Run, Frank, run.
Away from the 49ers.
Of all the 49ers’ players who become free agents next Tuesday, Frank Gore is the most prominent. The most revered.
And though I don’t expect a professional football player to listen to my advice, I can’t help but offer it.
Gore has been the heartbeat of the 49ers since the moment he arrived in 2005. Humble, hard working, unselfish, abundantly productive. He has been through all the bad times, as well as the good. He has run, he has blocked, he has fought through injuries, he has persevered and he has been written off more times than my mortgage payments.
The 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, one of only 20 players in NFL history to rush for 11,000 yards, Gore has a Hall of Fame resume. He’s missing one thing: a Super Bowl championship.
And now, a few months shy of 32 and a free agent for the first time, Gore should pursue his best chance at a ring.
I don’t think his best chance is with the 49ers. I could be wrong, but many who aren’t either on the 49ers’ payroll or blinded by a fan’s devotion to the team share my opinion.
The 49ers have too many questions, coming off an 8-8 season in which they didn’t make the playoffs. They have downgraded their coaching staff at every position, save Gore’s, where Tom Rathman was retained. Their quarterback remains a huge question mark, having struggled in his third season as a starter. Colin Kaepernick isn’t the only mystery on the offense; the offensive line was a problem last year, the wide-receiver corps is in flux, and who knows if Vernon Davis will show up next season?
Gore, at his age, needs a solid surrounding cast to be able to do what he does best.
Indianapolis — a team on the championship brink — is said to be very interested in Gore. Who wouldn’t want to share a backfield with Andrew Luck? In addition, Rob Chudzinski — the man the 49ers reportedly pursued to be their offensive coordinator and who has ties to Gore from the University of Miami — is the associate head coach for the Colts.
Indy isn’t the only potential landing spot. The defending champion, New England, doesn’t mind adding an experienced running back now and again. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh knows what Gore can do. Dallas might need to replace its free agent, DeMarco Murray. Teams in the 49ers’ division are in the market for running backs, and they might be closer to a championship than San Francisco. I expect Gore, one of the most respected players in the game, will have suitors.
Gore has been tantalizingly close to a championship once. On Feb. 3, 2013, in the Superdome, it was Gore’s late-game rushing as much as anything that put the 49ers in position to win. Gore’s 33-yard carry took the 49ers down to the Ravens’ 7-yard line, and then he watched, without getting the ball, as the 49ers failed to score, and lost the Super Bowl.
That was the nearest he has come to a ring.
Gore expressed frustration several times last season. It was clear he was worried that his mysterious lack of opportunity on the field wasn’t hurting only the team but also potentially hurting his marketability. He told The Chronicle’s Eric Branch, in an interview in December, that he expected his age to be used against him on the open market.
“I know they’re going to say that,” he said. “Starting with my seventh year, they started saying that: I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I’ve prepared myself for that. That’s why this year I’m upset that I really didn’t show the world that I’m still Frank Gore.
“If they watch the tape, they’ll see. Football people will watch the tape. People who don’t know football, they’ll go by the numbers.”
In that same interview, Gore said he wanted to be a “Niner for life” — but he also said he hoped Jim Harbaugh would return as head coach, which obviously didn’t happen. And, perhaps foreshadowing, he mentioned Alex Smith as one of the players he most respected, pointing out how well Smith has done in a different uniform.
The 49ers have invested in two young running backs, Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter. The latter will be coming off an ACL injury. The 49ers also don’t have a lot of cap space. They might want Gore to give them a hometown discount.
Gore has to weigh his options and decide where is his best chance for a championship.
If he leaves, I’ll miss him. He has been one my favorite athletes to cover ever since he arrived with the 49ers. Many sports fans can’t believe that sports journalists don’t root for teams. Though these days plenty of “media” cross the line into fandom, professionals who cover teams for impartial outlets do not root for teams they cover. We don’t cheer for the laundry.
That part is easy. However, we do get attached to the good people we cover. And Gore is one of them: honest and humble and respected by all.
The 49ers need him more than he needs them. His loss would be huge to a team that will be struggling to remake itself.
I hope he goes and gets himself a ring. I’ll be the first one cheering.