S This was more like it, more familiar, more effective. Unofficially, this was the 49ers’ regular-season debut in their splashy new Levi’s Stadium. This was … them.
The defense stuffed the run. The offense dominated the time of possession. Wideouts Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson caught everything thrown their way. Kicker Phil Dawson converted all four of his field-goal attempts. Colin Kaepernick made plays with his feet, with his arms, with his instincts.
Frank Gore sees the Eagles and soars.
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In a game that may have helped resolve what several of the 49ers have characterized as a team identity crisis, the 10th-year pro carried the ball 24 times for 119 yards, becoming the only NFL player since 2008 to exploit Philadelphia four times for 100 or more yards. Charging straight up the middle, cutting back one way, then another, or sweeping wide around the edges, he poked holes in the theory that he is too old, too slow, or perhaps too much of a throwback for a Jim Harbaugh system that recently has experimented with four- and five-wide-receiver sets.
The folks in the locker room weren’t buying it, either. So many players recently have used the term “get back to what we once …” that one was left wondering whether the Beatles were in the building.
“That’s a guy you have to stick with,” said Boldin, summarizing the sentiment of his teammates. “He’s Frank Gore. You want the ball in his hands. That was our mindset, just getting him back on the ball and getting him touches, making sure we controlled the line of scrimmage.”
Gore, who speaks almost in whispers, revealing his thoughts and emotions with smiles and shrugs, and on more than one occasion, with tears of frustration, insisted that there was nothing new to his story, that he was simply playing football. Give him the ball and let him go. But give him the ball.
He enjoys making his opponents miss and the experts sound silly. Rumors of his demise have been circulating prematurely for several seasons, though not without some logic. The fact that he carries 217 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame is a continual topic of conversation. Then there is his age. NFL running backs rarely last into their 30s, and the Miami native is 31.
Yet as Gore slowly gathered his belongings in the 49ers’ spacious new locker room, tossing several pairs of gloves into a Gucci bag, he offered no concessions to age. He was sore, true. He was tired, true. He pointed to the assortment of fluids lined up inside his stall, including a pink concoction in a clear water bottle and a thick, purple fluid in a plastic cup.
“I need the protein,” he said, with a quick laugh. With his latest performance, he trails only Adrian Peterson among current players for games with 100-plus rushing yards since 2005. More significant is the stat relating to wins and losses; The 49ers are a gawdy 12-0 since 2011 when Gore rushes for 100 or more yards. In their 1-2 start this season, their lead back had carried the ball a total of 35 times, with his six rushes a week earlier – coinciding with the 49ers’ loss to Arizona – leaving him speechless and demoralized.
Asked whether Gore had approached and pressed his case earlier in the week for more carries, Harbaugh demurred. “Frank communicated to the whole team, he didn’t care who got the ball, didn’t care what the stats were,” related the head coach.
That all sounds nice in a coach-speak sort of way, but the Gore whispers this past week resonated miles away from the pretty new building on the Great America Parkway. Harbaugh can count and can sense trends. Recognizing that (a) something had to change quickly and (b) Gore historically tears through the Eagles, it wasn’t a surprise that he became reacquainted with an old friend.
But not too old. Besides busting loose and dancing free for an impressive 28-yard carry, Gore caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick that gave the 49ers a 10-7 second-quarter lead and accounted for the most imaginative play of the afternoon. While Kaepernick was forced out of the pocket and scrambling to his left, Gore broke a tackle and raced down the right side, offering himself as a wide-open target.
Still moving to his left, the ultra-athletic Kaepernick threw off his back foot and across his body, slinging the ball effortlessly to his longtime teammate, who caught the pass at about the 40 and sprinted untouched into the end zone for the longest touchdown reception by a running back this season.
“Kap did a great job keeping his eyes upfield,” praised Harbaugh. “I had no idea, when he stopped, pulled up and started to throw, where he was going with the ball.”
Even the usually stoic, reserved Kaepernick admitted that he was impressed. “Just saw him,” he said. “He came out the back end, turned back towards me and no one was around. I don’t think I’ve ever had one (touchdown throw) quite like that. I got flushed on that play, so at that point, you have to try to make something happen.”
So getting back to the Beatles. Imagine if Kaepernick had a healthy Vernon Davis again, or in the alternative, a couple of speedy, game-breaking receivers? Someday maybe. But at least he has Gore.