San Francisco 49ers

Tables turned: 49ers need Frank Gore more than he needs them

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore (21) runs off the field after the 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals 20-17 in an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014.
San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore (21) runs off the field after the 49ers beat the Arizona Cardinals 20-17 in an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014. AP

Jim Harbaugh wasn’t the only iconic figure who may have walked through the 49ers’ locker room for the last time Sunday.

Frank Gore is not under contract for 2015, and he made it clear that what the 49ers do in the offseason – including how they replace Harbaugh – will have a big bearing on whether he’ll be back next season.

“I want to know the coaching staff coming in,” Gore said after San Francisco’s 20-17 win over Arizona in the regular-season finale. “Also, the guys who have been here who I know. I want to know when the game’s on the line, they’re going to fight like me. That’s what I want to know.”

Earlier this season, it seemed as if the 49ers – who were teeming with young, promising running backs – had leverage over Gore, who at 31 was believed to be fading into the twilight of his career.

Now, however, Gore appears to be the one calling the shots.

He ran like a man 10 years his junior in recent weeks, rushing for 144 yards on Sunday to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the eighth time in his 10-year career. Gore also went over 11,000 yards for his career, becoming the 20th player in NFL history to hit that mark.

With the 49ers now dealing with a shortage of runners – and in need of a face-saving move after parting ways with the popular Harbaugh – re-signing Gore has turned into a priority.

Gore, however, may decide to test the free-agent market, which opens in March. Those close to him have said that winning a Super Bowl has become his top priority, and that he is curious whether other teams, including the Indianapolis Colts, could use him as a rusher.

Gore also believes that, even though he’ll be 32 next season, he can continue to be a team’s featured runner. That Gore rushed for 122 yards after halftime Sunday suggests that he’s right. So does the fact that his year-end average of 4.3 yards per carry is better than it was a year ago.

The 49ers’ all-time leading rusher surpassed 1,000 yards with a 20-yard run in the third quarter. Harbaugh, however, was most impressed by a fourth-quarter run to the outside in which Gore seemed to will himself to stay inbounds, pick up a first down and keep the clock running.

“I think the thing that’s really burning in my mind right now is that run along the sideline, straining to stay inbounds,” Harbaugh said. “Everything he had. Every ounce of football energy. That’s him. That’s who he is.”

Gore, who is easily the most passionate player in the locker room, used to cry after 49ers losses early in his career when the franchise struggled to finish at .500. He cried before Sunday’s game.

“When I got here, I was 21,” he said. “You know, 10 years and I’ve never been in this situation. I’ve always been under contract, and knowing it might be my last game here, it was tough. It was tough because this is all I knew.

“When I first got here, I was a kid,” he said. “Great fans, great organization. I want to be back. I wish we can get things worked out. But I also know it’s a business.”

Thousand-yard club – Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who entered the game needing 19 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the season, picked up a much bigger chunk on his first catch.

Facing third and 8 from his 24-yard line, quarterback Colin Kaepernick stepped forward to avoid the pass rush, then found Boldin crossing the field behind the Cardinals’ secondary. Boldin caught the pass in stride and ran 76 yards for a touchdown, his longest since 2008 when he was a member of the Cardinals.

Boldin led the 49ers with 1,062 receiving yards this season.

“There’s probably a football hell, but I really believe there’s a football heaven,” Harbaugh said. “That’s where a guy like Anquan Boldin’s going – tremendous, tremendous person and football player. Just great to see another stalwart performance from Anquan Boldin and just forever proud to even know him, forever proud to have coached, to have been on the same team with a man like Anquan Boldin.”

Et cetera – Tight end Vernon Davis’ 9-yard catch in the third quarter was his first catch since the second quarter of the 49ers’ Dec. 7 game against the Raiders. It was Davis’ only catch of the game. He finished the season with 245 receiving yards, the lowest of his nine-year career.

▪ Trindon Holliday handled kick returns – he averaged 27.7 yards per return – but not punt returns. He said he signed with the 49ers on Friday with the understanding that he would compete for a spot on the team in the offseason.

▪ Phil Dawson’s 53-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter just cleared the crossbar. The 39-year-old kicker was 6 for 9 from 50 yards and beyond this season. He was 16 for 18 at Levi’s Stadium.

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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