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Super Bowl raises interest in position that has fallen off radar

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore (21) leaps past Chicago Bears strong safety Major Wright (21) during second quarter

San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore (21) leaps past Chicago Bears strong safety Major Wright (21) during the second quarter of an NFL football game in San Francisco, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

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The devaluation of the NFL running back has lowered the once-golden position into the realm of the underappreciated, underpaid and overlooked. Running backs are the new offensive linemen — bonding throughout the league to soothe their egos and remind each other of how valuable only they know they really are.

‘‘I watch running backs. I study them,’’ three-time Pro Bowler Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens said this week in New Orleans. ‘‘The reason I wear number 27 is because of Eddie George [the former Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl running back].

‘‘[This is] just one of those games where you think back on where we came from. Adrian Peterson has done a lot for running backs this year. He brought our value back up. We weren’t seeing value because of the way quarterbacks are throwing the ball now. It’s still amazing, but when you get a guy [with] 2,000 rushing yards, and [he’s] the sole reason why his team was in the playoffs, how could you not value the running back?

‘‘We’re like a big fraternity. I like to see all the running backs do well because it brings our value up for the next generation that comes in. I’m not saying my contract wasn’t great, because my family is blessed, and I thank the Ravens for everything they’ve done for me, but running backs aren’t going anywhere. Football needs the running back.’’

Super Bowl XLVII is supposed to be evidence of that. Rice and the San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore are the most accomplished pair of lead running backs to play in the Super Bowl since 2000, when George and the St. Louis Rams’ Marshall Faulk squared off in Super Bowl XXXIV. Gore (1,214 yards) was the 10th leading rusher in the NFL this season. Rice (1,143 yards) was 11th. Their seven Pro Bowl berths are more than the running backs in the last six Super Bowls combined. The leading rusher on the winning team in those Super Bowls has ranked 29th, 32nd, 24th, 26th, 15th and 18th in the NFL in rushing yards.

One of them could become the first running back to be named the Super Bowl MVP since the Denver Broncos’ Terrell Davis in Super Bowl XXXII in 1999. But not even that will stop the downward mobility of the franchise NFL running back.

As good as Rice and Gore are, the running game is the star of the running game for the 49ers and Ravens — to borrow a phrase from the Bears’ defensive unit. That doesn’t mean they’re expendable, but they’re not irreplaceable.

While Rice has had a great season for the Ravens, rookie Brandon Pierce isn’t far behind him in the postseason. Pierce rushed for 103 yards on 13 carries in the Ravens’ playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts. He’s averaging 6.3 yards per carry in the playoffs (27 carries, 169 yards). Rice is averaging 3.9 yards per carry (64-247).

Gore likewise has been outstanding for the 49ers. He rushed for 1,214 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry in the regular season. But Kendall Hunter averaged 5.2 yards per carry (72-371) before suffering a season-ending injury. And quarterback Colin Kaepernick has nearly as many rushing yards in the postseason (18-202, 11.2 per carry) as Gore (44-209, 4.8). In limited work, LaMichael James has been just as proficient (8-55, 6.9 yards per carry).

That’s not to disparage the ability or production of Rice and Gore, but to put their value into perspective. Those guys still help you win, but the success of the Ravens and 49ers will have NFL teams looking for the next Joe Staley or Marshall Yanda as much as the next Gore or Rice.



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