Gore good to go?

When the 49ers returned to practice Monday, it marked the four-week anniversary of the day Frank Gore fractured a bone in his right hand, an injury that usually requires a four-week recovery period. Gore says he'll return to full practice drills Tuesday, but he won't play in Thursday's preseason finale at San Diego, leaving open a question of how ready he'll be for the season opener in two weeks.

The Pro Bowl running back already has a quick reply to that one.

"I've got this week and next week," Gore said Monday, sweat streaming down his face and neck after practice. "I see myself out there practicing, and I feel the more practice I get, the more I touch the football, I'll be ready."

Gore was talking about being ready for that pivotal season opener two weeks from Monday against the Arizona Cardinals, when the first time he touches the football will be his first touch in live action since he gained the last of his team-record 1,695 yards rushing in the 2006 season finale at Denver.

Naturally, Gore first would like to have a test run in three days against the Chargers, and he says he'd be ready to play in that game. But in the big picture, there's no point in exposing Gore in that game, and coach Mike Nolan wisely says his star player won't see the light of a football field until the 49ers are playing under the bright lights of their Monday night opener.

After suggesting a few times in recent weeks that Gore may play in the final exhibition game, Nolan made it official Monday, saying, "Frank will come back and he will be our running back. We'll hold him out of this week's game. He probably could have played, but I'm not going to play him. Frank's our guy."

And that he is. Despite its shoddy showing Saturday night in Chicago, the San Francisco offense has had its moments this summer even without Gore lining up behind quarterback Alex Smith. But Gore is the juice in that offense, the spark that ignites the firepower in the 49ers' attack. The offense revolves around him. It will be much better when he takes his place in it again.

But that time doesn't need to be now, even if Gore is itching for some contact. He broke a bone in the top middle of his hand during the very first day of padded practices this summer when his wrist got caught up underneath a teammate's pad during a blocking drill, a freak injury that has had Gore working out on his own with the team's conditioning coaches most of the summer.

Gore has been working gradually into individual drills, and he says he is ready to go full bore in practice starting Tuesday. But no game again this week? Well, Gore can live with that.

"I want to get out there and help coach Nolan and this offense," Gore said. "But he's the coach. He makes the decisions, and I just gotta go by the decisions he makes. I follow his decisions."

That said, Gore made it clear his patience is running thin. If Monday was the beginning of a two-week countdown to the season opener … Well, those are going to be two long weeks for Gore as he works back into the offense and practice regimen.

"You know, I want to be out there for my team," he said. "I miss being out there with the guys, I miss running plays … I miss everything."

While the bone in Gore's hand has almost completely healed, that is not to say he's fully recovered from his injury. He has no problem with flexibility as he stretched out his fingers at his locker Monday, but it will take a while longer before the hand is 100 percent, all the more reason to give him two more weeks before he enters heavy combat.

"It feels pretty good," Gore said. "I can move it real good. Now I'm working on my strength, you know, I'm just working right now."

To wear a brace or not wear a brace? That's the question Gore and the team will be asking over the next two weeks as he tries it both ways to find the best way to go into the season.

To be sure, Gore would like to have his hand naked. He wore a cast on it when he returned to practice a week after incurring his injury, but Gore said he hated wearing it, and he could be seen in between practices cutting the cast off his hand even though the bone had yet to heal.

Gore will take a simplistic approach to wearing extra protection when the opener arrives.

"If it's comfortable and I can wear it, I will," he said. "But if I'm not comfortable with it, I won't."

Like the rest of the San Francisco offense, Smith is looking forward to the comfort of having Gore to work with again come September. The third-year quarterback has made progress during the summer, but it's just not quite the same without his 2005 draft classmate working by his side.

"I'm comfortable with Mike (Robinson) and Maurice (Hicks) and the guys we're going to put back there, but I think Frank brings a little different dimension running the ball and doing the things he does," Smith said. "There's a difference having Frank in the huddle, having Frank in practice.

"He'll be back for the season and he's going to have to be ready, but I don't think anybody's going to question that he'll be ready. He loves this game and is such a big-time player, and he's out here with a cast the last few weeks trying to get reps and steal reps at practice. Obviously, he'll be ready."

Gore is ready now. And, he says, it won't take long to get going once he's back in action again.

"When I get those first few carries, when I get going and get comfortable … then I'll be all right," he said.

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