Colts sign veteran Pro Bowl player Frank Gore to build up the offense.
by Ben Smith
Frank Gore doesn't really want to talk to you. Don't take it personally.
Oratory is not generally a thing for NFL running backs, who traffic in the more elemental arts of collision and truckloads of hurt. And so, on this Friday back in September, Gore entered the Indianapolis Colts‘ locker room scowl first, an iron chunk of a man who knew what was coming and didn't appear altogether thrilled about it.
What was coming were microphones, minicams, questions. What was coming were inquiring minds who wanted to know what a five-time Pro Bowl player and an 11-year veteran could bring to the table for a Colts offense that had enough weapons without him to reach the AFC championship game last season.
Here's one thing he brings: Professionalism.
The scowl loosened. Two-hundred seventeen pounds of thick, compacted muscle seemed to relax a bit. Gore smiled and became, if not exactly expansive, a willing interviewee.
It is, after all, part of the deal when you play professional football. And Gore's played professional football for a long time.
“I know I can play football,” he says. “Just got to be ready when my number is called.”
That's exactly what the Colts were looking for when they signed him as a free agent in the offseason, because good things tend to happen when Gore's number is called. His 11,073 career rushing yards rank him at No. 20 on the NFL all-time list, and he's one of only 11 players in NFL history to have at least eight 1,000-yard rushing seasons. After 10 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, his name is all over their record book: first in career rushing yards (11,073), first in career attempts (2,442), first in career rushing touchdowns (64).
“Great leadership,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck says of Gore. “Tough runner. Great pass protection. Infectious attitude towards football. Loves football.”
Of all those, the leadership aspect might be as crucial as any for a Colts' team that's made no secret that it considers the next step–actually winning the AFC championship and reaching the Super Bowl–imminent.
It's why they signed 12-year veteran safety Mike Adams in 2014, who responded with a Pro Bowl season last year. And it's why they signed linebacker Trent Cole (an 11-year vet and two-time Pro Bowler), wide receiver Andre Johnson (13-year vet, seven Pro Bowls) and Gore this offseason.
They joined a roster that, despite its success, remains youthful. Twenty-three players on the Colts' 53-man active roster at the start of this season had been in the league three years or fewer. Nine of those were rookies –including Josh Robinson and Tyler Varga, the only other running backs on the active roster besides Gore after the Colts cut loose oft-injured Vick Ballard and Daniel Herron.
It's perhaps as crucial a role as grinding out the hard yards that will provide balance to the Colts' offense and give the occasionally beleaguered Luck some breathing room.
“Yeah, [Gore] is a veteran that's been there and done that,” Luck says. “And he just works his butt off every day. I think that's important. I think it's important to have that great veteran leader.
“I was fortunate as a young guy to watch Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne operate. And for these young guys, they get to watch Frank Gore work.”
He half-turns, vaguely waves at what used to be Wayne's locker. The nameplate above it is blank now, Wayne's having been cut loose in the offseason.
It severed one more link to the Colts' past, though a handful remain. Mathis is still around, occupying the first stall in the first bank of lockers on your left as you enter the dressing room. Farther down the way, placekicker Adam Vinatieri, now in his 20th season, sits in front of his stall, texting. Even farther down are Johnson and Gore–whose stalls, perhaps not coincidentally, are side-by-side.
They are veterans brought in to be, well, veterans. And, in Gore's case, to bulk up a running game that averaged just 100.8 yards per game last year on 415 total attempts.
Luck, on the other hand, threw the football 616 times. Both head coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton understood that was something that had to change.
“We've still got to be able to run it more,” Pagano said after the Colts lost their season opener at Buffalo. “We're not going to survive by the pass only. I think everybody understands that.”
“Yeah, we'll have balance. We'll have balance,” he promised. “[But] during the game, it's not a situation necessarily where I'm studying a hit chart. We're looking at what they're doing and then more importantly what can we do to get first downs and try to score touchdowns? I think more than anything we have to stay away from the friendly fire and that's just doing things that are going to stall drives.”
Incomplete passes would be one of those things. So would the inability to get the two yards on third down that would move both the chains and the clock.
Gore was brought in to facilitate the latter, provided he could avoid the more serious nicks and dings that are a running back's lot in the NFL. He's always been durable–in 10 seasons in San Francisco, he missed just 12 regular-season games–and he entered 2015 having not missed any regular-season games since 2011.
Now, at 32, he's with a new team that has 15 players on the roster 24 years old or younger. And he seems willing simply to do whatever he's asked to do.
“I just feel like when I'm not getting the ball, what can I do to help my team win?” says Gore.
“You're a football player. You want to get into a rhythm in a game. I feel like the more I play, the better I get. But I just want to win, though. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to win. If it's running, passing, I'm willing to do it.”