Frank Gore’s impact on the Buffalo Bills figures to be felt long after his time on the playing field is finished.
The veteran running back’s future is up in the air after the Bills were eliminated Saturday from the AFC playoffs. Gore’s contract expires in March, and he hasn’t decided if he wants to continue playing after a decorated, 15-year career that will surely lead to a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I don’t know. I’ll take some time off,” Gore told reporters as the Bills cleaned out their lockers Sunday, a day after the loss to the Texans. “My body still feels good and I feel like I can still play this game … but, you know, I’m going to take some time and think about it.”
Gore will be 37 at the start of the 2020 season, long past the usual shelf life of an NFL running back. It’s that preconception, however, that has long fueled him.
"A lot of people feel like, when you get a certain age, you can't do it,” Gore said in a one-on-one conversation with The Buffalo News in the week leading up to the playoff game against Houston. “I hate that. Just because this guy at my position was this age and he couldn't do it doesn't mean I'm the same, you know what I'm saying? I just keep that chip on my shoulder, man.”
Gore’s durability has been nothing short of incredible. He played in all 16 games in 2019, making it eight of the past nine seasons he’s done so.
"I would say I don't think I've been around a guy that's pound for pound as tough as Frank Gore,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said Tuesday during the team’s season-ending press conference, “a professional like Frank Gore with his habits day in and day out.”
That gets to the heart of why the Bills were interested in Gore in the first place. On the surface, his addition, which came in the form of a one-year, $2 million contract, seemed like an odd one. The Bills already had a starting running back on the roster in LeSean McCoy. The next month, the team added running back Devin Singletary in the third round of the NFL Draft, making for a crowded room.
McDermott is a big believer in having at least one veteran presence in every position room. It’s questionable whether McCoy would have embraced that role with a player who he felt like threatened his alpha dog status. On the night Singletary was drafted, for example, the Bills chose Oklahoma offensive lineman Cody Ford earlier in the second round. McCoy congratulated Ford on Twitter when he was chosen. When the Bills took Singletary, though, it was crickets from McCoy.
With Gore, leadership was never such a question. It’s hard for a team to do better in that regard than him.
"It doesn’t get any better – at all,” Singletary said. “He sets the standard on and off the field. He's definitely like my big brother, for sure. He's still working like it's his first year in the league. That's how he approaches every day, and that rubbed off on me. Never get comfortable. There's always work to be done. I feel like that's why he's lasted so long.”
In the end, it was McCoy who was the odd man out, cut before the start of the regular season. Singletary flashed his potential right away, averaging a whopping 17.5 yards per carry in the Week 1 victory against the Jets. When he suffered a hamstring injury toward the end of the Week 2 win against the Giants, however, the Bills turned to Gore.
Over the next three games with Singletary out of the lineup, Gore carried 45 times for 245 yards and a touchdown, which came with 1:50 remaining to put the Bills ahead of the Bengals in Week 3. The Bills went 2-1 in those games, taking a 4-1 record into the bye week.
"I feel like I showed people I still can play the game,” Gore said. “When I got opportunities, I took advantage of it. When I said I was going to come to Buffalo in free agency, people thought I was just chasing numbers. I don't play the game just for numbers, you know? Now people see what we've got in the locker room. Great guys, great coaches and we're in the playoffs. I haven't been in the playoffs since I left San Francisco, so I mean, it's been good.”
When Singletary returned from injury, the Bills eased him back into action. Gore led the team with 11 carries for 55 yards during a Week 7 win against his former team, the Miami Dolphins, but eventually started to cede carries to Singletary.
By the end of the season, Singletary was firmly established as the Bills’ primary running back. He finished his rookie year rushing 151 times for 775 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His average carry of 5.1 yards ranked tied for fourth among running backs.
"Great kid, man. That's what I love,” Gore said of Singletary. “I knew that he could play ball, but how he carries himself and how much he cares for the game, that's what I love about him. That's what made me want to do whatever to help him. I want him to be successful, you know? I'm happy to be around a young guy who's not big-headed, who thinks it's all about him – especially in this generation, man. This generation's different. He loves the game. He never will get satisfied with having one good game, he'll always want to do more.”
As Singletary established himself, Gore’s numbers started to decline. Over the final nine games of the season, he rushed 68 times for 184 yards and no touchdowns, an average of just 2.7 yards per carry. For the season, Gore finished with a career low in both rushing yards (599) and yards per carry (3.6).
In the playoff loss to the Texans, he carried eight times for just 22 yards. His eight carries against the Texans came after he was held without a carry against the Patriots in Week 16 for the first time in his career.
"I know this: It's not good to have one back carry the ball every time,” McDermott said Tuesday. “You'd like to have two backs that work together.”
It’s entirely possible the Bills feel like they need an upgrade behind Singletary, which would make the 2019 season Gore’s only one in Buffalo. If so, he made some lasting memories with the Bills.
During the Week 5 win at Tennessee, he joined Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith as the only running backs to make 200 NFL starts. In a Week 4 loss to New England, Gore rushed for 109 yards, becoming the first running back at least 36 years old to gain 100 yards in a game since the Chiefs’ MacArthur Lane did it against Buffalo in 1978.
The biggest highlight, though, came in Week 11. With 65 yards on the ground against the Denver Broncos, Gore passed Barry Sanders for third on the league’s all-time rushing yards list.
McDermott and Beane will already have to deal with the loss of veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who announced his retirement after the loss to Houston. Replacing Gore on top of that will be a big change to the locker room.
"One of the things that happened when we came off the Super Bowl in Carolina, lessons that I learned, (was that) we let too many of the leaders out of the building,” McDermott said. “Some of that happens with retirement and other reasons that come with age, but that's part of what I meant with keeping as much of this team intact as possible. Each year, each team is different, but you give yourself a better chance the more you keep a team intact.”
General Manager Brandon Beane will have to weigh the value Gore brought to the locker room against the declining production over the second half of the season.
"I don't think Devin has all the success that he had this year without him,” Beane said. “To where he goes next, I'm not sure. At the end of the year a guy that, at his age … we'll let him decide what he wants to do and we'll self-inventory ourself and make a decision. Nothing's been determined from him whether he wants to continue playing, and on the other hand, whether we would have a spot for him back.”
Gore recognized early in his time with the Bills the potential the team had. The chemistry that was formed in spring workouts and carried over into training camp reminded him of some of the San Francisco teams that went to the playoffs three straight years from 2011-13.
The Bills' young nucleus of Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds, Tre’Davious White, Singletary and others leads Gore to believe better days are ahead, even after such a painful loss to Houston.
"They took a step, for being young guys. Now, the young guys have to keep making those steps, and I think they will,” Gore said. "I know what it takes. … I know McDermott, the way he coaches, he’s going to make sure his core guys make sure the locker room’s good and every day, they’re going to go out and try to get better. Me being around here and me being in the league for a long time, I’m telling you, Buffalo’s in good hands.”
That’s why Gore sounds comfortable with whatever he decides.
"My son’s about to go to college and I’m going to sit down with him and go from there. I’m not in no rush,” he said. “I know I still can play this game, but I’m going to get away from it and enjoy the family, and I’ll see.”