Gore's goal: Turn back time

This is the time of year when strangers tell Frank Gore they own him. Breathless fans approach to say they just drafted him in their fantasy football leagues.

"It happens all the time," Gore said. "And I always tell them, 'You took the right guy.' "

Gore holds the key to the 49ers' fantasy scenario, too. Starting in the opener today in Arizona, coach Mike Singletary is betting that Gore's legs and a tough defense will be enough to carry the 49ers into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

As coordinator Jimmy Raye memorably said of his offense: "The bell cow in this operation will be No. 21."

In response, Gore tells his real bosses the same thing he tells the fantasy crowd: You took the right guy.

Entering his fifth season, and coming off three consecutive 1,000-yard efforts, Gore said he's in the best shape of his life. He dedicated himself to off-season training starting in January after Singletary pulled him aside for a private meeting.

"He told me to be ready to tote the rock," Gore recalled.

So Gore went back to the scene of his prime, the University of Miami, and reunited with strength coach Andreu Swasey.

Swasey is in his ninth season as the Hurricanes' head strength and conditioning coach. A former defensive back at Baylor (Singletary's alma mater), he specializes in speed and agility training.

Gore, who knew Swasey from the UM days, never exactly relaxed during previous offseasons. In recent years, for example, he ran hills in Miami with a truck tire tethered to his torso.

But in training with Swasey, he had a specific goal in mind: He wanted to turn back time. The 49ers running back aimed to have his legs sizzling like they where when he rushed for 1,695 yards.

"I told him he had to get me back to the form where I was in '06," Gore said.

He arrived at training camp looking like his old self. Gore never missed a practice and sometimes ran with both the first- and second-stringers.

"Whenever coach says, 'Frank,' he jumps up and he's in there," linebacker Patrick Willis said.

Willis is among those who think the 2006 numbers are within range. Gore had his big season the year before Willis was drafted. But the linebacker thinks he's finally seeing the guy he's heard so much about.

"His whole attitude. The way he walks. His swagger," Willis said. "To me, that's the Frank that they talked about the year before I got here when he rushed for big yards and went to the Pro Bowl.

"That's the kind of swagger that we're seeing from him this year, and he has every right to feel that way. He's one of the best backs in this league."

Today, Gore gets to open against his favorite opponent. The running back averaged 133.7 yards from scrimmage in his past six games against the Cardinals. That's by far the highest average against Arizona since 2006 (minimum three games). Torry Holt is second at 89.3 yards.

Then again, Gore's damage is hardly limited to the desert. Since the start of 2006, his 3,833 rushing yards are the most in NFC. He had 1,036 yards on the ground last year to become the first 49er with three 1,000-yard seasons in row.

There is a degree of mystery about how his numbers will be affected by the emergence of rookie Glen Coffee, who led the NFL in rushing during the preseason. The 49ers occasionally indicate that sharing some of the workload with Coffee will keep Gore's legs fresh.

But more often they indicate that they're going to ride Gore as hard as they can — apparently to delight a lot of fantasy football owners everywhere.

As Singletary put it last week: "Our best chance of winning is getting the ball into the hands of our playmakers. And the No. 1 playmaker that we have is Frank Gore."

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