49ers want Gore back, but does he want 49ers?

Frank Gore said this week he wants to be back with the San Francisco 49ers, but the team must keep the championship window open this offseason to warrant his return.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The San Francisco 49ers haven't built up much good will with its fan base in 2014.

A few things happened. They moved away from San Francisco to a stadium that feels lifeless and generic. The front office is on the verge of ousting its very popular head coach, who had unprecedented success in his first three seasons before going through a down year in 2014.

A loss Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals means the 49ers would finish below .500 for the first time since 2010, the season before Jim Harbaugh was hired.

There was the Ray McDonald situation, who was released after the start of his second criminal investigation for a crime against a woman since August. The team played him while his first investigation was ongoing, and released him after news broke of the start of his second. The notion of 'due process' was oddly ignored after staunchly backing McDonald during his domestic violence case and allowing him to start 14 games this season.

It hasn't been a good year for the 49ers. And suddenly, bringing back running back Frank Gore, who is without a contract after Sunday's game, has become something San Francisco could to do to save face, given his overwhelming popularity among fans.

After running for a season-high 158 yards and a touchdown in last week's overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers, the 31-year-old suddenly is gaining leverage in upcoming free-agent negotiations.

"The GM (Trent Baalke) is saying that he wants me back," Gore said this week. "I’m going out there on Sunday and play my behind off and try to get a win, end on the good side. My agent and the team will talk from there."

Typically, running backs on the wrong side of 30 have a hard time garnering lucrative offers as free agents. But given Gore can eclipse the 1,000-yard for the eighth time in his 10-year career Sunday, needing 38 yards. He still has more football left to play, particularly behind an effective offensive line, like the one he had Saturday with Anthony Davis back at right tackle - who missed nine games while dealing with a multitude of injuries.

After running the ball more than any team in Harbaugh's first three seasons, the 49ers in 2014 are dialing up run plays at the league's seventh-highest clip, trying to rely more on a passing game, in concert with the rest of the pass-happy NFL.

But that evolution, hinged on the arm of Colin Kaepernick, hasn't progressed as the coaching staff, and likely the front office, would have liked. Injuries along the offensive line and the group of tight ends have prevented the offense from getting into any rhythm, an idea Gore harped on after falling to the 11-loss Oakland Raiders Dec. 7.

"It’s hard," Gore said. "As players, you have to be in a rhythm on the field to be successful. It’s been tough all year to get in a rhythm."

While Gore has taken steps to prove he's worthy of being back with San Francisco next season, the 49ers won't be the only team making inquiries when free agency kicks off with the new league year March 11. He counted for $6.45 million against the salary cap this season.

"I got to see what changes, what we do here," Gore said. "Hopefully, all the key guys can be back. And if the key guys can be back, I think we got a shot."

Of course, the biggest change in 2015 will likely be at head coach, where defensive line coach Jim Tomsula appears to be the front runner for the job if Harbaugh is not back for the final year of his five-year contract.

Replacing Harbaugh will be a tough sell to Gore.

"He’s my best coach. I didn’t enjoy it here until we started winning," Gore said. "Since he’s been here, I won. I got a chance to let the world see my talent. I love him. I love the way he coaches. I love the way he puts the staff together. He’s a great coach."

It remains to be seen what the offensive staff would look like pending Harbaugh's departure. And that will certainly play a big role in Gore's decision to come back next season.

This week, Gore received the Len Eschmont Award, the team's most prestigious honor voted on by his teammates for courageous and inspirational play in 2014.

"He has had an incredible career," Harbaugh said. "The kind of career that few have had when you think of some of the things he’s overcome, the level that he has played. You can talk about a lot of players or backs, especially when they hit 30 years old, that’s some kind of landmark. But, Frank never talks that way. He never talks about being 30 or being an older player, therefore he never thinks that way. Just an unwavering competitor is Frank Gore."

Before Harbaugh's arrival, Gore was the stalwart on a struggling offense, rushing for 1,695 yards on 2006's team that went 7-9 under Mike Nolan and the NFL's 26th-ranked unit. It was Gore's second season in the league, after joining San Francisco in 2005, in the same draft class as Alex Smith.

When he starts Sunday, Gore will have appeared in the 49ers' last 71 games, playoffs included. He hasn't missed time since 2010, when he broke a hip in Week 11's win over the Cardinals. Of all active running backs, Gore (63) is second in consecutive regular season games played, behind Chris Johnson (95) and ahead of Marshawn Lynch (57).

The 49ers have drafted running backs in each season since 2009, with only Gore and rookie Carlos Hyde being the only team's draft picks on the active roster as the season with the season ending Sunday.

Hyde, drafted in the second round (57th overall) last spring, has shown signs of becoming the team's next feature back. But Gore still had the upper hand this year, averaging 4.2 yards per carry to Hyde's 4.0.

Kendall Hunter, who tore an ACL early in training camp, recently signed a one-year extension last month. Marcus Lattimore retired earlier this season after being unable to return to playing football following his gruesome knee injury sustained at South Carolina.

The 49ers are in a delicate state, with their future success dependent on making the right coaching hire, if Harbaugh takes his unprecedented success elsewhere. No coach in league history took his team to three conference title games in his first three seasons.

And if Baalke and CEO Jed York can't keep the Super Bowl window open next season given the team's talented roster, then Gore he will likely sign elsewhere this spring.

"That’s why you play team sports, to be champions," Gore said. "And I want to be a champion."

Next story:

49ers announce awards, Bethea a Pro-Bowl snub?

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