Frank Gore never wants to leave a game.
And that includes the meaningless ones.
Shortly after the 49ers' career rushing leader ripped off a 14-yard run in the first quarter of last week's preseason loss to the Texans, he left the game for good.
And he did so reluctantly after just two carries.
"When I got out there against the Houston Texans, I wanted to keep running, especially when I got that first carry," Gore said. "That was a pretty good run. I wanted to keep that rhythm and keep going. But I've got to listen to the coach. He knows what's best for me."
Gore gets it. There's no sense in risking injury during the preseason, and he'll probably receive scant playing time in Sunday's exhibition game at Denver.
But what happens when the games count?
Famously termed the "bell cow" of San Francisco's offense, the bell may have tolled on Gore's time as a 20-carry-a-game feature back. In the past 18 months, the 49ers have added three backs - Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Brandon Jacobs - to a backfield that's traditionally included Gore and an undistinguished backup (Michael Robinson, DeShaun Foster, Glen Coffee).
In June, running backs coach Tom Rathman acknowledged that the 49ers wanted to keep Gore "fresh" and "healthy" so he can still dazzle in December. Gore, who turned 29 in May, was noticeably slowed by leg maladies last year while ranking fifth in the NFL with 282 carries, the second-most of his seven-year career. Among running backs currently on an NFL roster, Gore's 1,653 career carries rank third behind St. Louis' Steven Jackson (2,138) and Denver's Willis McGahee (1,790).Focus on team
Gore has fielded a series of questions about his potentially reduced role since the spring and has pointed to last year's 13-3 record in response. The 49ers went 37-59 in Gore's first six seasons.
"We want to win," Gore said. "We got a taste of it last year, and it feels good. We want to keep that taste in our mouth. As long as we stay together and be one, we'll keep that taste in our mouth."
Given his selfless style - Gore takes immense pride in his ability to redirect blitzing linebackers - it's difficult to doubt his sincerity. Gore didn't complain about averaging just 14.5 carries in two postseason games, but did address the team during training camp about the still-painful loss in the NFC Championship Game.Added motivation
Former 49ers running back Roger Craig is confident a Super Bowl ring is the thing for Gore at this stage in his career. Craig, 52, and Gore have developed a close relationship, and they spoke about the upcoming season during a chance meeting in Las Vegas during the offseason.
"We all want to be the guy, but we also have to look at the big picture," Craig said. "... Right now, Frank's thinking is, how can we be a better team? Frank's broken a lot of records. So it's not about him. It's about winning Super Bowls now. He got a taste of what it felt like playing in the playoffs. So now anything that the organization can do to help go to that next level, he'll be on board with that."
Craig also believes the backfield additions will fuel the already highly motivated Gore. Before Craig's fifth season, the 49ers drafted Clemson running back Terrence Flagler in the first round of the 1987 draft. Flagler never panned out, but Craig noted that he rushed for a career-high 1,502 yards and was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year the season after Flagler arrived.
This spring, Gore embarked on a training routine that included 6 a.m. workouts, afternoon practices and nighttime boxing. He'll do whatever it takes to win - even if it means doing less this season - but he's also doing everything to keep himself in the game.
"Oh, it's going to motivate Frank to play well, of course," Craig said. "That's some good competition right there."