SANTA CLARA — When the 49ers opened training camp in late July, Frank Gore had a contract that made him unhappy and a repaired hip that had knocked him out of the final five games of 2010. By the end of the regular season, he owned the 49ers career rushing record and the first playoff berth of his seven-year NFL career.

Like many of Gore's best runs, his fortunes involved a nifty change of direction.

"I take this year over any year," he said in the 49ers locker room this week. "Especially fighting back from an injury a lot of people thought I wouldn't come back from, a hip injury. To come back and have a pretty good year — not just individually, but as a team. I'll take this year over any year in my career so far."

It's hard to believe it has been just five months since Gore's season began with so much uncertainty. Most team officials believed the hip was in good shape. The labor situation was another story. Scheduled to make about $2.9 million in base salary in the final year of his contract, Gore held out for the first four days of camp before agreeing to a three-year extension that includes $13.5 million in guarantees.

That accomplished, he embarked upon one of his finest seasons. Gore rushed for 1,211 yards (the second-highest figure of his career) and eight touchdowns, fumbled just twice (tied for lowest of his career) and was voted to the Pro Bowl for the third time.

Along the way, Gore seemed to slow down a little. In the first eight games of the season he rushed for 782 yards on 159 attempts, a 4.9-yard average; in the final eight games he ran for 429 yards on 123 carries, a 3.5-yard average. That's probably one of the reasons coach Jim Harbaugh sat Gore for the second half of the season finale at St. Louis, even as the Rams stormed back to make the game close.

At the time, Harbaugh ascribed Gore's inactivity to "something that was bothering him," though Gore insisted he was fine. Most likely, the coach noticed the accumulation of small injuries that can beset a workhorse running back, and decided he needed his veteran halfback fresh for the postseason.

The 49ers further assisted Gore by securing the No.2 seed in the NFC, earning a bye week and a chance to let some of those bruises heal.

"It helped me a lot," Gore said. "I came in, got my bodywork done. Just getting my mind right, just thinking about how big it is, how big the postseason is and how happy I am to get an opportunity to be in this situation. It's real good."

Only 11 of the 53 players on San Francisco's active roster have playoff experience. Of the first-timers, it's unlikely any has worked harder than Gore to get here. He's a student of the game, a workout fanatic and a fearless runner between the tackles at 5-foot-9, 217 pounds.

Originally drafted in 2005, Gore is laboring under his third head coach and seventh offensive coordinator. Year after year, he let his optimism rise, only to wind up watching the NFL playoffs on TV.

"It sucked," Gore said. "Especially last year, when you seen Seattle going to the playoffs, and win in the first round, beat New Orleans, and knowing that we were a better team than that, and they was playing in our spot. So it sucked."

To become the second straight NFC West team to upend the Saints in the postseason, the 49ers will almost certainly need a strong contribution from Gore. The key to this game, many feel, will be San Francisco's ability to keep Drew Brees and New Orleans' explosive offense off the field. Doing that will be a lot easier if Gore can duplicate the kind of effort he had against the Saints in a Monday night game in 2010, when he gashed them for 112 rushing yards and 56 yards on seven receptions.

That wasn't the only time Gore made an impression on New Orleans coach Sean Payton.

"We coached Frank in the '06 Pro Bowl," Payton said on a conference call this week, "and he's got that balance, that vision, he's physical, he's got real good elusiveness, and just having had a chance to coach him for a week, you come away with impressions on players. And I know everyone on our staff came away from the '06 Pro Bowl feeling like he was one of the top backs in our league — and better than that even, a great guy."

Gore will have to do more than chew up yards, though. New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known as a relentless blitzer, and the Niners running backs and tight ends, and even wide receivers, will have to make contributions as blockers.

Fortunately for San Francisco, Gore is considered one of the best halfbacks in the NFL in blitz pickup.

"He does it as good as anybody in the game," Harbaugh said. "That'll be critical in this game. The Saints are a hug-rushing team. They're gonna send backers to cover and they'll rush to cover. Once they see that the back is in protection, they'll continue to rush and add extra heat. So it'll be very important for Frank to have a great gap game blocking, as it will for all of our guys."

Gore couldn't be any readier. NFL players, coaches and scouts know how good this guy is. But after playing for a mediocre team out on the West Coast for his first six years, he's still something of an unknown to the average fan.

"Like you said, I waited a long time," Gore acknowledged. "And my goal — I feel that everybody who plays this game — is you want to go to the postseason. I always wanted that, to be able to show everybody in the world what I'm made of as a player."

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.