Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

49ers' Frank Gore, Ravens' Ray Rice vintage running backs

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NEW ORLEANS

Long ago, when the world was young, there was a way to get from here to there. By zeppelin. It was all the rage.

Earlier, the preferred way to go was by stagecoach. Or by burrow. Or, if you could avoid the icebergs, by ocean liner.

Also, back in the day, there was another way to move.

It was called "by running back."

In an earlier NFL, this was how teams chose to move downfield. It was bloodier, and it was more brutal, but the teams of the day were kind of fond of it. It allowed stronger teams to physically push around weaker teams, and it made stars out of the men who endured collisions along the way.

Then all the rules were changed to value the passers, and the world fell out of love with running backs, and the NFL looked more like fireworks than wagon trains. And doesn't everyone prefer to fly than to drive?

That is, until you run into a couple of old-school guys who just ran their teams all the way to the Super Bowl.

Along the way, Ray Rice and Frank Gore reminded everyone that running backs are still important, after all.

"Look at the way the game is played," Rice said. "I think the running back is as valued as ever, especially after what (Minnesota's) Adrian Peterson did this year (making a run at the single-season record).

Maybe in Minnesota. Maybe in Baltimore. Maybe in San Francisco. But over the years, some teams have all but abandoned the running game. For instance, the Giants won last year's Super Bowl despite having the NFL's lowest-ranked running game. Over the past 10 Super Bowls, five teams have won despite being among the worst 10 running offenses in the league.

Instead, the quarterbacks have taken over. Consider this: From 1986-90, the NFL draft featured 5.4 running backs taken in the first round. The past 10 years, however, that number has dropped to 2.8. Some teams no longer consider running back a premier position.

The Ravens do. Rice has become the energy of the Baltimore offense. The 49ers do. Gore has become the soul of San Francisco.

Start with Gore, 29, the back with the battered body. He has had surgery on both shoulders, on both knees and on his hip. And still he runs. For six of the past seven years, he has had more than 1,000 yards, and he still envisions himself playing another four or five years.

And why not? He has run so long, he has gone from a bad team to a good one.

Gore will tell you how the bad years ripped him up. He had played at the University of Miami, and now he was losing, and it bothered him that it didn't seem to bother other players. No wonder he admires Jim Harbaugh, his coach, for changing things.

Gore shrugs when asked about the game moving away from the running back. Whatever it takes, he said.

"He's a bull," Rice said of Gore. "He gets downhill on you very fast. He's more elusive than people think he is. If you watch Frank Gore, he doesn't take the hits; he delivers them because of his low center of gravity. To be through what he's been through, the guy is a warrior."

Gore, too, is a fan of Rice. He said he started watching Rice when Rice was at Rutgers, playing for Greg Schiano — and was impressed from the start. Four straight 1,000-yard seasons later, he still thinks so.

"He's a great back," Gore said. "Tough. Block. Run. Catch. He can do it all. I love his game. He's probably shifter than I am. He's not a small back. He's tough, and if you're tough, you can play this game."

This year, Gore rushed for 1,214 yards, and added 234 on receptions. Rice rushed for 1,143 and added 478 on receptions.

Yeah, they helped.

They know, however. Once the game begins, most of the chatter will about the quarterbacks. About Joe Flacco of the Ravens. About Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers. That's the way TV is. That's the way the NFL is.

"I have to tell you," Rice said. "The quarterback is the cream position. If I was in charge, they would still be in the headlines."

Maybe. But these are old-school runners, too. Before Sunday is over, they may make you remember the way Marcus Allen looked in the Super Bowl, and Tim Smith, and John Riggins, and Larry Csonka.

Put a goal line in front of them, and Gore and Rice are pretty good.

For the best running back, that never changes.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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