Despite, having a 4-3 record and being second in the NFC West you couldn't describe the San Fransisco 49ers locker room as a settled place. The 49ers have lost to the Bears, Cardinals and Broncos.
In a division that includes the Seahawks and the Cardinals those defeats could easily be costly for the 49ers. Even more frustratingly for San Fransisco fans though these defeats have largely been self-inflicted wounds brought about by the marginalization of Frank Gore.
What's the big picture with Frank Gore?
So far this season Frank Gore has had 102 rushing attempts over seven weeks as the 49ers have attempted to rush the ball 210 times. This gives Gore 48.5% of San Fransisco's carries so far this season. By contrast in 2013 after seven games Gore had 127 rushing attempts. That was good for 54.7% of the 49ers total carries.
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Frank Gore's role in the offense then has clearly diminished in two ways. He is getting fewer total carries. Additionally, as the 49ers are making fewer rushing attempts Gore is also getting a smaller percentage of the carries. On top of this the share of other players getting the carries has concentrated into Carlos Hyde who can now be properly described as the 49ers RB2.
Last season the second 49ers running back was Kendall Hunter who had a total of 34 carries by week seven last season. This season Hyde already has 48 rushing attempts which is nearly a quarter of the 49ers carries. Hyde has also had 10 or more carries in three games already this season. Last season Hunter only had 10 or more carries once over the course of the entire season.
Why are San Fransisco doing this?
There are three plausible explanations for this. The first is that Gore is past it. This can be dismissed however. Gore's yards per carry average this season is 4.1. This is the same as it was last season.
The second explanation comes from offensive coorindator Greg Roman who said of Gore's workload.
“Well, we don’t want to just ride that stallion all day every day. There’s just a point of diminishing returns at some point. That just holds true for any player at that position. Who gets hit more than running backs? So, it’s something that we’re on the same page with.”
There might be some truth in this in an ideal world i.e. were the 49ers 7-0 they would be resting Gore in key games. However, so far this season in the 49ers three losses against the Bears, Cardinals and Broncos Gore has had 13, 6 and 9 carries. Those are Gore's three smallest totals for the season.
Some of this can be explained by game flow. San Fransisco are throwing more because they are behind. This isn't the full answer though. The truth is that the 49ers are limiting Gore's touches because they are preparing to get rid of him and Frank Gore knows it.
Already he has made it known that he is unhappy with the “49ers pass-happy approach”. This disquiet was given further fuel when Ian Rapoport reported that Gore was told during the offseason that his roster spot was in doubt.
Aged 31 and playing at running back Gore was set to earn $6.45 million this season and it seems that San Fransisco were pondering whether Gore was the most effective use of resources.
Sidelining Gore is costing San Fransisco
Ian Rapaports report has been denied by Gore but a figure such as Rapoport wouldn't report a story unless there was something to it. As has been shown the 49ers use of Gore suggests that they are looking towards a future without their all-time leading rusher.
The problem for San Fransisco though is that it isn't working. In the games where Gore has had the least touches they have lost, whilst Gore's yards per carry average stands at 4.1 the exact same level it was at last year.
The 49ers plan to move on from Frank Gore isn't working. They need to abandon it if they want to challenge the Cardinals and Seahawks for the playoffs.