Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Fumblitis


I don't even know if that is the correct spelling of the made-up term for the disease that Frank Gore is currently suffering from, but what I do know is that he needs to hang on to the football his Sunday against Oakland. It is hard to believe that a doldrums game between 1-3 San Fran and 0-3 Oakland could have any serious implications, but I contend that this is a critical game for Gore, and therefore, for thousands of fantasy football enthusiasts and Niners fans.

The fantasy part is obvious enough. Gore went somewhere between the second and fourth round of most drafts and started out as one of the best fantasy players through the first two weeks. Since then he has battled some nagging injuries (a problem) and a propensity to lay the pigskin on the turf (a big problem), especially near the goal line (an enormous problem). He has four lost fumbles in four games and is already scheduled to give way to converted quarterback Michael Robinson for goal line carries. A few weeks ago I compared Gore to a young LaDainian Tomlinson in terms of his skill set, team situation, and potential fantasy impact, but the more apt comparison seems to be to a younger Tiki Barber. With the fumbling problems and what appears to be limited goal line work, Gore is starting to really resemble the Barber of 2001-2003. Again, from a fantasy perspective, this is all pretty obvious.

The bigger deal here is how this might affect Gore and the Niners offense, for this year and beyond. Through sheer luck, the Niners managed to unearth a potential franchise back in Frank Gore. After suffering through an injury-riddled career at Miami that reads like a "get your degree" cautionary tale, Gore managed to land a gig with San Francisco. Somehow, he was able to shine during his rookie year despite lacking explosiveness (still recovering from his ACL tears) and suffering mutliple shoulder injuries, so much so that the Niners traded away the unbelievably crappy Kevan Barlow and gave Gore the starting job. Then the season started and this guy was just nails. Running low to the ground with power and vision, Gore never gave a carry away, showed discipline, and proved to be one of the most instinctive runners in the NFL (I can't remember a young running back consistently look that good on counter plays). He put up great stats, but more importantly, displayed an aura that made you think, "wow, this guy is really something special." Such was Gore's effectiveness over the first two weeks that my buddy - and longtime 49ers fan - Josh Stump surmised that Gore might wind up being the best back in franchise history. That seems like an unbelievably rash statement, but I felt that way too.

Now all of that is in some degree of jeopardy. The NFL is one of the most conservative arenas in the entire world, a place where teams punt on 4th-and-two from the other team's 40-yard line and where coaches keep talented players off the field for fear they might make a mistake. If this were the NBA and Gore was coming off a few 5-for-21 nights, no one would be worried in the least. But this is the NFL and if he fumbles again, Mike Nolan may bury the guy. I'm not saying it is likely, but it is possible. NFL coaches are so averse to blame and criticism that they will make absolutely moronic decisions out of pure, unadulterated fear. The kind of decision that derails the career of a potential franchise back before he even gets started.

I, for one, don't want this to happen. And I know that Niners fans like Stump don't want this to happen. That is why this Sunday is so important. If Frank Gore totes it 25 times for 120 and a score, and avoids fumbling, all is forgotten and we are back to basking in the joy of watching a fantastic talent come of age. If he puts the ball on the deck on his fourth carry, it could be the beginning of the end.

It's amazing how important this San Fran-Oakland game is if you really think about it. The career of "The Guy Who Could One Day, Perhaps, Go Down as the Best Back in Niners History" is at stake. I know I'll be tuning in.

(And yes, I have Gore on two fantasy teams. That might have something to do with all of this.)