GREEN BAY – Thirteen years ago, when Mike McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, his best threat as a long season wore on became a rookie running back from the University of Miami named Frank Gore.
Given the usual short shelf life of running backs and the pounding they take on a weekly basis, it's almost mind-boggling to think McCarthy and his defensive coaches are preparing this week for Gore as the Miami Dolphins' No. 1 running back.
But count McCarthy, who has spoken repeatedly over the years of his respect for Gore as both a player and teammate, among those not surprised Gore is still producing and requiring the legitimate attention of defenses all these years later.
"The toughness and tenacity he brings, not only to game day, but what he does every day at practice…he's the most instinctive, natural runner I've ever been around," McCarthy said. "He's clearly a Hall of Fame back, and he really was the day he walked into this league."
The 5-foot-9, 212-pound Gore undoubtedly will be in Canton someday. He's fourth on the NFL's all-time rushing list with 14,464 yards, less than 800 from passing Barry Sanders for third.
Of the top 16 players on the list, only three are not in the Hall – the active Gore and Adrian Peterson (who entered the league two years after Gore), and Edgerrin James, who ranks 13th and has been a Hall of Fame finalist two of the last three years.
"Impressive, impressive," Packers defensive back Tramon Williams said of Gore. "Guy still looks great, so kudos to Frank."
Added linebacker Clay Matthews: "He's a stud. He's been doing it for quite some time, and quietly doing it."
Gore currently leads the Dolphins in rushing with 438 yards this season, averaging 4.2 per carry, and Packers defensive lineman Kenny Clark said Gore was the opening topic discussed in defensive preparation for Miami when it began on Wednesday.
For the record, the 23-year-old Clark was all of 9 when McCarthy called a handoff to Gore for the first of his now 3,330 pro carries for three different teams.
"Man, it's crazy," Clark said, trying to wrap his mind around that. "And what's more crazy than that is he's still running hard and playing really well. That's the first thing we talked about when we got into meetings is he's still a beast. He aged well, obviously."
He's also had his share of success against the Packers over the years. In seven previous games dating back to 2006 with the 49ers (five regular season, two postseason), Gore has three 100-yard outings and seven rushing touchdowns, including two scores just two years ago, a key piece to an Indianapolis upset at Lambeau Field.
"Same thing, couldn't sleep on him," Clark said of Gore in that Colts contest, when the Packers' rising star was a 21-year-old rookie. "He's a jump-cut back, and he gets downhill, like, fast, and once he gets going it's hard to stop him.
"We just have to get bodies on him, and when we hit him, we have to front him up. We can't arm tackle him. He's going to run through arm tackles. He runs low and he's kind of short, so he has leverage on most guys he plays against. He's going to be a hard tackle for anybody."
Gore and Kenyan Drake (349 rushing yards, 4.8 avg.) are Miami's 1-2 backfield punch that has helped the Dolphins win twice in four games with backup quarterback Brock Osweiler.
Miami's offense struggled a week ago, but a pick-six on defense highlighted a low-scoring victory over the Jets that has the Dolphins at 5-4 and right in the thick of the AFC wild-card picture, with starting QB Ryan Tannehill reportedly eyeing a return after Miami's bye, which follows this Sunday's game in Green Bay.
The Packers are more focused on their own situation, of course, which is getting a fourth win to get back to .500 and then trying to find some way, any way, to win on the road, which hasn't happened yet in 2018.
But win No. 4 will have a lot to do with Gore, namely, limiting his impact. He's always been a significant factor against the Packers, and in each of his 14 NFL seasons. He hasn't rushed for fewer than 850 yards since that rookie year with McCarthy, when he came on strong late in the year and was obviously just getting started.
"Not only is it hard to be a guy in the NFL playing 10-plus or whatever years, it's hard to be a running back at that," Clark said. "They get hit every play. Guys like me 315 pounds falling on him every play. He's been going through that for all these years. You have to have respect for those guys."