But quietly, interest has begun moving toward the two teams’ resilient running backs. Baltimore’s Rice and San Francisco’s Gore shook off midseason changes, adapted to new challenges and led their teams to the NFL’s championship game.
On Thursday, the chatter was that the pair could decide the winner and loser on Sunday evening at the Superdome.
“That’s what it all comes down to: stopping that run,” Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones said.
Over the past decade, the NFL has changed. Teams rely on quarterbacks to help them reach greatness, and the running back comes and goes. No running back has been named the Super Bowl’s most valuable player since the 1998 game, when Denver Broncos rusher Terrell Davis earned the honor.
But it’s doubtful that either of this year’s teams would be in New Orleans without Gore and Rice, and in particular the way they dealt with significant change. Nearly three months ago, 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh benched quarterback Alex Smith in favor of Colin Kaepernick, a bold decision made more difficult because it meant a commitment to the complicated Pistol offense.
That wasn’t easy, and Gore admitted Thursday that he didn’t care for the Pistol at first. He has since embraced it, and the 49ers have thrived.
“It helped get us here,” the 29-year-old rusher said.
LaDainian Tomlinson, the former star running back for the San Diego Chargers, said this week that asking a veteran to change most everything he knows about an NFL offense is more difficult than it might seem. The Pistol relies on pre-snap motion and its signature play, the read option, which calls on the quarterback to make a split-second decision to hand off or keep the ball. There’s so much action, Tomlinson said, that it can disorient some players.
“Frank has adjusted well,” Tomlinson said. “For me, if I had to do it, I couldn’t imagine.”
Gore averaged about 66 rushing yards in the final seven regular-season games, after Kaepernick became the starter. But when the playoffs began, defenses emphasized getting in Kaepernick’s way, opening rushing lanes for Gore. He torched Green Bay for 119 yards in the divisional round and, with Kaepernick held to two rushes a week later against Atlanta, had 90 rushing yard and two touchdowns.
“He’s going to do whatever it takes to win,” Kaepernick said, “and we need Frank Gore to be Frank. That will be good enough on Sunday. You can put Frank in any offense and he will be successful. He’s the type of running back that can adapt. He can do anything we need him to do.”
Rice, meanwhile, dealt with his own change. Attempting a late-season shakeup, Coach John Harbaugh fired offensive coordinator and longtime friend Cam Cameron after an early-December loss to the Washington Redskins, elevating quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to coordinator. Rice said Caldwell, the former Indianapolis Colts head coach, kept things simple, but he made one thing Cameron didn’t: a commitment to his fifth-year running back.
“One thing that he’s been doing,” Rice said of Caldwell, “is utilizing the weapons we have. We have the talent, but we had a hard time sometimes trying to get everybody the ball.”
Rice, who had a season-high 30 carries in the Ravens’ second-round playoff game, later went on about his coordinator.
“He’s just a guy that knows we’re not going to be perfect, but if we chase perfection, we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
Tomlinson said Rice has made the difference in a team that lost four of its final five regular-season games, and an offense that has pushed the Ravens into the Super Bowl.
“You need a running back back there that the defense respects, and Ray Rice is that guy,” Tomlinson said. “If you take Ray Rice out of that offense, they wouldn’t be the same.”
So on Thursday, when the subject came up about the rushers’ value to their teams, Gore embraced the conversation. Heck, he said, maybe this will be the year that another running back hoists two trophies: the Vince Lombardi Trophy and another for the MVP.
“There is a chance for me,” he said, “because they have to respect Kaepernick. For Ray Rice, he can do everything in their offense. He can catch and run — so he has a chance, too.”