Frank Gore in 2014: The End We've Been Expecting for Years
Man's greatest achievement was the rechargeable internal battery for Game Boy. The wheel? No way. Sliced Bread? Forget about it. With the Nintendo's release of the Game Boy Advance SP, handheld gaming was ushered into an era that was no longer defined by lost progress. The previous versions of this gaming system were powered by AA batteries that needed to be replaced quite frequently. And if you happened to be in the middle of something when your batteries ran out, the game would shut off and you would lose all of the progress you had made since your last save. Conversely, the internal battery could be plugged into the wall and you could continue to play your game without interruption.
There was nothing nearly as stressful (for young Phil) as starting a Pokemon battle on a GameBoy that was running out of juice. Lots of thoughts ran through my head as I mashed the buttons as fast as I could in an attempt to finish my battle in time to save the game. What will I do if I have to battle the Elite Four again? Will my Charizard survive?
It was in these ridiculous moments that I can glean some lessons about risk, reward, and football in general. If you think about it, every single NFL player is running on "batteries", and when those batteries dry up, their time as a pro is over. Fantasy football owners sometimes pay even more attention to a player's decline, because there are immediate consequences (good or bad) to drafting a player that is on the cusp of a decline in production.
It feels like Frank Gore has been approaching a production implosion for the last couple of years. Despite the perennial doubt surrounding Gore, he has finished within the top 12 fantasy running backs (in terms of total fantasy points) in all but three years of his career. Those three years were the only years in which he played less than 15 games.
This shows us two things. First, when he has played in at least 15 games, he has performed well compared to the other running backs in the NFL. Second, while there should have been a decline in his production as he aged, we have not yet come across that.
From a cursory look at his statistical totals, last season was par for the course for the 49er's lead running back. However, when we dig a little deeper and take a look at our Net Expected Points (NEP) data, we can find some indicators that last year was not typical. And, in fact, it was one of his worst seasons.
In 2013, Frank Gore saw his second lowest Rushing Net Expected Points score of his career. Among the 35 running backs with more than 150 carries, his Rushing NEP was 28th. This put him right between Reggie Bush and Lamar Miller.
While Gore only had two seasons in which he recorded a positive Rushing NEP score, he had made up for that with a decent Reception NEP score, which measures the number of points added by a player on catches only. In 2006, 2009, and 2010, he had a Reception NEP score between 32 and 38, which would be right around what we saw from Reggie Bush in 2013 - a top 5 or 10 score among high-volume rushers. However, starting in 2011, Gore's Reception NEP has dropped significantly. It's been less like 2013 Reggie Bush and more like 2013 Rashard Mendenhall. To add to this, the rest of the reception metrics we use at numberFire all show a huge drop for Gore in the last three years, as well - the number of points added on all targets and his contributions on a per target basis has been lacking. To make a long story short, Gore's saving grace (his production in the passing game) has nearly disappeared over the last three seasons.
Gore has continued to see cumulative success as a runner due to his consistent volume of carries and targets. His yards per carry average was the lowest it had been in his entire career in 2013 (4.09), but he saw his third-highest carry total. There hasn't been a clear successor to Gore in the 49er's backfield yet, although Kendall Hunter did see 78 carries last year as his backup.
All of these things would point to the fact that Gore is currently in the middle of his decline, but is being sustained by a nice volume of carries. As his effectiveness continues to dwindle, we should expect the 49ers to increase the involvement of Marcus Lattimore or Carlos Hyde. And regardless of which player gets an increased workload, it will likely be taken from Mr. Gore's.
Frank Gore has been declining for a while now, but the pieces haven't necessarily been in place for the 49ers to transition away from their star veteran. However, with their acquisition of Hyde, they might just have the young, explosive, healthy running back that they have been looking for.