347-24-3.8
1984 (35): 327-1,239-14-3.6
Rushed for a then-NFL record 24 TDs in 1983.
* Franco Harris, March 7, 1950
1983 (33): 279-1,007-5-3.6
* John Henry Johnson (Nov. 4, 1929)
1962 (32): 251-1,141-7-4.5
1964 (34): 235-1,048-7-4.5
* Hall of Famer