Gore Hits Age 30, the 'Invisible Barrier' for NFL Running Backs

Now that 49ers running back Frank Gore has reached his 30th birthday, the question looms:

Will Gore be like Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin, who continued to be among the NFL’s best backs after age 30? Or will Gore be like so many others – including Edgerrin James and Jamal Lewis – who quickly limped away?

Gore has been an exceptional back for the 49ers since being taken in the third round of the 2005 draft out of the University of Miami. Though he suffered two serious knee injuries with the Hurricanes, he’s been a durable, productive player in San Francisco.

He’s had six 1,000-yard rushing seasons, has a career average of 4.6 yards per carry and has played 14 or more games in seven of his eight pro seasons.
Over the past two seasons, at ages 29 and 28, he’s had two of his most productive years. Last season, he rushed for 1,214 yards and eight TDs; in 2011, he rushed for 1,211 yards and eight TDs.

Gore isn’t big at 5-foot-9 and 217 pounds, but he’s a darting, low-center-of-gravity back who usually slips away from big hits and makes much of his yardage after contact, squeezing through piles of defenders.

But now that Gore on Tuesday turned 30, the 49ers have to be wondering how many more seasons of productivity they can expect from their workhorse. San Francisco has a good group of running backs behind him in 2012 draft choice LaMichael James and 2011 pick Kendall Hunter, and drafted former South Carolina standout Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round this season with intentions of putting him into the mix in 2014 when he’s had a chance to heal and rehab completely from knee injuries suffered in college.

As Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News once wrote: “There is an invisible barrier for NFL running backs that few manage to cross: 30 years old. Until a running back is 29, the yards flow; when he steps into his third decade, he steps into a football abyss.”

Former 49ers standout running back Roger Craig is one example. Craig rushed for 1,054 yards in 1989 when he was 29 years old. In his next four seasons his yardage totals were: 439, 590, 416 and 119.

According to a study by the website draftcalc.com, among those who tailed off considerably once they reached age 30 were:

LaDainian Tomlinson: He went from 1,474 yards and 1,110 yards rushing at ages 28 and 29 to 730, 914 and 280 from ages 30-32;
Brian Westbrook: 1,333 and 936 yards at ages 28 and 29 to 274 and 340 at 30 and 31;
Jamal Lewis: 1,304 and 1,002 yards at ages 28 and 29 to 500 at 30 – his final season.

On the other hand, Smith -- the former Cowboys back and league’s all-time rushing leader (18,355 yards) – continued to be one of the league’s best at age 30 when he rushed for 1,397 yards. At 31 he rushed for 1,203 yards, then rushed for 1,021 at age 32 and 975 at 33.

At ages 30 and 31, Martin had rushing seasons of 1,308 and 1,697 yards.

So, the jury is out. Gore, energized by the 49ers’ resurgence the past two seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh and perhaps the best-blocking offensive line in the NFL, could still have another couple of great years ahead. Certainly, the 49ers’ diversified offense has many other weapons, and the team doesn’t have to run Gore 30 times a game to be effective.

Harbaugh, who in his two seasons as the team’s coach has gained a great appreciation for No. 21, is likely betting that Gore still has something left.

“Every day my admiration for Frank Gore as a football player, every time you think it’s as high as it can be, he finds another rung on the ladder to go in my esteem,” Harbaugh said last season, when Gore rushed for 119, 90 and 110 yards in three postseason games. “And then even more so as a person. He’s just one of the finest guys you’d ever want to be around.”

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