Before we ask the question, we’ll answer it.
Frank Gore is a future Hall of Fame running back. There should be no debate. And that sentiment is not just because we received co-signage from San Francisco’s running backs coach Tom Rathman, the flat-top haircut, eye-black, neck-roll wearing fullback, who paved running lanes for 49ers Hall of Famer Roger Craig.
We make an early case for San Francisco’s current bell-cow runner because Gore’s numbers and contributions to a proud football organization deserve to be celebrated inside of pro football’s hallowed grounds. Some voters might look the other way and select players with greater statistical production during Gore’s playing era, but that opinion isn’t shared by the highly respected Rathman. The Hall of Fame voting process could be described as “peculiar at times,” according to one national football writer, but it doesn’t change the way the 49ers see their star player.
“If you look at some of the stuff he’s been doing the past four-five years; pass-blocking, run-blocking,” Rathman says, “I don’t think you see any other players at the position in the history of the game who have done that before. Not only statistically speaking, but doing the little things.”
Sure, Gore has the most carries (2,187), rushing yards (9,967), rushing touchdowns (60) and 1,000-yard rushing seasons (7) in team history. But can you even fathom the 49ers reaching the NFC title game in three consecutive seasons without the hard-charging running style of number 21? Not possible. Even with a reloaded receiving corps, Gore - a five-time Pro Bowler - figures to spearhead a large chunk of San Francisco’s offensive attack heading into 2014.
“Frank loves the game of football, and he loves being a part of a team; loves overcoming,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “It’s just been the story of his career, so why would it be any different now? He’s got a heart. You can’t measure how big his heart is. What does that mean? Well, what it means is every play he plays all out and with a great will.”
At 31, Gore wills himself to show liveliness on the practice field. In his mind, there’s no slowing down in his 10th season in San Francisco. Critics might question how much Gore has left in the tank, but nobody around the 49ers is wondering that. Gore pointed to how he approaches the challenge of maintaining his Pro Bowl-caliber play in the late stages of his career. It’s a welcomed opportunity to silence doubters, the same ones who wondered how the third-round draft pick in 2005 would recover from two major knee surgeries at the University of Miami.
“I knew from seven years on that I would hear that every year,” Gore said before the start of training camp, “It doesn't bother me. I train hard during the offseason, I practice hard during camp. I'm just trying to be the Frank Gore I have always been.”
Rathman backs his player up in that regard.
“He hasn’t changed,” the coach says. “You watch him on the practice field and he’s practicing hard. He’s not getting a lot of reps because we have young guys who need reps, but he’s getting himself prepared. Physically he’s in shape and mentally he’s sharp. He’s right where he needs to be at this stage of camp.”
Gore continues to be a selfless, team-first contributor who loves the game and everything that comes with it. He values the sacrifice, the teamwork and the stage. Rathman sees a player who continues to thrive in the team setting. The more the 49ers have won under Jim Harbaugh, the more the leading rusher has grown to appreciate sharing touches on offense and being a key cog in Roman’s power-running system.
“It takes 11 guys being on the same page to win,” Rathman says. “I think that’s where he’s really grown, understanding that piece of the game.”
Gore’s contributions stretch beyond carrying the football. Look no further than last season’s Wild Card road playoff win over the Green Bay Packers. When Colin Kaepernick was breaking contain to torch the Packers defense on the ground, it was Gore who was throwing his body around with clutch open-field blocks to spring his athletic quarterback. Those plays didn’t go unnoticed in the film room.
Simply put, it’s why Gore is revered as a true “football player” by his teammates and coaches.
“He’s dynamic at run blocking,” Rathman says. “If you look at the film from last year, look at his cut-blocks downfield. He’s an all-around player. You have to love him. He’s good at everything. It’s great to have players like that.”
Rathman knows do-it-all running backs quite well. His college roommate, Craig, thrived in Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense, becoming the first player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season. Gore has never been used that way as a receiver, but he does have the chops to move the chains out of the backfield when needed. Either way, Rathman sees Gore as a determined runner just like Craig.
“I think you can put him in the same category,” Rathman says. “This guy is going on 10 years and will probably be over 10,000 yards. I don’t know how many players who were able to do that and play for one organization. He’s a great player. There have been other great players here at the position and Frank ranks up there with Roger.”
So will we see Gore continue his run of 1,000-yard seasons, going on three-straight years?
“Past performance often times predicts future success,” Harbaugh said. “Frank has been one of the top backs in the National Football League and I see that continuing. Frank gets football. Frank understands football. Frank keeps himself in tremendous shape.”
The dedication is coach-like. Gore could even become a valued teacher or evaluator once his playing career concludes and he celebrates a certain enshrinement in Canton, Ohio.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Rathman says. “He’s got a great passion for the game. Any time you have passion for the game, he can do whatever he wants. You could see him as a scout or as a coach. He could hold his own meeting room and get up there and have confidence as he’s coaching because he knows it.
Yes, he certainly is.