Frank Gore, who appeared to be headed for his final year with the 49ers when the season began, said he wants to return.
“I want to be here,” the 10-year veteran tailback said. “I was raised here, man.”
The 49ers want him back, too. General manager Trent Baalke recently told Gore he wants him to return in 2015. Gore, whose contract expires in March, said he has yet to discuss a new deal with the team.
What has changed since the beginning of the season? For one, Gore has not been any different than he was in 2011, when coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff took over. He averaged 4.3 yards a carry that season; he’s averaging 4.2 yards this year.
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He ran for 158 yards against San Diego last Saturday, and he hasn’t accumulated much wear and tear in 2014, a year in which the 49ers tilted away from their running game at times. Gore is on pace for 245 carries after averaging 319 the previous three seasons, including playoffs.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick cited the most recent game as proof that Gore, whom teammates honored with their most prestigious team award Wednesday, still can carry an offense despite his 30-something age.
“Coming off a concussion, Week 16 of the season, going for I don’t know how many yards – 150 or something like that,” Kaepernick said. “I don’t see him slowing down, so I think he’s proven his point.”
Another reason to bring Gore back: The 49ers simply don’t have many running backs. They began the season with Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James on the roster. Both are now gone, leaving them with Carlos Hyde and Kendall Hunter signed for next season. Hunter suffered an ACL tear early in training camp but is expected to make a full recovery and be ready for camp in 2015.
Getting a deal done won’t be easy. Gore will be 32 next year, and the 49ers are expected to offer him considerably less than the $6.45 million he is making this season. His role also must be taken into consideration. Gore has been the team’s starter since 2006 and believes he is still one of the top runners in the league. Indeed, his average is better than Hyde’s – 4 yards per carry – despite an eight-year difference in age.
“I want to play football,” Gore said when asked if he needs to be the lead tailback on the team. “I’m signing up to play football. So I want to play football. And I feel like I still can play.”
Gore also wants to make sure the 49ers are well-stocked with talent.
Defensive lineman Justin Smith hasn’t decided whether he wants to return for a 15th season while receiver Michael Crabtree, who is close to Gore, also is scheduled for free agency. Meanwhile, tight end Vernon Davis’ salary-cap figure exceeds $7 million, which could be too high for a player with just 236 receiving yards and two touchdowns this season.
“I’ve got to see what changes,” Gore said. “ I’ve got to see what we do here.”
He said he hoped a number of key players – he cited Smith, Davis, linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and receiver Anquan Boldin by name – would be back and in good health next season. Gore said he’ll probably call Smith every day during the offseason to convince him to return and try to win the Super Bowl.
“That’s why we’re here. That’s why we do this,” Gore said. “That’s why we play NFL ball. That’s why you play team sports – to win a championship. And I want to be a champion.”
Gore also said he had plenty of respect for Harbaugh, another key figure who appears to be on his way out. Gore said Harbaugh has been the best coach he’s had in the NFL.
“I didn’t enjoy it here until we started winning,” he said. “Since he’s been here, I’ve won.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.