INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The season is gnawing at Frank Gore. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in what he doesn’t say.
This isn’t what he signed up for in March 2015. He was a veteran free agent in search of the most advantageous landing spot. He was three months shy of 32, semi-ancient by NFL running back standards. He was heading into his 11th season.
Gore had been oh, so close to earning every player’s ultimate treasure, a world championship ring. In Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season, his San Francisco 49ers were denied 34-31 by the Baltimore Ravens when Colin Kaepernick’s fourth-down pass from the 5-yard line with 1:50 to play sailed incomplete.
When it came time to search for a new home – he was an unrestricted free agent after ’14 and not part of the 49ers’ future – Gore considered his options. At the top of the short list were the Indianapolis Colts.
From the outside, Gore saw a team on the rise. Indy had reached the 2014 AFC Championship game. The Colts had the quarterback – Andrew Luck – the 49ers lacked during his 10-year stint with Frisco. He still had the drive and talent to play at a high level.
Fast-forward to today.
Gore stood at his locker this week in the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center and found himself dealing with two disparate issues: his continued assault on the NFL’s career rushing chart – he could move from 7th to 5th with 49 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday – and doing so for a team careening towards its third consecutive non-winning record since his arrival.
Last Sunday’s 20-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans was the latest dose of self-inflicted frustration. The Colts are 3-8, and look no further than their maddening inability to finish what they start for the overriding reason. They’re 3-4 in one-score games and four times have blown double-digit second-half leads.
“We’ve just gotta keep going, keep believing and keep working and try to finish,’’ Gore said. “Take care of the small things and the big things will happen.
“It just hasn’t been going our way, but I know we’ve got the guys in this locker room and coaching staff that can get us there. We’ve just got to do it.’’
On a personal basis, Gore’s third season in Indy undoubtedly has tested his resolve.
Instead of working in tandem with Luck, he’s had to adapt to Jacoby Brissett and deal with the expected growing pains of a 23-year old quarterback who arrived in town Sept. 2. The offensive line has been a mess since the season opener against the Rams. Sunday against the Jaguars, the Colts will rely on a third starting center (Mike Person, who replaces concussed Ryan Kelly) and a seventh different starting combination.
Consider Gore collateral damage. His 3.5 per-rush average would represent a career-low, and his per-game averages of 14.6 carries and 51.9 yards would be his lowest since his rookie season.
Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone isn’t being fooled by the un-Gore-like numbers. And he isn’t giving a smidgen of credence to Gore, 34, finally being bested by Father Time.
When Marrone watches tape of Gore, his mind flashes back to 2002-05. He was the New York Jets’ offensive line coach at the time and the Jets featured a 30-something running back.
“I was really fortunate to be around a guy named Curtis Martin who was, by age, the oldest running back to ever win the rushing title,’’ he said.
In ’04 and at 31, Martin led the league with a club-record 1,697 yards.
Gore reminds Marrone of Martin, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2012.
“You had so much respect for them with the way they practice, take care of their body and their running,’’ Marrone said. “With Frank, I think he’s a great example for all the young running backs in the league of someone that’s still a very highly productive player playing a long career, and he’s had an outstanding career and I would put him up with a Hall of Fame career.
“I have a great amount of respect for what he does. I think that he still can play and he’s still a very, very dangerous guy on the field with the ball in his hands.’’
Sunday, Gore makes his 104th consecutive start, the NFL’s longest active streak among players at a position with demands that go counter to longevity.
“I’ve been blessed,’’ he said. “It’s not me. I give all the glory to the Man up above.
“I work hard, but a lot of guys work hard. I’ve been blessed.’’
“It’s just a credit to him,’’ Marrone said.
Gore runs angry, and generally finishes runs by delivering the blow as much as absorbing contact.
Marrone spent two seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman, and witnessed the punishment running backs deal with.
“I always had an appreciation for what they’ve been able to do, especially a guy like Frank, who’s obviously a very physical runner,’’ he said. “Not to put him against or to compare him to anyone else, but the numbers he’s put out there with the style that he runs is really a credit to him.’’
Gore ranks 7th in NFL history with 13,636 yards. He needs 27 to pass Jerome Bettis for 6th and 49 to pass LaDainian Tomlinson for 5th.
“That’s big, a blessing, especially with the guys who my name is amongst,’’ Gore said. “That’s big.
“I’m blessed to be still playing. I love to compete. I’m still loving it, still having fun with the young guys. I feel I still can play this game.’’
Again, Marrone isn’t going to argue the point.
“If you give him a seam, he’s going to take it and he still has the juice to take the ball and get it into the secondary,’’ he said. “Obviously he can definitely run your (butt) over.
“People may say age, but you do not see age when you watch him play. You don’t see, in my opinion, a declining player.’’
The questions in the coming months are whether Gore plays a 14th season, and where? He’s in the final year of a three-year, $12 million contract.
Gore needs 466 yards to move past Martin onto the No. 4 run in NFL history. That would leave only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders ahead of him.
While he’s aware of his place in league history, Gore has indicated he has little interest in hanging around just to chase numbers. Maybe he would return for another season with the Colts. Maybe he’d be interested in winding things up in Miami.
“I’ll see,’’ Gore said when asked about his future. “I’m not done here, yet. I want to finish strong and see how my body’s feeling.
“I feel like I still can play this game. I think I still can compete.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.