What began as a standard interview — reporter asking the questions; player answering — quickly flipped on its head when Frank Gore decided he had a few things to passive-aggressively get off his chest.
"How do you think I’m looking?" the San Francisco 49ers running back asked.
Told it’s training camp, and that’s practically an impossible question to answer for a 10th-year veteran, Gore nodded, paused and shot back, "So how do y’all judge players right now?"
It was clear where this was going. Gore has been reading and hearing plenty of talk in recent months about how his career is winding down. Recently, the injuries to backup running backs Kendall Hunter (torn ACL, out for the season) and LaMichael James (dislocated elbow, out about a month) had many saying the 49ers suddenly had major concerns in what used to be an incredibly deep backfield.
It makes sense. Gore is 31, Carlos Hyde is a rookie and Marcus Lattimore is still on the non-football injury list, as he recovers from the ghastly knee injury he suffered in college.
Except it doesn’t make sense to Gore, who hasn’t missed a game since 2010 and has posted remarkably consistent numbers over the last three seasons: 1,211, 1,214 and 1,128 yards and eight, eight and nine touchdowns, respectively. Last year, he became only the 20th NFL rusher to gain 1,100 yards in a season in which he was 30 or older.
Gore is set to make over $6 million this season, provided he stays healthy. If the Niners considered asking Gore to slash that figure at some point, they didn’t go through with it. And now, since he’s the last reliable body left in the backfield, he won’t be taking a pay cut anytime soon.
"I’ve been consistent my whole career," Gore told FOX Sports Tuesday. "I still love the game, I still train hard during the offseason, I still want to be the man and I’m going to try my best to do whatever it takes to help my team be successful. That’s all I can do."
He continued, "I’ve had so many doubters my whole career and I’ve been hearing every year, ‘What does Frank Gore got?’ and all this. And I always come to play every year."
This will likely be a transition year for Gore and this entire 49ers offense.
The additions of Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, the return to full health of Michael Crabtree, the motivation of tight end Vernon Davis, the consistency of Anquan Boldin, the drafting of Bruce Ellington and the expected growth of Colin Kaepernick in his second full season as a starter indicate the Niners will feature more of a passing attack. Their training-camp practices reveal as much as well, as they’re lining up three and four wide receivers on a regular basis, with Kaepernick’s decision-making seeming to be a bit quicker than it’s been. Last year, Kaepernick ranked 20th in the NFL with 416 pass attempts. It wouldn’t be a shock if he cracks the top 10 in that category this season and makes a run at 4,000 yards.
Which means the days of Gore carrying the load for a run-heavy attack could be over. He had 276 rushing attempts last season — the third-highest total of his career — and could see that number dwindle this season.
But Gore says it doesn’t have to shrink. This offseason, he worked out with younger backs, such as the Cincinnati Bengals’ Giovani Bernard, the Miami Dolphins’ Lamar Miller and New England Patriots rookie James White. Gore claims he would know if those young guys were outpacing him. He says they weren’t.
"We competed and I felt I was right there with them," he said. "Every day, if I didn’t look better (than them), I was right there with them. That’s a good thing. … I feel good. I feel great. I feel the same. I still feel quick, I feel my explosiveness is still there. I’m smart."
That last part — his smarts — has helped his longevity. It’s why he claims he still feels fresh at a time when most running backs have broken down.
"I know when to go get it and when not to," he said. "People think I take hits but I really don’t. My running style is so low they don’t get a great shot on me."
The critics have gotten their shots, and Gore has heard them. He’s using it as motivation — everything from the talk about how it’s time for the 49ers to start winding him down and phasing him out, to the handwringing over the injuries to his backups.
Gore believes he will have the final say this year.
"It’s been a blessing, man," he said. "I train hard. I train with great guys in the offseason, I have great coaches in the offseason. I train with a lot of those young guys to keep my honest with myself. I have to.
"As long as I want to be the man you’ve got to approach it that way. I still love the game and we’re a great team. I want to be part of a Super Bowl (winner)."