Photo by Kelley L Cox of USA TODAY Sports.

Photo by Kelley L Cox of USA TODAY Sports.


Without question, quarterback Colin Kaepernick's maturation is tantamount to the 49ers' success.

His willingness to throw and complete passes, which travel as far as a Stephen Curry jumper, will mostly decide this season's outcome. However, there is another player on offense whose development is nearly as important: rookie tailback Carlos Hyde.

Simply put, if Frank Gore is still receiving the lion's share of playing time when you begin your Christmas shopping, the 49ers are destined for more postseason disappointment.

For the record, this is not to denigrate Gore's accomplishments. He is obviously one of the top-10 players in 49ers' history. And it is not to suggest he no longer belongs on a NFL roster. He certainly does. His combination of intelligence, leadership and toughness are rare, so he could help any team.

But if the goal is to mute Richard Sherman for a couple of weeks in February, the 49ers need more than just help from their top running back; they need dominance. And at age 31, Gore is no longer dominant. He does not scare championship level defenses anymore, at least not in the way they fear Marshawn Lynch.

While we chronicle and debate Kaepernick's mistakes (and we should), the difference between the 49ers and Seahawks is more than Russell Wilson's headiness. The truth is, Lynch is a better player than Gore now, and by a pretty wide margin.

Even if you believe Gore is capable of matching Lynch yard for punishing yard, you cannot deny the physical maladies that crop up nearly every year, rendering him a shell of his early season self.

It usually happens sometime between your second helping of turkey and your first slice of pumpkin pie.

Yes, his numbers in the playoffs the last two seasons are respectable but if you watched those games intently, and you are honest, you know Gore is not the same back in January he is in September. That, along with Hyde's presence, ought to relegate Gore to the role of high-priced backup.

Naturally, it is premature to even refer to Hyde as a NFL starter. He must prove he belongs just as Gore did early in the 2005 season. But even the most loyal Gore fans know Hyde's skillset is perfect for the 49ers. He is bigger, faster and based purely on NFL mileage, healthier than Gore. In fact, the only real question is whether Hyde is an eager and capable pass-protector. If he is, Gore's 49ers career is over.

Bill Walsh had it right when he said it is better to rid a team of a player a year too soon instead of a year too late, and it appears GM Trent Baalke agrees. Why else would he draft Hyde in the 2nd round despite a stable of running backs already on the roster?

It is time for 49ers fans to brace themselves because this is likely to get messy. It seemingly always does when a good and respected player grows too old to do the things he once did. But it is merely the acknowledgement of the NFL's circle of life and the realization that Gore is no longer a "bell cow."

Perhaps Gore is self-aware enough to see his NFL mortality and orchestrate his end in a way that makes it easier for everyone involved. Maybe Jim Harbaugh—no stranger to difficult decisions—already told Gore that the rookie is firmly in the mix. Regardless, the Gore/Hyde situation bears watching as much as Kaepernick's growth.

If the rookie emerges, a sixth Super Bowl is in the offing. If not, prepare for more of Sherman's noise and laughter.