Could Frank Gore be 49ers' greatest ever at RB?

With 931 yards rushing in 2011, Gore would pass Joe Perry atop the team’s career rushing list. He would have done it in just seven seasons, and since Gore just turned 28 in May, he would ostensibly have a few more seasons of quality production before his career goes into decline. Since’s Gore’s 4.7-yard average per carry entering this season ranks third in team history among the San Francisco greats, his career rushing numbers would be totally legitimate.

But numbers don’t tell everything, particularly when you are talking about great football players.

Joe “The Jet” Perry was great – one of the greatest running backs of his era. Roger Craig was great – also one of the best of his era, and certainly the greatest running back to define the 49ers during their championship dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s. Craig is the other running back besides Perry that currently stands between Gore and the top of San Francisco’s all-time rushing chart.

To be sure, other great running backs played for the 49ers. Two of them – Hugh “The King” McElhenny and O.J. Simpson – join Perry and Johnson in the Hall of Fame.

Gore stands today on a second tier of standout backs who defined the 49ers that includes Craig, Ken Willard, Garrison Hearst and J.D. Smith. The latter three names currently stand behind Gore as the Nos. 4-6 career rushers on San Francisco’s all-time list. The latter three all had great stretches with the 49ers, and there was a time while in San Francisco that each was a Pro Bowl running back considered among the very best playing the game

A few other backs had flashes of brilliance with the 49ers: Ricky Watters (a fantastic multi-threat talent despite his audacity and bravado), Delvin Williams (the NFC’s No. 2 rusher with a then-franchise record 1,203 yards rushing in 1976), Wendell Tyler (1,262 yards rushing for the 1984 Super Bowl champions) and Charlie Garner (back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 1999-2000).

But neither of those four running backs did enough with the 49ers, or was around long enough with the 49ers, to be considered in the all-time best conversation.

All the aforementioned others did and were, except for Johnson and Simpson, who were either on the way up or on the way down when they played for the 49ers. Each of those Hall of Famers spent their best days as a professional, and made their names as NFL greats, playing for other teams.

Which leaves Gore alone with Perry, McElhenny, Craig, Willard and Smith as the six greatest running backs to play for the 49ers.

Smith, who led the 49ers in rushing five consecutive seasons from 1959-1963 and was second in the NFL with 1,036 yards rushing in 1959, doesn’t quite make the final cut.

Willard led the 49ers in rushing seven consecutive seasons from 1965-1971 and went to four Pro Bowls over a five-year span. But he never broke the 1,000-yard barrier, had only one season of more than 855 yards rushing, and was more of a plodding runner than enduring threat who finished his 49ers career with a 3.7-yard average per carry.

McElhenny, whose famous misdirection runs and elusiveness provided some of the top highlight-reel material of his day – or any day – was more of a complementary threat in a loaded backfield that at one time or another also featured Perry, Johnson and Smith. McElhenny twice led the 49ers in rushing, but he needed only 478 yards to do so in 1957. He had only two seasons of more than 515 yards rushing – 684 in his rookie season of 1952 and a career-high, team-leading 916 in 1956.

Undoubtedly an all-time NFL great, McElhenny – who also had 264 career receptions and once recorded an 89-yard touchdown run, 77-yard reception and 94-yard punt return in the same season – would be a better finalist in discussion for best multi-threat player.

Which leaves Perry, Craig and Gore.

The credentials of the former two speak loud and clear.

Perry, who died in April at age 84, is San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher with 7,344 yards, averaging 4.9 a pop. He led the 49ers in rushing seven consecutive seasons from 1949-1955, then again in 1958. He was the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons (1,018 in 1953 and 1,049 in 1954, Perry’s two most productive seasons). Perry was a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro who was inducted into the Hall of Fame six years after his career ended.

Craig also sits ahead of Gore with 7,064 yards rushing as a 49er. He led the 49ers in rushing five consecutive seasons (1985-1989) during his wonderful career, including a 1,502-yard season in 1988, when he was the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year. Craig had three 1,000-yard seasons with the 49ers, and in 1985 – the first of his four Pro Bowl seasons – became the first player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same season.

Craig also ranks third in 49ers history in receptions with 508 for 4,442 yards. His 11,506 yards from scrimmage rank second in team history behind only Jerry Rice. Just as significantly, Craig is the only running back among the six finalists to win a Super Bowl. Craig won four of them, three in seasons he was San Francisco’s lead back and leading rusher. Craig was a Hall of Fame finalist in 2010 and probably won’t have to wait many more years before he’s inducted.

Here’s how Gore stacks up with his predecessors: He has led San Francisco in rushing each of the past six seasons, and is the only player in team history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in four seasons, each of them coming consecutively from 2006-2009.

Gore’s 1,695 yards rushing and 2,180 yards from scrimmage in 2006 both are team records. His 4.7 rushing average is second among all NFL running backs since Gore entered the league in 2005. Gore’s 24 100-yard rushing games is a team record, and his 8,697 yards from scrimmage already ranks fourth in team history. He ranks 14th in team history with 270 receptions and has been to two Pro Bowls.

Significantly, Gore’s body of work has been assembled in just six seasons. And even more significantly, here is the primary reason he seriously deserves consideration with Perry and Craig today as the 49ers’ best ever:

Simply put, Gore has done it on his own.

He has produced consistently despite being a marked man in an offense that, for the most part, has had virtually no other legitimate threats and not once has finished a season higher than 23rd in the NFL rankings since Gore arrived on the scene. He has played with eight different starting quarterbacks. He has never played on a winning team.

Gore has led the 49ers in receptions twice and not once has played with a wide receiver who recorded more than 61 receptions in a season. Since joining the 49ers, Gore has played with just one other offensive skill player to make the Pro Bowl, tight end Vernon Davis, and just one lineman to earn that status, guard Larry Allen.

Gore has carried the San Francisco offense every season since becoming a starter in 2006 and still consistently produced star numbers. Perry and Craig never had to do that.

Perry played in a powerhouse backfield, the legendary “Million Dollar Backfield” at that, which had three other players that would reach the Hall of Fame. Enough said.

Craig played for one of the greatest enduring offenses in NFL history, an attack that featured two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young, a Hall of Fame wide receiver, Jerry Rice, and a host of other Pro Bowl stars who were among the best at their positions at that time. During Craig’s eight seasons as a regular starter, the 49ers had an offensive player selected to the Pro Bowl 24 times. Enough said.

So if Gore passes Craig and Perry to become San Francisco’s all-time leading rusher this season, does he become the 49ers’ greatest ever?

The answer, of course, is no.

From this vantage point, Craig is the greatest running back in franchise history. He was a magnificent dual-threat halfback who also had the size and power to start at fullback early in his career. And, bottom line, he was a star on four Super Bowl champions. The 49ers might not have won all four of those Lombardi trophies without him.

But give Gore time. He figures to again be the central figure in San Francisco’s offense this season, working in a new system designed by coach Jim Harbaugh that should take full advantage of Gore’s diverse skills.

And despite the wear and tear Gore has absorbed during his career, including a fractured right hip that ended his season after 11 games last year, Gore’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, recently sent out this status report regarding his client via twitter: “(Gore)’s 100% healthy and fully recovered from his hip injury. He’s never looked better!”

To be sure, Gore has looked pretty good so far as a 49er. He will be a free agent after the 2011 season, and Gore’s return to the team in 2012 and beyond is essential for him to add to his credentials as a franchise great.

But if Gore does play further into this decade with the 49ers, and can finally get this floundering franchise into the playoffs and turn it into a winner again, he will earn status as the best ever, if he isn’t there already.

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