More of Hunter is best for Gore and 49ers
Gore's resurgent effort against the Eagles in Philadelphia saw the seventh-year veteran returning to top form and showing everybody that he still can be an elite running back that can make a difference. Gore had a season-high 127 yards rushing on just 15 carries, and he finished off the Niners' amazing comeback with both the winning touchdown and the vintage, run-out-the-clock grinding that sealed the team's signature 24-23 victory.
But contrast that to the Gore everybody saw in San Francisco's first three games, the frustrated Gore who was shut down each week by the Seahawks, Cowboys and Bengals, the Gore who averaged just 2.5 yards a carry and 49.3 yards rushing per game in September.
That opening month of the season had some questioning whether Gore still had it, if he was still the same elite back who had been to two Pro Bowls and strung together a franchise-record four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in his first six years with the team, accomplishing that against those same defenses that were keying on him and designed to stop him.
It appeared that maybe Gore had finally lost a step, which happens to everybody sooner or later. Let's face it. Gore is no longer a young colt, particularly by NFL standards. He is a seventh-year veteran who has absorbed a lot of punishment during his more than 1,700 touches as a 49er.
And by Week 3 of this season, after the worst statistical start of his career, Gore already was starting to break down. He injured his right ankle late in the first half during San Francisco's Sept. 25 game at Cincinnati, and was never quite the same the rest of the game.
But he pushed on, because that's what Frank Gore does. And he pushed on, because that's what the 49ers have always needed him to do. They had nobody comparable to replace him.
Everybody saw what happened when Hunter, the team's fourth-round draft pick, took over as the lead back late in the game against Cincinnati and the 49ers trailing in a defensive struggle.
Hunter's fresh legs and playmaking skills injected that little bit of life San Francisco's offense needed to pull out that 13-8 victory. Hunter's darting explosion provided the game's only touchdown on a 7-yard run, and it also got Gore off the hook for his fumble earlier in the fourth quarter that had allowed the Bengals to take the lead and could have cost the 49ers the game.
Gore didn't practice the entire week leading up to the Philadelphia game. Hunter took most of the reps with the first-team offense, and the rookie got his first NFL start against the Eagles, even though Gore was game ready after testing his ankle hours before kickoff.
"I feel like he deserved (to start)," Gore said on Monday. "I felt that I would have been wrong as a man letting him work all week and I didn't practice not one day, and then Sunday I just get in and be a starter. That wouldn't be right."
Still, as television cameras panned to the sideline after Hunter took a handoff on San Francisco's first offensive play and burst through the left side for a 7-yard gain, there was an anxious expression on Gore's face as the camera locked on him. And that anxious expression remained on the next play after a holding penalty, when Hunter took a short pass and turned it into an 18-yard gain on San Francisco's second offensive play.
Gore wanted to be in there. And you have to believe, after everything he has done and as hard as he's worked to be a winner with the Niners, that Gore also felt like he belonged in there and didn't quite like the idea of somebody else taking his place.
In that early first-quarter sequence, three things became abundantly clear:
--- The presence of Hunter will push Gore to the best of his ability.
--- The presence of Hunter adds a new backfield dimension to the offense.
--- The presence of Hunter also will protect Gore.
Despite the bad ankle, when Gore took his place on the field for San Francisco's third official play, the veteran took an inside handoff, broke tackles and then burst into the open field for a 40-yard gain that looked like the Frank Gore of old, the Gore that it is on his way to being San Francisco's all-time leading rusher.
To that point, it was San Francisco's longest offensive play of the season.
But then the 49ers' new coaching regime did a wonderful thing. They went right back to Hunter, calling plays that resulted in passes to Hunter on San Francisco's next two snaps. And even though Gore showed he was ready to answer the call, they stuck with Hunter and kept him a regular part of the game plan.
And what a weapon Hunter can be. Hunter broke loose on a 44-yard reception in the third quarter and had several other key runs. No run was bigger than Hunter's 14-yard gain with the 49ers facing third-and-7 on their final touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter.
Gore scored the winning TD on the very next play, blowing through a hole up the middle and running over cornerback Asante Samuel before lunging and stretching out the ball over the goal line as he went to the ground, a vintage Frank Gore play.
Back to being the Gore known for getting stronger as the game progressed, the 49ers stuck with their top dog to bury the Eagles with runs up the middle on five consecutive plays in the final two minutes, six seconds. Gore went for 26 tough yards on those plays, picking up two first downs to allow the Niners to run out the clock.
Gore had only seven carries through the first three quarters. But in the decisive fourth quarter, he rambled for 65 yards and the winning TD.
Questionable to play hours before kickoff, Gore was fresh and strong at the end. And that's because of the way he was used. And the way Hunter was used in his place.
The memorable Philadelphia performance needs to be a template for the way the 49ers operate at running back the rest of this season, and perhaps into the future beyond that.
"Yeah, it's great," quarterback Alex Smith said. "As much as Frank hates being off the field – he's such a competitor – I think it helps. I think when he was in there, even coming off the ankle, and just seeing how fresh he was, how much energy and life he had. I think there's something to that."
At this stage of his career, for Gore to be at his best, he needs the rest during games. He needs to have some of the focus taken off him. He needs a back with a different skill set to both complement him and share the workload with him.
The 49ers have found that back in Hunter, who is quickly proving to be a weapon in his own right that teams will now have to be wary of and game plan for.
Gore had 17 touches that produced 139 yards from scrimmage against the Eagles. Hunter's numbers were 11 for 100.
That's a winning mix for the 49ers, and Gore seems to realize that the new kid in the backfield can help both him in particular and the team in general.
"I like Kendall," Gore said. "He's a hard worker. He's a great kid. He wants to get better, and I'm here to help him. I've been in the league seven years now and I'm still going. On certain plays I feel like he could run or he could help, I'll let him do it instead of just thinking about me. If he can help this team get to that level that I've never been, I'm willing to let him help me."
If you can sense a trace of reluctance in those words, it's because Gore is accustomed to being The Man, and he doesn't want to see that role reduced now that the 49ers likely have their best shot since he arrived to finally be a playoff team.
But that is what's best for both Gore and the 49ers. More regular use of Hunter will not only add the rookie's dynamics to the offense, but it also will save Gore from some of the constant pounding and allow him to be there at the end when the 49ers need him the most.
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