State Your Case: Frank Gore Hall of Famer or numbers man?

Frank Gore has rushed for more yards than all but four players who ever played pro football. Before the 2018 season ends there may be only three. Yet did you ever think of him as a Hall of Famer? Probably not

Frank Gore is a fascinating test case of the dilemma posed by The Great Compiler because he certainly has been one. Judging by his first game this season, he’s far from done. But do numbers alone make you a Hall of Famer?

Last Sunday, in the first game of the 2018 NFL season, Gore had a typical Frank Gore day. He averaged 6.8 yards a carry, rushing nine times for 61 yards in Miami’s 27-20 win over the Tennessee Titans and played a key role in the Dolphins’ first scoring drive. He was more than serviceable but less than spectacular.

One could say the same of his oddly unnoticed but highly productive 14-year career.

The 35-year-old Gore shared the ball with 24-year-old Kenyan Drake, who ran more often than he did but for fewer yards. Do you think Jim Brown or Emmitt Smith or Walter Payton would have ever shared the ball with Kenyan Drake?

Yet those 61 yards left Gore only 15 rushing yards short of passing Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin to become the fourth all-time leading rusher in NFL history. If only three guys ever ran for more yards than you, shouldn’t that make you a Hall of Famer in a rush five years after retirement?

Perhaps, but consider the other side of the story. In 13 full NFL seasons plus one 2018 game, Frank Gore has run for 14,087 yards, yet has never once led the league in rushing. In fact, Gore has been in the top five rushers only once in his career (third in 2006 with 1,645 yards). Is a runner who not only never led the league in rushing but for the most part never came close to it in any single year truly worthy of induction in Canton?

That depends on how you look at it. If you look at production you will find that only one player in NFL history had 1,200 or more yards from scrimmage 12 times. His name is not Jerry Rice, who Gore passed last season. It is Frank Gore, who has done it now for 12 straight years.

These are the horns of a dilemma Hall of Fame voters will find themselves impaled on five years after Gore retires because the deeper you look into him the more confusing the picture becomes.

Be honest. Did you ever once watch Frank Gore play these past 13-plus seasons and think “Hall of Famer?” No you did not.

Yet of all the backs in NFL history with 3,000 or more carries only Barry Sanders averaged more than his 4.4 yards-per-carry career average. In fact, Gore has averaged more yards per carry than Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, and ranks even with Walter Payton and Eric Dickerson and ahead of Martin (4.0 yards per carry).

Even when it comes to the Hall-of-Fame of Compilers, Gore’s performance exceeded the best. Jerome Bettis retired after 13 seasons as the seventh all-time leading rusher with 13,662 yards. Gore topped that number by 364 yards after his 13th season in large part because he’s averaged 4.4 yards per carry to Bettis’ more plodding 3.9.

Jerome Bettis is in the Hall of Fame.

The top four rushers all-time ahead of Gore and eight of the next 10 behind him are all Hall of Famers. Ranked 10th, Adrian Peterson is still active, and many people talk of him as a lock for enshrinement in Canton. Yet he’s rushed for nearly 2,000 fewer yards than Gore in his career. So how is that guy a “lock’’ in the eyes of most, while someone who has produced more could be locked out? Don’t know but ask Edgerrin James, who feels like he may be in the same boat as Gore.

The fact that Gore was never considered the best back in the league in any year he’s played may be part of it. The fact he failed to make the 2000s' All-Decade team that selected four backs is a larger stumbling block.

Yet when one looks at those backs, we find Hall-of-Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, James, Shaun Alexander and Jamal Lewis. All four rank behind Gore in rushing yards, with Tomlinson sixth, James 13th, Lewis 24th and Alexander 36th. How did they all pass a guy who has passed them all in production?

Tomlinson was simply better as a dual purpose runner and receiver. James was more versatile and more explosive, too, and probably also better when at his best. But what did the other two have over Gore? They each had one season to remember, while Gore seems to be having a career many may forget.

In 2003, Lewis rushed for 2,006 yards to become the league’s MVP. Two years later, Alexander led the NFL with 1,880 rushing yards, 27 rushing touchdowns and also was named MVP. They were, for one bright, shining moment, brilliant. Frank Gore? Consistent yes. Brilliant? Not really.

Frank Gore is the reliable and productive employee no one notices until a month after he retires. Only then do people see that things aren’t getting done as well as they used to be.

By the time he’s done, Gore will end up trailing only Smith, Payton and Barry Sanders in rushing yards, and in total yards from scrimmage he has been equally illuminating. His 17,759 yards leave him within 431 total yards of Sanders and 697 yards away from passing Tomlinson. If he passes both this season, which is possible, it would leave him fifth all-time in total yards from scrimmage and fourth in rushing yards. That may punch his ticket to Canton, but more than likely he won’t get in on the express train.

Remarkably, he has accomplished all this despite the fact that when Drake was only eight years old, Gore had already had the first of two ACL surgeries he would face while still in college. One on each knee, to keep things balanced.

By the time Drake was a budding 16-year-old star at Hillgrove High in Powder Springs, Ga., his future running mate with the Dolphins was coming back from surgery on both shoulders and a broken hip. Gore suffered that hip injury in the 12th game of the 2010 season. A year later he rushed for 1,211 yards and started 15 games. In the ensuing eight years, playing on two reconstructed knees, with two reconstructed shoulders and a repaired hip, he missed only one start and has not missed a single game.

Part of ability is availability, and Frank Gore has almost always been available to run. Should he be penalized for that with the label of “compiler,” as if that was a mortal sin rather than an admirable trait?

If he can rush for 500 yards or more this season, Gore will be one of only eight backs 35 years or older to do that. If he can hit 1,000 (which he has done nine times and missed by only 39 yards last season with the Indianapolis Colts) he would join an even more select fraternity. Only two backs, John Henry Johnson and John Riggins, ever rushed for 1,000 yards or more after the age of 35. Gore would become the third. The other two are in the Hall of Fame. Frank Gore?

If he manages to score five touchdowns this season Gore will have scored 100 times, passing Eric Dickerson and tying him at 23rd all-time with Martin and Franco Harris. All three are in the Hall of Fame. Frank Gore?

Who knows?

If spectacular is the measuring stick, Frank Gore will face the same uphill fight getting to Canton he faced getting into the NFL after blowing out ACLs in both knees while still at the University of Miami. But if production is the measuring stick, well, you state the case against him. He’s already quietly made his case.

Comments