As I watched Frank Gore reach a thousand yards rushing for the fourth straight year, I was reminded of a story.

It was 2003, and the Chargers were on their way to a dreadful record of 4-and-12. They didn't have much of a passing game; their top QB, some guy named Brees who clearly would never amount to anything, had a rating in the 60s. But they had LaDainian Tomlinson, who in his third year was well on his way to the Hall of Fame. As a rookie, he'd rushed for 1,236 yards and 10 scores; the next year, he'd gone for 1,683 and 14. He'd finish '03 with another 1,645 and another 13. He was historically great, and the Chargers were wasting him, unable to build up a winner around him.

A.J. Smith was in his first year as the Chargers' GM. On the plane ride back from another defeat, he sidled up to Tomlinson. "I want you to know something," he told him. "Trust me a little bit on this: I promise you, your career will not be in vain."

The next season, the Chargers were 12-and-4, and though they haven't gotten to the Super Bowl—not yet, anyway—they haven't suffered a losing season since.

A GM made a bold promise that he'd build a franchise worthy of the greatness of his star. And then he went out and did it.

That's what Scot McCloughan owes Frank Gore.

A thousand yards isn't such a big deal; all it takes is 63 yards per game. But given the Niners' glorious past, if you've done what no Niner has managed before, then you my friend have done something. No Niner had rushed for a thousand yards even three straight years. Gore's now gotten to four, and he's done it on two reconstructed ACLs. He's done it by running hard on every single rush, even when, like so often this year, he's run into a wall of humanity. He's done it by never bitching, never criticizing his inept run-blockers, never going all T.O. when the offense drifted another direction.

He's done it by being a model of greatness. And it's up to McCloughan to be worthy of it.

If Sunday's game proved anything, it proved that McCloughan's got work to do. The Lions, mind you, were 2-and-12. Granted, their offense—disturbingly—was ranked higher than ours, but Drew Stanton was making his first-ever start. And their defense was ranked as the absolute worst. Conditions were prime for a blowout.

Our defense did its part, creating six turnovers and repeatedly giving us excellent field-position. And what did our offense manage to do?

At the end of the first quarter, the score was three-three. At halftime, it was six-three. Of course, we blew it open with two touchdowns in the third, getting us to the 20 points we rode all the way to the end. An end that was nothing but meh.

We've been through this a million times; an ugly win counts, and that's just how Mike Singletary likes it. But 20 points despite forcing six turnovers from the league's perennial goat? That's just not the stuff of a budding contender.

Our playoff drought stands at seven, and it'll surely be eight if this offense doesn't improve, and improve dramatically. The buzzword for many is "continuity," as if an offseason together is all it'll take. Singletary beat that drum on Monday: "This offseason will be the first time ever that anybody on offense has a coordinator consistently going into the offseason. Hopefully, next year will be a lot better."

I'm not saying continuity won't help. It might be enough to lift our O from 29th to 28th. But if you're expecting a serious jump from the mere consistency of your coordinator, you'd better hope your coordinator is someone better than Jimmy Raye.

There's a certain comfort in continuity, even when things are rough. That's the idea behind that famous idiom, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't." But I don't think that way. When things aren't going well, I don't want continuity. I want change.

And since we know the coordinator won't change, our only hope is the players will. Either the players we've got must play better, or McCloughan must find better players.

We've already discussed the offensive line. We can't take a chance that these guys can play better. Two new starters, maybe even three, are an absolute must. The receivers, thank heavens, are quite good already. It's almost a lock that they'll play better still; Scotty just needs to find one to take punts. (Hey, that Michael Spurlock looked pretty good for Tampa; maybe he could be one we could get.)

Which leads back to the question that won't go away: can Alex Smith play better, or not?

I'm a Smith agnostic, not supporter or hater. I think there's some merit to some "Alexcuses"; even against Detroit our O-line was too weak, and our penchant for running poorly—and passing horizontally—set up too many third-and-longs. He still ended up with some pretty good stats, a misleading rating of close to a hundred. But something just tells me if he were the answer, he simply would've buried the Lions. He simply would've destroyed 'em.

He's causing this franchise collective insanity. Just look at Singletary. After Philly, he said he didn't have "any questions" that Smith was the one. But during the week, in explaining why he couldn't give snaps to Nate Davis, he said Smith wasn't "proven" and didn't have "everything under control." (And yet I'm called names when I question the great and powerful Sing.)

Davis doesn't need to play in St. Louis; because we won't draft us a blue-chip QB—thanks of course to Smith—we don't have to learn about Davis this year. But we can't go into next year with the eternally unproven Smith, the completely unproven Davis, and the proven-as-backup-only Shaun Hill. Smith'll get his last chance, but he cannot be trusted. We need a proven Plan B. And that, again, is up to McCloughan.

For Frank Gore, the clock is ticking. The average career of an NFL running back is 2.6 years. Gore is about to finish his fifth, and he's never been on a winning team. He deserves one, now.

Gore's career must not be in vain. McCloughan should swear that he won't let it be.