Frank Gore is rushing toward his 31st birthday. That’s already past the expiration date for most NFL running backs because the job is so brutal. Anyone who watches football knows why.
Anyone who watches the 49ers also knows what Gore means to the team. So while it would be wrong to say that his teammates want to win a Super Bowl just for Gore, it is entirely safe to say this: There’s no other man in the locker room they believe is more deserving.
Why do they feel that way? Depends. The younger 49ers players know Gore as the runner who gets first downs when first downs are needed. But the older players are the men who truly understand. They saw what Gore endured early in his career, during the 49ers’ darkness of 2005 through 2010.
In those days, Gore was known as the team’s “bell cow” running back. Week after week, loss after loss, Gore was pretty much the entire 49ers offense. He would carry the ball 20 or 25 times, sit and do postgame interviews while covered in mounds of ice, then limp out the door to the team bus on pain-infused ankles or knees — and then return the next week for another off-tackle dive into the meat grinder.
“I never thought about quitting,” Gore said this week, talking about those dark days. “I love it too much. I love football. And when I was growing up, I was always taught that if you start something, you’ve got to finish it.”
He has another chance for the ultimate finish, this weekend when the 49ers play at Seattle for a trip to the Super Bowl. Since 2011, Gore has accumulated the most postseason rushing yards (632) of any NFL player. And watching him give it another run is a reminder of why the last few years of 49ers playoff success have been such a joy to watch — not just for the team’s fan base but for Gore’s co-workers. They are closest to him. And they realize that Gore doesn’t have much more time to win that silver football on a stick known as the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
–Mark Purdy, San Jose Mercury News
In September of the 2004 NFL season, the 49ers headed to Seattle for a divisional game against the Seahawks. It’s hardly a pleasant memory – Dennis Ericksoncoaching, Ken Dorseyat quarterback ,Jamal Robertsonthe leading rusher – and it was a disaster, to the tune of 34-0.
By the time the teams met again in November, Tim Rattaywas the quarterback, handing off primarily to Kevan Barlow. On their way to a 2-14 season, the 49ers lost again to the Seahawks, 42-27. Two games about as interesting as a scrimmage without pads.
The point being: As Sunday’s big game approaches, it’s probably the hottest rivalry in sports. In the classic sense? Not even close. And once a few key characters have moved on – say, Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, Richard Shermanand Colin Kaepernick – it could regress into 49ers-Arizona territory: meaningful, but nothing special.
Classic rivalries don’t come and go; they last for decades, if not centuries. They are white-hot and viable every year, records be damned. Passionate devotion is passed on through the generations, and nothing matters quite as much as that game, or series.
What’s a great rivalry? The Army-Navy football game, essentially life itself for both military academies, dates to 1890. Ohio State-Michigan: 1897. Harvard-Yale: 1875. Auburn-Georgia and the Cal-Stanford Big Game: 1892. The Duke-North Carolina basketball rivalry didn’t really draw national attention until the 1960s, but it has that vital element: Nothing ever changes. The schools will forever be just eight miles apart, one of them private, the other public, at odds in every way.
Professional sports rivalries are far more difficult to sustain. Even such classics as Raiders-Kansas City, 49ers-Dallas and Lakers-Celtics lose steam if the teams turn sour. To me, the only NFL equivalent to the great collegiate rivalries is Packers-Bears, dating to the 1920s and the likes of George Halas, Red Grange and Curly Lambeau. That’s a matchup that fairly defines the NFL. Even if the teams are lousy, just the idea sounds good. And that certainly applies to Giants-Dodgers or Yankees-Red Sox in any given year.
–Bruce Jenkins, San Francisco Chronicle
It doesn’t get any better in the NFC Championship Game: The San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson take a detailed look at some of the key issues entering a game in which emotions are bound to be sky-high.
Blount: Bill, clearly there is no love lost between these two teams, although I do think they respect each other. How much of a factor do you think players’ emotions will play in the outcome, if any?
Williamson: The 49ers are coming off a highly emotional game against the Carolina Panthers, and the 49ers handled it way better than the Carolina players did. The Panthers were called for several silly penalties spurred by their emotion. Some 49ers players said they thought their playoff experience was a factor and the Panthers might have been too emotional. The Seahawks have playoff experience, so it will be interesting. I think the key here will be Seattle defensive back Richard Sherman and San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin. Both of these guys can get chippy and they can get on the nerves of opponents. So, I’d start there.
Terry, do you think Sherman can control himself this week? We all know how he can get and how facing Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers amps him up.
Blount: We’ll see, Bill, but I think Sherman understands the significance of this game. He can be brash, obviously, but he’s also an extremely intelligent guy who knows when and where to pick his fights and his comments. Now, if the game ends in a Seattle victory, you’ll want to have a microphone in his face because he’s likely to let it fly.
Bill, how much of a difference has Michael Crabtree made in the 49ers offense since his return?
Williamson: It’s been incredible. We knew Crabtree would give this offense life when he returned Dec. 1 from a torn Achilles he suffered in May, but I don’t think we knew the effect would be this dramatic. It is simply a different offense with Crabtree.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is much more confident because he has more weapons. It has also made Boldin much more dangerous. Before, he was being double- and tripled-teamed. That is no longer the case with Crabtree on the field. Now, it seems every game either Crabtree, Boldin or tight end Vernon Davis make a huge impact.
–Terry Blount and Bill Williamson, ESPN.com