In the past 20 years, the NFL has undergone significant change. The league has gotten faster, more explosive, more dynamic and focused on outside speed rather than aging talent in the backfield.
It's gotten younger, more modern and the transition has seen what once was the key offensive position in the game become somewhat of an afterthought.
From 2000-2010, 34 running backs were drafted in the first round. From 2011-2020, that number dropped to 14. Gone are the ways of paying a running back in their mid-30s. No longer do teams save up salary cap space to doll out to batter backs on the wrong side of their prime. Running backs can be found anywhere. You can find them in Rounds 4,5,6 or 7. Check up in the CFL, the XFL, the American Alliance of Football, the rotary club, the Elks club or the local Y and NFL teams can find someone worth one-tenth the price of a premier running back to give them 40 yards and the threat of the run.
But despite the changing game and the analytic departments that would put a red line through any running back's name who is over 30 and has tread on their tires, Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch continue to buck the trend.
Gore, now 36, plans to sign a one-year contract with the New York Jets, his agent said Monday. Lynch, 34, who spent last season serving tequila shots in the Oakland Coliseum tailgate section before joining the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17, told ESPN's Scott Van Pelt that he is in talks to return to Seattle in 2020.
Two Bay Area legends with a combined 6,001 carries, 25,760 yards, 164 touchdowns and 70 years on Earth continue to have their phone ring. And they continue to pick up.
While most NFL franchises are focusing on young running backs who can come in on the cheap, contribute and then go off chasing a bigger paycheck from a different franchise Gore and Lynch offer things that can't be delivered by a third-round rookie or a 25-year-old journeyman.
Gore grew up in a rough neighborhood outside of Miami. He was a highly recruited running back to the University of Miami with as much fanfare as Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. Injuries in college hurt his draft stock, and the 49ers snapped him up in the third round.
Gore's work ethic, leadership ability and locker room presence are the stuff of legend. He has left a huge impact on every franchise he comes in contact with. His drive, desire and love of the game permeate every locker room he enters. While he might not be the 1,000-yard rusher of his youth, what Gore brings can't be quantified.
"People say, He doesn't do this special, he doesn't do that. One thing God blessed me with: heart and these," Gore said, pointing to his eyes, in an interview with NFL Media's Greg Rosenthal in 2017. "That's why ... on film, it looks like I ain't doing nothing. Nothing special. But when they play me, it's a different thing."
Gore will play until he physically can't carry the football anymore. And teams will keep calling because the impact Frank Gore has on a locker room is more valuable than any coach could ever explain.
Like Gore, Lynch's prime is gone. There will be no more Beastquakes should he return to CenturyLink Field. But he's still Marshawn. There's an energy that surrounds him, teammates are drawn to him and feed off every 4-yard bruising run he delivers. Lynch will be welcomed back in Seattle until he decides he no longer desires to have the football stuffed in his belly.
His personality, edge, uniqueness and authenticity made him a favorite of every locker room he's ever been in and allowed him to lead without ever saying a lot.
“Marshawn, it didn’t matter who you were, if you respected him and love him as a person, for who he was, literally he would give you the backpack off his back. I thought that was just the epitome of the man he was," Doug Baldwin told the Tacoma News Tribune in 2018.
“You live in a world where everyone is trying to project this facade," Baldwin continued. "You see on Facebook, you see on Instagram, you see on Twitter, everyone is trying to project this facade. And he was not about that. He was genuinely who he was, whether it was in the media, at my house for my birthday, in the locker room, out on the street with his family. It didn’t matter. He was who he was. And I think that speaks more volumes about the fun or the type of person that he was, that he brought to this locker room more so than anything.”
There are very few old-school NFL war horses clomping around the league. The days of teams relying on star running backs to carry them to the playoffs and beyond now are just the stuff of history books. Shaun Alexander is a Madden cover Hall of Famer. Emmitt Smith and Eric Dickerson are folk heroes of a forgotten time. LaDainian Tomlinson stars on YouTube and the dreams of Charger fans longing for a return to glory.
Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott are stars. But for every one of them, there's a dozen big-name backs who have been drafted and flamed out, replaced by the Phillip Lindsays and Raheem Mosterts of the world.
But Gore and Lynch continue to strap it up. They are coveted in a time when leadership, perspective, personality, toughness and drive are sought-after commodities in today's NFL. What they bring goes beyond yardage totals and explosive plays.
Gore will suit up in 2020 and Lynch might jog out of the tunnel as well. It's who they are. They'll only hang their cleats up when their phones stop buzzing.
Because they have something few others can provide.