SANTA CLARA The pistol formation, and the read-option offense that often accompanies it, did not have Frank Gore at hello.
Gore played in a pro-style offense in college at Miami, where he usually knew when a play was called whether he'd be receiving the handoff. He said his first memory of the read-option came while watching Oregon run its shotgun spread, in which the quarterback can hand the ball off, run with it or throw on a given play.
"I didn't like it at first," the 49ers running back said Thursday. "I just felt like that's not real football."
Earlier this season, the 49ers unveiled a version of the pistol formation which brings the quarterback closer to the line with a back directly behind him and began to mix in some read-option plays.
And it didn't take long for Gore to fall.
"I love it now," Gore said. "It's helping us. If it's helping us get to where we want to go, I'm with it."
In last Saturday's divisional-round game, the 49ers and Green Bay Packers were tied 24-24 in the third quarter when quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran for a 56-yard touchdown on a read-option out of the pistol. Kaepernick faked a handoff to running back LaMichael James up the middle and scampered untouched around the right edge.
The play, and the Packers having to account for Kaepernick's speed to the outside, seemed to open things up for Gore. Before Kaepernick's touchdown, Gore had 11 carries for 46 yards. After the play, he rushed 12 times for 73 yards and a touchdown, including his two longest runs of the game 13 and 26 yards.
For Gore, the challenge of picking up the read-option came at the point of the handoff, when the quarterback makes the split-second choice of leaving the ball in the running back's arms or yanking it away.
"I had to adjust because I don't know if I'm going to get the ball or not," Gore said. "I've just got to be patient, stay on my course. And if I got it, I've got to adjust to what I see."
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman acknowledged there may have been a few bumbled exchanges when the 49ers were working out of the pistol last spring, and he indicated it was an area in which James, who ran the read-option extensively at Oregon, was ahead of the eight-year veteran Gore.
But Roman said Gore caught on quickly.
"He's one of the most gifted, knowledgeable, intelligent football players that I've been around really at any position," Roman said. "He just has a feel and an understanding for the game.
"It's funny, when you install something or put something new in, he can just see it. It's pretty impressive."
Roman has said he became curious about the pistol when he was at Stanford. He asked for tapes of Nevada's offense at the time and paid a visit to then-Nevada coach Chris Ault, who pioneered the formation.
Roman said Thursday he thought the "downhill" quality of the formation meshed well with the power-running game he used at Stanford and later with the 49ers. He also said he liked the "neutrality" of the formation the tailback is lined up directly behind the quarterback, allowing the offense to run or throw in either direction on a given play.
"It's not as predictable," Roman said.
Nor, apparently, is Gore. Before the 49ers drafted the running back in 2005, Gore scored a particularly low 6 on the Wonderlic intelligence test, which many teams took as an indication that he would be slow to pick up NFL offenses and game plans.
Gore's coaches, from Mike Nolan to Roman, have said the opposite is true, and that Gore has learned and adapted as quickly as anyone. Roman said that Gore is often the one explaining plays and concepts to teammates.
"I'm a ballplayer," Gore said. "I'll adjust to anything. (With the pistol), I just had to be more patient getting the ball. That's about it."