Frank Gore dominated the league in San Francisco, totaling eight 1,000 yard seasons in his Bay Area tenure. One of the premier workhorses in the league, Gore was constantly overshadowed by flashier backs such as Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Maurice Jones-Drew. Though he was never truly regarded as the best at his position at any point in time, Gore emerged as a lock for the Hall of Fame with his consistency and durability. His career took a turn when he decided to come and play with the Indianapolis Colts.
In Indianapolis, Gore continued to put up above average yardage numbers, compiling 1,992 yards in his first two seasons in blue and white. Though at face value, this seems to reveal a competent running offense, a more in depth look shows a significant decline in Gore’s performance. Now at age 34, it is impressive that he is still in the league, but he cannot outrun his age. His yards per carry dipped drastically. At 3.7 yards per carry in 2015, he ranked 39th in the league, and his 3.9 yards per carry the following season elevated him to 29th out of qualified runners. To add, Frank Gore was ranked as the 47th overall running back, and only forced 23 missed tackles on 301 touches over the 2016 campaign (PFF). If Gore’s struggles continue, expect an aggressive front office to make changes accordingly.
Luckily, the Colts prepared for this situation. In last year’s draft, the Colts selected Marlon Mack, the shifty back out of the University of Southern Florida. Next to Quinton Flowers, USF’s uber-athletic backfield attracted scouts from around the league. Far from a top prospect, Mack struggles to process the play as it breaks down and is not very strong. On the contrary, it is not difficult to see why Mack received some love. Athletic, agile, and a big play threat, Mack certainly had his fair share of fans. His ability to score from anywhere on the field is a significant reason for Ballard to bring him in. Indianapolis felt they had found a successor for Gore in Mack, leading to everyone’s next question: When will Marlon Mack surpass Gore as the lead man in Indianapolis?
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Moreover, a multitude of options are present as possible solutions to the Gore-Mack dilemma. Disregarding the potential immediate take over from Mack, which did not happen, Pagano and co. has to make a decision with the rest of their options. One of these being that Gore starts every game, health permitting, this season, retires, and Mack sits atop the throne during next year’s campaign. While this looks like a straightforward plan, a sense of eagerness, Luck’s injury, and Mack’s hype complicate the issue. With the youth movement underway in Indianapolis, many are pushing for the rookies to receive more playing time. This was already exemplified by Quincy Wilson and Malik Hooker, and is probable to continue among the rest of this rookie class. Besides this roster being exceedingly ineffective, Andrew Luck’s injury has put a massive dent in the Colts’ playoff hopes. If they are out of it with games to play, why not play the young guns? Another option would be to let Mack gradually receive an increasing amount of snaps until he take the reigns of the rushing attack. This gives the Colts a chance to utilize Gore while seeing Mack play, and evaluating him from there.
As of now, the Colts have let Gore and Mack split carries. In the first game of the season against the Rams, Mack had 10 rushes for 24 yards and a controversial score. While many fans felt optimistic about this, it really was not surprising at all. We already knew that Mack had big play ability but major flaws for a potential feature back. The statistic that stood out was his longest run: 24 yards. With all of his yards from one snap, it exemplifies what scouts discovered during the pre-draft process. He can make the big play, but will struggle with a more constant workload. Averaging less than three yards a carry, running the ball was not very effective, though I was thoroughly impressed with his receptions. Against Arizona during week two, Mack struggled on the ground again. He had six rushes for a combined three yard loss. One may notice that without his large play to embellish his stats, Mack seems quite marginal. He is splitting playing time with Gore so far, but ultimately, he has underperformed thus far, and it will be interesting to watch how the Colts’ upper levels manage the situation.
It is known that this season is a test for Mack, to gauge his abilities, and reveal whether or not he has a future as a feature back. With all indications pointing to “no” so far, one could imagine the Colts exploring other options for their next back. In the draft, the Colts are likely to have a top fifteen pick, possibly even top ten or top five. Unequivocally, talent will be available for Ballard to select. If the offensive line and defense are taken care of or not an intelligent selection on Day 1, we may see the Colts select a running back. Fortunately, Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice lead this pack, and could be available for Indianapolis to select. Both prospects are amazing players with significant upside and enough talent to be praised for months on end. If one falls when the Colts are on the clock, they may end up as the future of the Colts backfield.
Mack may seem like an afterthought at this point, but I would not necesarilly count him out. He still has plenty of time to prove his worth and cement himself as a large piece in the Colts’ future rushing attack. Do I think Mack will be the next feature back in Indy? No. But do not write him off completely. A back with athleticism, big play ability, and good hands can do a ton for a team. Mack would be an ideal candidate for the third down back job, as his strengths would be utilized, while his weaknesses would not be exposed. In this role, Mack adds an explosive layer to this offense, and can compliment both Luck and next year’s starting runningback, whoever that may be.