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One of the many questions heading into the San Francisco 49er's 2013 season is how productive running back Frank Gore will be. Gore turned 30 in May, a number that often marks the beginning of the end for a tailback. Along with this, fellow running backs LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter have spent most of their young careers in Gore's shadow, and appear ready to compete for the spotlight. Factor in the quick legs and strong arm of quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Gore's statistical contributions seem even more limited.
But Gore isn't a stranger to adversity. After sustaining multiple knee injuries in college and dropping to the third round of the 2005 draft, Gore has proved his doubters wrong by staying healthy and maintaining a high-level of production late into his career. Now, with a new season approaching, Gore has another chance to prove his critics wrong by having one of his best statistical seasons yet – putting up similar numbers to his 2006 campaign, when he gained 1,695 rushing yards, 485 receiving yards, and scored nine touchdowns.
With a little help from ESPN's Stats and Information, here are three reasons why 2013 could be Gore's best season ever:
1) The Forgotten Wide Receiver
The 49ers are a week into the preseason and no wide receiver has stepped up to take the starting spot opposite Anquan Boldin. As The Press Democrat's Grant Cohn reported earlier this week, the 49ers have been working tight-end Vernon Davis into the passing game as one potential solution. Second round tight-end Vance McDonald has also shown promise as a big-bodied target for Kaepernick. But there's one person who has flown under the radar as a receiving threat.
Flash back to the pre-Harbaugh era. According to ESPN, Gore averaged 74 targets between 2006-2010 in the regular season, and amassed 255 receptions for 2,152 yards. During this time he was one of the teams most electrifying receivers, finishing in the top-three for receptions each year and leading the team twice.
Harbaugh has taken a different approach with Gore, keeping him busy on the ground. But as a coach who is known for maximizing the potential of his players, don't be surprised if you see Gore featured more in the passing game, especially if the 49ers don't find a strong receiver to complement Boldin.
2) A Healthy Dosage of Smash-Mouth Football
Despite having a crowded backfield for the past two seasons, Gore hasn't received a lighter workload. In fact, he's gotten the ball even more. In 2011, Gore carried the ball 282 times during the regular season – the second most attempts in his career. He followed up with 258 carries in 2012, his third most attempts.
One of the reasons for Gore's increased workload can be attributed to longevity. He played all 16 games in 2011 and 2012. It would seem that having a pair of shifty, change-of-pace backs to spell Gore has helped him stay healthy and productive, playing throughout the season and into the playoffs.
What's more, the 49ers' smash-mouth running philosophy produces enough carries to go around. The 49ers ran the ball an average of 495 times between 2011 and 2012, as opposed to an average of 393 times between 2006–2010. Don't expect this to change much in 2013, even with Kaepernick at the helm.
3) A Defense's Worst Nightmare – Colin Kaepernick
You might scratch your head at this one. The read option has become a significant part of the 49ers' offense, right? So what's to stop the Kaepernick from crossing the pylons instead of Gore?
This is a fair question, but consider this: when has Gore ever played a full season with such a dynamic offense? It's safe to say that prior to Kaepernick's emergence, most opposing defenses had been developing their game plans with Gore in mind – crowding the box and putting pressure on Alex Smith. Entering his first full season as the undisputed starter, Kaepernick will be able to relieve Gore of that responsibility, as defenses try to find a way to stop the explosive quarterback from breaking out of the pocket and making plays.
But what about Kaepernick stealing some of Gore's carries with the read option? Well, you might just be surprised to learn how little the quarterback actually ran during those plays. Mike Sando of ESPN reported that Kaepernick elected to take the ball a whopping 12 times. While he certainly left a strong impression on all of us (and his opponents), it's unlikely that Gore is losing any sleep over the read option.
The odds are still against Gore. After all, few running backs have been productive into their 30s. Many have experienced a swift and steep decline. Even so, don't rule Frank Gore out just yet. He might have enough gas in the tank to torch the field one more time as he races towards his first Super Bowl ring.