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.
Date: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 at 11:10 PM
Comment: Gore has lost a step! I get it. But one more year. We couldnt start Hyde yet if we wanted to. Gore is not a homerun threat but he is still a top 12 rb. He still finds holes and runs hard. Problem is, we had terrible teams for years and he was our workhorse. We wore him down!! He deserves to not let fans or media bring up his diminishing skills. I think the addition of Hyde and i wished Hunter will keep him fresh...as long as the rook can pass block as little...we're good
Date: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 11:07 AM
Comment: Fair enough, Earl. Despite a difference of opinion, job well done on the piece itself; looking forward to reading your work. I saw Kaepernick's 4th quarter turnovers and a crucial lapse in secondary coverage as the difference maker between those two teams last year.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 12:49 PM
Comment: Nicely written article but I think you are significantly underestimating Gore's value and overemphasizing the purported decline you've outlined here. Gore hasn't experienced much drop off at all. You noted he's a shell of his former self around Xmas time??"a couple weeks before Xmas, I seem to recall him sealing victory against the Seahawks and their vaunted defense with an impressive 51-yard run. You also fail to note Gore's incomparable blocking ability. He may very well be the best blocking RB in the game. In any offense??"let alone one like the 49ers' that's predicated on blocking??"that ability is invaluable. His performance in the playoffs, while not eye-popping, had significant highlights including a crucial block on Kap's 3rd down conversion against GB to set up the game-winning FG and a 39 yard run late against CAR. Sure, he didn't fare great against Seattle but they were the #1 defense and the o-line did no favors; it's very likely any other back would have done just the same in that situation. Defenses fear and respect Gore much more than you presume here, and they'll continue to do so next year. Hyde will contribute but it's still Gore's show, as it should be.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 12:10 PM
Comment: Nice article. I think you're right. Frank had some nice runs last year, but they are less and less frequent. And in the playoffs, when the defenses are the best, there were games when the running attack just wilted, and the 49ers became one dimensional and predictable, and thus less effective. People rightfully love and admire Frank Gore, but there comes a time when you have to let the young bucks take over.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 11:15 AM
Comment: There are lots of question marks with this team right now and i'm bracing for a slow start. But I think the biggest story here this season is if our offense philosophy has changed any, let's see if they really did open up the passing game. Greg Roman will be the scapegoat barring any huge injuries to the team.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 10:50 AM
Comment: Well stated and I completely agree. While everyone blames Kap because of the picks we have to realize he also kept us in the game. What did we get 14 yards from Frank? The Seahawks D showed they could be ran on last year and we could not in that game. You can't loosen up the secondary with no running game. I also believe if Hyde can get more carries during the regular season Gore becomes a lot more effective come the playoffs. Hyde is going to be a dominant back and gives us a chance even if the O line may not be having a good game. That was also a problem against Seattle our O line played horribly. Hyde can create a few positive plays on his own where as Gore needs a little more help. I believe they can help each other this year by keeping each other fresh. While I don't believe they will be doomed if Hyde isn't the man come Christmas it will make things a lot easier if he was. Maybe we get lucky and Lattimore will receive a Christmas miracle and be healthy enough to contribute as well. Maybe then you have 3 guys who are beasts combined with a little James speed. Whatever happens one thing is for sure if Gore is doing it alone again there won't be a running game in January.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 10:42 AM
Comment: I do agree to certain degree, We have to see what Hyde has, if he looks good in preseason and early part of the year I can see him take over Gore making it his final year. What I have read though it seems success will only happen if kap can make it happen. He seems to have all the weapons at his disposal, and he needs to be smart with the ball, I don't care if crabtree is his favorite target he needs to find the open recievers becasue some one has to be on this new offense. What worries me is Romans play calling with this team, they need to stay aggressive and not rely on leads. These injuries are killing this teams depth, I was expecting a big year from Dorsey on a contract year. The seconday bothers me with our corners and Aldons pending suspension is looming he's our difference maker. If people are able to run us its gonna be hard to win, Niners usually lose those games.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 9:50 AM
Comment: Great article! Really smooth and flowed well. As an aspiring writer myself, I was impressed. Regarding the content, very well done. Bold. That's for sure. You are going to get guys like Big Al posting comments like that. But I agree- Carlos Hyde- If he is the man everyone says he is- needs to start eventually. Everyone forgets how Gore was ineffective during the Championship game and Kaepernick had to take the team on his back against the best defensive corners in the league. He wasn't ready-simply put. Gore has been a true HOF running back- but that does mean he deserves any "special" treatment. Case in point: Alex Smith. Have no fear, Earl. If Hyde proves himself to be a more dominant back than Gore this year, Harbaugh will have no problem making him the starting back.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 9:40 AM
Comment: Earl, I would have to say I agree. Baalke is smart enough to realize that to stay a contender you have to have new talent ready to go before it is too late. Frank Gore is my hero, As I grew up watching games with my dad and playing runningback in high school, Frank was everything I wanted to be. While I don't feel he is completely done, and think he and Hyde should split carries, I don't think they would hesitate naming Hyde the guy at some point this season if he shows he is ready. Baalke and Harbaugh are too committed to winning. My one concern is Marcus Lattimore? I am a huge Lattimore fan and want to see him get his chance with us. I hope that he still will, assuming his knee will continue to improve and be stable.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 9:36 AM
Comment: Good read. I think that and fair-minded 49ers fan knows that Gore is in sight of the end. His true value might be leading by example and pass protection. I'd love for him to win a title this year and go out on top. He could then relax and wait for the HOF to call.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 9:30 AM
Comment: I think it was a great piece. I can tell your heart is red and gold, you are only telling the cold hearted truth. We need a healthy cycle of more like 3 backs on the field. The wear and tear on a 31 yr old back throughout a season is a reality. Last year we had no bye week because we had to go on the road, if that happens again this year you will definitely see a decline in Gores play. We all love the Tank and I pray he gets his much deserved ring this year but to not discuss the elephant in the room is to have no grasp on reality...
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 9:01 AM
Comment: This is one of the worst articles I have ever read. Sorry, but it is.
The goal isn't to beat the seahawks or shut richard sherman up, its to win the super bowl. And people don't fear Gore anymore? He has hardly any drop off in his ability or production. Who cares if they "fear" him, he is still getting it done. To suggest otherwise is silly.
By: K. Evans
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 8:53 AM
Comment: I realize real story lines are hard to come up with this time of year. This story is simply, obvious and presumptuous.
Naturally if Hyde out performs Gore, Hyde will start, Ala Kap. v Smith, obviously! Presumptuous is the assumption that Hyde can be great without even a preseason snap. You could replace Hyde's name with Lattimore's in virtually every facet of this article.
It may be that I just missed it, but what a knowledgeable regional columnist should recognize is that Gore brings more to the table than simple outstanding running ability. His blitz pick-up and down field blocking skills are impeccable. How many passes have been completed, how many extra yard accumulated because of Gore's acumen?
I expect fans to be short sighted, I expect National writers not to appreciate non statistical skills. Local writers need to know local teams, players etc.
I really hope your not just a "writer" that is going to make outrageous statements to get responses, and equate that to success.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 8:39 AM
Comment: Hey guy, nice article for conversation piece/purpose. But know reader's are gonna come at you when you put your opinion/article out there.. It's cool.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 8:30 AM
Comment: Gore's vision, IQ, heart and especially blitz pickup are EXACTLY why he will hold the starting position for the whole year. Kap cant throw for over 300 ypg from his back. at some point your opinion will be correct because time waits for no one, but Gore's mileage is not consistent with a 31 year old tail back. He does an incredible job of staying low and square and has elite vision. I don't recommend 300 carries by any means but you will be surprised how well he performs this year from an over-all standpoint and the drop in rushing attempts per game as a whole team.
By: Big O
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 8:27 AM
Comment: Well said Big Earl and good article.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 8:26 AM
Comment: I agree that we need our running game to be dominant in the playoffs. Although he's one of my all time fav Niners, Gore did not have respectable numbers in the NFC Championship. Without Kap the Niners would have had no running game at all in the Championship.
At this stage in his career Gore needs to be part of a commitee rushing attack. The only way that happens is if other backs like Hyde prove themselves able to get on the field and make plays. Although the biggest challenge will be making sure backs like Hyde are ready to block for Kap (ask Steve Young how important it is to have a RB that blocks pass rushers when needed)
This is likely the final season for several Niners either due to age or contracts. Let's hope they go out on top!
By: Big Al
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 6:23 AM
Comment: Where do they find these "writers"? Hyde was drafted because Gore is very likely in his final season and the Niners don't yet know if Lattimore will ever regain his former excellence. When drafted, he was to give competition to Hunter. Russell Wilson's "headiness" is the giveaway. This article is written by a closet Seachicken fan. The Hobbit will be exposed this season as Kaepernick holds up the Lombardi trophy.
Date: Wednesday, August 6, 2014 at 6:05 AM
Comment: You seem to be really stuck on Sherman. Hey, that team has more to worry about than the 9ers. As for Gore, Hyde was brought in a a big bodied back to compliment Gore. You may very we'll have two 2000 yard rushers with the compliment of receivers the 9ers have now. Gore's skill set is to valuable and It'll take Hyde a while to reach that level.