Gore leads 49ers to their best start since '98

Frank Gore gains his yards in so many ways. He runs over defenders, fakes them out or carries them along for the ride as he grinds first downs for the San Francisco 49ers.

Ask around and people are quick to praise Gore's tremendous vision, his uncanny knack for knowing where a hole will be well before the play unfolds.

It amazes quarterback Alex Smith and coach Jim Harbaugh. The rest of the 49ers often watch Gore in awe.

Gore promised for months that he could still run with the best of them, a bold statement considering he's 28 and coming back from serious injury.

"I know I can play football and, you know, I try my best to go out there and do the best I can," Gore said this week. "I just see whatever goes on. I just look at the defense and I know where I can go before the play even starts. That's God, God blessed me with that."

An ideal combination of natural talent and instincts, for sure.

Gore had plenty of motivation to prove he could still play. And not just because a fractured right hip halted his 2010 season last November with five games left. Not because he wanted a hefty new deal before San Francisco's season kicked off in September.

He wanted to win at last.

Gore prides himself in his preparation, and felt so good when he arrived at training camp healthy and ready that he insisted he was 22 again and as fresh as a rookie.

Gore got that coveted new contract, rewarded with a $21 million, three-year extension. Nobody would argue he has earned it.

Four straight games with 125 or more yards, four straight games with a touchdown run for the 49ers (6-1). Gore certainly seems headed for a third career Pro Bowl.

He makes big plays by carefully reading the defense to determine his best path. He's tough for defenses to bring down.

"My take is that's something that those men crawl out of the crib understanding and knowing how to do," Harbaugh said. "It's an instinct that sets them apart from everybody else who's blessed with strength, and speed, and running ability. There's an instinct and a vision that they possess that they've been blessed from mom, dad, and God to have."

It helps to have a solid support system.

Gore is finally receiving the kind of steady blocking from an improving offensive line he needs to pile up yards every Sunday.

"The linemen love him. He's such a tough runner. I think the thing the guys appreciate about him is his vision," Smith said. "But, you look at yards after contact, he's such a great runner with that. He runs with such great pad level."

Gore's production is the primary reason the 49ers are riding a five-game winning streak into their game Sunday at Washington and off to the franchise's best start since 1998.

His former Miami coach, Larry Coker, remembers when then-Cowboys coach Bill Parcells called asking about Gore's NFL potential.

"I told him Frank would be the best person you ever sign. The guy has tremendous character, smarts and perseverance. Frank will outwork everybody," said Coker, now coaching Texas-San Antonio. "He was injured most of the time he was at Miami, but he never quit. He's a tremendous running back. He'll take a 2-yard loss and turn it into a 4-yard gain. He's that type of player. Tremendous vision. Tremendous smarts. Tremendous character. I'm very proud of him and all he's overcome."

Gore walks through the locker room with a huge smile on his face and headphones over his ears most of the time, heading across the room to chat up linebacker Parys Haralson or making a point to razz youngsters like wide receiver Michael Crabtree.

"That's my guy," Haralson said of Gore. "Last year what happened to him, you hate to see that. But he's a great running back. You knew he would come back and run the ball hard and give it all he's got. There was never a doubt in my mind he could still do it. He gets the ball and he's running hard. That's what he does. Some of the holes he squeezes through, I wouldn't even see them."

Gore is having a blast being in games that matter this deep in the year. That's a first for the seventh-year pro.

He has a new approach.

"Before, just going out there and worrying about stats and trying to get to the Pro Bowl," he said. "Now, you're getting stats and also winning, and people have started noticing how good of a team we have. That's real big. I'm happy."

Gore matched his career high with 31 carries and wound up with 134 yards in last Sunday's 20-10 victory over the Browns. He moved by his friend and mentor, Roger Craig, for second place on the 49ers career rushing list, too.

Gore has 7,089 career yards rushing, leaving him 256 from surpassing the late Hall of Famer Joe Perry as San Francisco's franchise leader. Perry, the first player with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and nicknamed "The Jet" for his sensational speed, died in April at age 84. The Niners are wearing helmet decals to honor him.

Gore has called it a goal to pass Perry, and at this rate he could do it within a few games — perhaps right around the time the 49ers clinch the NFC West and their first playoff berth since 2002. San Francisco held a comfortable four-game division lead heading into November.

"I really don't think about the rushing yards. Right now, I'm happy about the situation we're in," Gore said. "We're 6-1 and we're still growing and we're still moving forward. That's what I'm happy about."

Craig has befriended Gore in recent years, even calling to regularly check in on him during his rehab back in Miami this offseason.

Craig, who refers to Gore as "Ferocious Frank," was quick to congratulate Gore after his performance against Cleveland.

"He's happy for me, man. Me and Roger, we became really close these last two years," Gore said. "When I got injured, he called me a lot this offseason, telling me what I had to do and that I'd be fine and this year I'd come back and prove a lot of people wrong who probably thought I wouldn't be able to come back and be the guy who I've always been.

"That's big, especially a guy who did great things in this league and for this organization. I respect him a whole lot."

At this stage, Gore won't allow himself to think about his legacy. That's for later. He plans to play at least three more seasons — his hero, Barry Sanders, reached 10 years in the league and Gore has long tried to pattern himself after the Hall of Famer, who spent his entire career with the Detroit Lions.

When Gore made it clear he wanted his unsettled contract situation to be taken care of before the season, general manager Trent Baalke and Harbaugh worked to make it happen. They want Gore to be happy, and they want him around for the long haul.

"There's that attribute that Frank has, there's the ability to turn his feet over, and to stop, and to jump, and to cut, and to get his feet to go where his eyes are telling him to go. That is special," Harbaugh said. "Then he has ability to get forward, and lower his pads to get through the narrowest of windows. He's one of the all-time best, and we're lucky to have him."


AP Sports Writer Antonio Gonzalez contributed to this story.