INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The NFL’s trade deadline came and went Tuesday, and Frank Gore was left behind to endure what’s to come. And it’s anybody’s guess how bad it’s going to get. There are no more Clevelands or San Franciscos on the schedule.
There was no mercy trade to send a future Hall of Famer somewhere – anywhere – so he can grind it out for a contender rather than play out the final two months of a season that’s already lost. Gore thought Philadelphia might make a play for him, but any chance ended when the Eagles acquired Miami’s Jay Ajaji.
So the reality is this: a throwback running back who approaches things the right way – keep your head down, keep most of your thoughts to yourself, put in the required work – must continue to labor behind a suspect offensive line and with a 23-year-old quarterback, and hope an erratic defense decides to quit giving up highlight plays.
And there’s this reality: Frank Gore’s career with the Indianapolis Colts, perhaps his 13-year NFL career, ends when his contract expires next March.
“If I feel like I can’t play, I don’t want to be out there,’’ he said. “As long as I’m healthy and can ball . . . ’’
He’s 34 and there’s virtually no chance he fits into the long-term vision of general manager Chris Ballard.
Gore is left to deal with the here and now. He’ll worry about next season when this one runs its course.
“My goal is to help him,’’ he said, motioning to rookie running back Marlon Mack, “and help (Matt Jones). If I’m here, I’m going to help them guys, man, be the best pro.’’
He’s also going to continue to be the lead back in what will be a one-two tandem moving forward.
The coaching staff is committed to getting Mack more involved, and with good reason. The fourth-round draft pick has a modest 53 touches at the season’s midpoint – 43 rushes, 10 receptions – but his big-play talents have been obvious. Mack has five rushes of at least 16 yards and three catches that have gained at least 21 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown at Cincinnati.
Gore, though, is the chain mover. The NFL’s oldest active running back made his 100th consecutive start against the Bengals, still is effective between the tackles and has shown a burst that has resulted in four rushes of at least 15 yards.
He’s averaging what would be a career-tying low 3.7 yards per attempt, but that includes the Colts’ ultra-conservative second half against the Cleveland Browns when Gore ran 14 times into a loaded defensive front and managed just 13 yards. Exclude the final two quarters against the Browns and he’s back at 4.1 per attempt.
Chuck Pagano conceded the season has been taxing on every player, from a rookie to a running back in his 13th season.
“You don’t sacrifice and do this, what they sacrifice every day-in and day-out is to win,’’ he said. “And when you don’t win, it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for everybody.’’
Gore, he added, is “a guy that loves ball. Nobody loves ball more than that guy and more passionate about it. What he gave us this weekend and what he gave us in practice and preparation and what he’s given this team . . . look at how he played (against the Bengals).’’
The Colts lost 24-23 when Carlos Dunlap returned a Jacoby Brissett 16 yards for a touchdown with 6:58 to play, but they were in position for a third victory in large part because of Gore and the running game.
Indy finished with 115 yards on the ground, and Gore accounted for a season-high 82 on 16 attempts. With Robert Turbin on injured reserve with an elbow injury, Gore assumed the role of short-yardage back. He converted a pair of third-and-1 situations and a third-and-2 to extend what would be three scoring drives.
“He tried to put the whole thing on his back and carry us along with his teammates,’’ Pagano said. “You won’t find that a lot of places. It’s a testament to him and his character, his pride.’’
Pagano was particularly impressed with Gore’s third-and-1 conversion in the third quarter. Three plays later, Brissett gave the Colts a 20-17 lead with a 24-yard TD to Mack.
Gore popped through a small hole up the middle – “The hold was that big,’’ Pagano said, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart – and carried linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Nick Vigil for a 7-yard gain.
“Sheer will,’’ Pagano said.
Barring an unforeseen change, Gore is headed for his least productive year since his rookie season in 2005 when he came off he bench and managed 608 yards on 127 carries. He’s sitting at 404 yards on 110 carries.
He argues with the stats, insisting the lack of per-game carries – 14 or fewer in six games – has made it difficult to get into a rhythm.
“If you watch the tape,’’ Gore said, “you can see. I’ve been showing it. I can’t help how the flow of the game goes.
“I ain’t going to lie. I can’t be the guy playing every snap like I did before. I have to be real with that. But I’ve still got it.’’
Gore ranks 7th in NFL history with 13,469 rushing yards. He needs 194 to move past Jerome Bettis (6th with 13,662) and 216 to leapfrog LaDainian Tomlinson (5th with 13,684). He’s 9th in league history with 17,015 total yards from scrimmage, and the eight ahead of him already have busts in Canton, Ohio.
Gore is aware of the numbers, but he’s adamant he won’t hang around just to increase them.
“Nah,’’ he said.
It’s all about winning, and dealing with the frustration of not winning.
“We’re losing. We’re losing,’’ Gore said. “All I can do is do what they tell me when my number’s called.
“If I’m in there, 23’s got to show what I can do.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.