INDIANAPOLIS -- Nothing had to be said to Frank Gore. He knew what was happening despite what was being said publicly. The then-San Francisco 49ers running back was experiencing the phase-out with his own eyes.
The plays, the same ones he took the handoffs on for most of his 10 years with the organization, were being run with him on the sideline last season.
“I wasn’t touching the rock like I used to,” Gore said. “Some plays would be my plays and they’d take me off still. I just think they wanted to go in a different direction. It was tough. You never want to leave somewhere you were comfortable at.”
And as the phase-out continued, Gore’s eyes and his mind started drifting elsewhere. They started wandering some 2,300 miles to the east in Indianapolis. Gore knew he wanted to continue his career, but it had to be the right situation.
The Indianapolis Colts and Gore needed each other.
The Colts' Trent Richardson experiment at running back became more and more embarrassing for the franchise each week as he failed to average 4.0 yards a carry. The Colts couldn't continue down that path in the backfield. They needed a running game to complement franchise quarterback Andrew Luck's arm.
Gore picked up the phone after the season and dialed the number of a player he knows well.
He called Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton. Both are from South Florida, and Gore’s cousin and Hilton were teammates at Florida International University.
“I called T.Y. and said, ‘Tell them I’m interested,’ without even knowing if they were interested in me," Gore recalled saying. “I figured out they weren’t happy with Trent during the season. I had watched from a distance as they continued to get better every year and they had one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Andrew, but I didn't know a whole lot about the organization."
Hilton didn’t need a used-car salesman pitch to sell Gore on the Colts. Luck was the loaded Porsche that needed some more pieces to make things run even smoother.
The Colts, despite reaching the AFC Championship Game last season, have had only one player rush for at least 100 yards in a game in Luck’s 48 regular-season games. They haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher in a season since 2007.
“Everybody wants to play with Andrew,” Hilton said. “He's a free-agent magnet. I told [Gore] we need a good, solid running back. We got Boom [Herron]. He does great things for us, but we need that back that’s like Frank. We’re a power scheme offense, and his style fits that perfectly. I told him he would really help us. I really didn’t have to sell anything on him.”
Gore had verbally agreed to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles at the start of free agency March 10, but his mind was still in Indianapolis, not with Chip Kelly and the Eagles’ offense. Gore, despite knowing the potential backlash, told his agent to continue talking to the Colts to try to work out a deal with Indianapolis.
“It’s a business,” Gore said. “I wanted to be here. I’ve been with [offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton] and it’s a similar offense. It couldn’t be any better.”
Not only was a reduced role tough for Gore to deal with last season, so was not making the playoffs after three straight years of reaching at least the NFC Championship Game with the 49ers.
There were recruiting efforts by other players Gore knows around the league, but despite their efforts and the money being thrown his way, it came down to three things: the chance to play with Luck, wanting to play for an organization that had Super Bowl potential and Gore’s relationship with Hamilton. Hamilton was on San Francisco’s staff in 2006 when Gore rushed for a career-high 1,695 yards.
“I know by watching them in the past and the guys they have in the locker room and being here with the coaching staff, everybody healthy and on the same page we have a shot,” Gore said. “It's all about taking care of all the small things. They take care of the little things. When you take care of little things, that shows how serious you are.”
Gore, leaning back in his chair and his foot propped up on his locker, finds himself at times thinking ahead to next season. He has spent the majority of his career facing defenses that loaded the box with eight or nine defenders.
That won’t be possible because of Luck -- who Gore called one of the smartest players he has ever met -- and the weapons he has at receiver and tight end. The Colts managed to get by without much of a running game to finish third in the NFL in total yards last season. Now with Gore in the mix they should be even better.
“I think it’s a very exciting matchup for those guys,” Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said during the NFL owners meetings in March. “You add the receiver [Andre Johnson], too. It has to be really exciting ... with those two new elements to add with the quarterback on a really good team already. [Gore] has tremendous style. You feel his intensity when he plays. Again, he can come through in the clutch and make things happen when you need him. He’s tough to play against, and anybody who has him on his team has to be excited about it.”
Statistics suggest Gore, who signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Colts, should see a decrease in his production this season. He just turned 32, and Ricky Williams is the last running back to rush for at least 1,000 yards at that age or older. Williams rushed for 1,121 yards with the Miami Dolphins in 2009.
The difference between being in San Francisco and Indianapolis for Gore, though, is that he doesn’t have to touch the ball 15 times a game for the Colts to win. He simply needs to take some of the load off Luck’s shoulders by forcing the defense to respect the run game.
“I feel like every game can be different,” Gore said. “Some games if we have to throw 50-60 times to win, I’m with it. Sometimes we might have to pound it out. I simply want to win. That's the reason I came here. Just to win."