Gore, once all smiles, now getting a bit anxious
The 49ers opened their locker room to the media for the first time this summer on Monday, and after listening to Frank Gore speak, you have to start wondering if the two-time Pro Bowl running back still will have a locker stall there by the time next season rolls around.
That might seem unfathomable to many 49ers fans, and also to observers who know how important Gore has been – and still is – to the team both on the field and in that locker room where he fielded multiple questions regarding his contract status for the second time in a week.
Gore was a holdout for the first four days of training camp, a half-hearted protest by a genuine young man who just wants to play football. Likely on the advice of his manipulative agent, Drew Rosenhaus, Gore wanted to put some strength and resolve behind his appeal for a contract extension. Gore is in the final year of his current deal with the 49ers.
He returned to the team Aug. 1 and hit the ground running the next day in practice. Gore has been exemplary in all phases since then, working hard, being a team player and leading by example. The same things Frank Gore has always done since becoming a 49er.
But reports surfaced Sunday that Gore is “frustrated” with how his contract situation is being handled. Coach Jim Harbaugh, sounding typically annoyed by a question he didn’t seem to like, downplayed those reports.
“I don’t sense unhappiness in Frank,” Harbaugh said. “Even the things you just alluded to, reports, conversations, talking points, things you’re asking me right now – it all sounds like water-cooler talk to me. I’m not interested in water-cooler talk. I don’t think there’s any substance to the things that you’re asking me about. We will deal with Frank man-to-man and we won’t listen to the water-cooler talk.”
But it wasn’t water-cooler talk coming from Gore when he was asked Monday about his contract situation. It was straight talk coming from a guy who often finds it difficult to find something bad to say about anything or anybody.
“Right now, me and my agent talked,” Gore said. “Things aren’t going right right now, but I’m a football player and my job is to play football. Hopefully things get right and I would like it to get done before the season, so I can just focus all on football and not if I’m going to get it done or not.”
Sounds reasonable. But the start of the season is now 20 days away. The clock is ticking, and there likely will be some kind of countdown regarding the subject in the weeks to come until it is resolved – or isn’t.
Gore went on: “Like I’ve said before, I want to remain a 49er for my career. If that doesn’t happen, hopefully I’ll have a great year and test the market. If I have to test the market, that is what I have to do.
“Things aren’t looking too good right now, things are kind of slow. But I know I can play football. I’ve got great film and everybody knows around the league that I can play football. If it doesn’t happen, I’m going to have to play football and try to put my best film out there that I can and try to test the market.”
Gore’s best film already identifies him as one of the best running backs in franchise history and one of the NFL’s elite players at his position today. He has led the 49ers in rushing each of his six seasons with the team, and he enters this season needing 931 yards on the ground to become San Francisco’s all-time rushing leader.
But after taking the NFL pounding offered by 1,371 carries and 270 receptions in the league, there are questions regarding how soon Gore may be headed for decline. He missed the final five games last season with a fractured hip, ending his run of four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, a team record.
For the first time, Gore appears to be getting a little anxious about how this will play out. He can’t be happy about the stall after seeing the 49ers take care of their other star players in recent years.
Tight end Vernon Davis, the team’s first-round selection in 2006, was awarded a five-year, $37 million extension with $34 million in guaranteed money on the eve of the season opener last year. Linebacker Patrick Willis, San Francisco’s first draft pick in 2007, also received a five-year, $50 million extension last year.
If a new deal isn’t worked out before the season begins, that would be a clear sign that Gore remaining a 49er beyond this year no longer is a foregone conclusion.
“I would be upset,” Gore said, “but I’m still a football player, and like I said, I want to be here for my whole career. It’s up to upstairs, the team. If they want me here, I want to be here. I’m here to play football. If I have to be a free agent next year, that is what it is. My agent’s going to take care of that and if it doesn’t happen, I’ve just got to put the best film out there in the last year of my contract and try to test the market. Whatever team wants me, I will do the same for whoever gets me.”
OUR VIEW: Take another look at Gore’s final words above. That’s about as cryptic as Frank Gore ever gets, suggesting that perhaps the 49ers don’t want him as much as he and others thought they did, and also suggesting that the seeds are now planted in Gore’s mind that he could be playing elsewhere for “whoever gets me.” That would be a tragedy, because Gore is everything that is good about the NFL, and also everything that has been good about the 49ers since his arrival in San Francisco, which besides Gore hasn’t been a whole lot. But does anybody really see a new deal for Gore happening before the season opener against Seattle? Harbaugh did say on Sunday: “Hopefully soon there’s a deal that’s fair for Frank and the 49ers and I’m looking forward to that and I know that our organization is.” The problem is, Harbaugh and GM Trent Baalke – who basically represent the organization in the two sides identified by Harbaugh in his comment above – right now are much more focused on and concerned with putting a team together and getting it ready for Harbaugh’s debut season than they are about making Gore happy with a new contract. The “fair” deal the 49ers are looking for obviously right now is not in the same ballpark of what Rosenhaus is asking for on Gore’s behalf. And there lies the developing rift, which will only grow larger until a new deal is in place. Rosenhaus no doubt is asking for a deal in the same realm as the five-year, $43 million pact the Carolina Panthers awarded running back DeAngelo Williams, who is 20 days older than Gore. The 49ers aren’t going to go there, because they know they don’t have to, and Baalke isn’t about to set a precedent of giving in to the demands of hard-line agents. That description certainly fits Rosenhaus, who has a reputation to uphold of getting sweet deals for his name clients. Rosenhaus will be representing other name clients long after Gore’s NFL career is finished, so he’s not going to back down when he has a client that’s deserving of a big payday. Which Gore certainly is. How big a payday? Well, believe this: If Gore does re-sign with the Niners, that payday won’t be anything near what his agent’s asking for today, and probably not very close either to what Gore can get from another team if he waits out the 49ers and hits the open market in 2012.