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."