Colts decide to let running back Gore leave in free agency

Running back Frank Gore came to Indianapolis with Super Bowl aspirations.

Three years later, he's leaving the Colts without a ring or an assurance he'll ever play another football game.

General manager Chris Ballard announced Wednesday the Colts do not intend to re-sign the 34-year-old, soon-to-be free agent, who is ranked No. 5 in National Football League career rushing. Gore's $12 million three-year contract ended after the 2017 season.

"Frank is at a point where he knows we need to get younger," Ballard said during the first day of the NFL's annual scouting combine in Indianapolis. "And I wanted to give Frank a chance to finish his career where he wants to."

Not much followed the script after Gore opted to reunite with college teammate Andre Johnson with the Colts.

After quarterback Andrew Luck reached three consecutive Pro Bowls and made three straight playoff appearances, taking Indy one step deeper each season, Gore and others thought the Colts were on the verge of a breakout.

Instead, Luck hurt his throwing shoulder three weeks into the 2015 season and everything has gone south.

Luck has missed 26 of 48 games over the past three seasons, each of which ended with Indy missing the postseason. General manager Ryan Grigson, who signed Gore, was fired following the 2016 season and coach Chuck Pagano was fired in December.

Now, with Luck apparently on the road back to Indy, Gore is on his way out.

Ballard said Luck is expected to return to team headquarters in early April to continue rehabbing.

Getting Luck back in town would be a welcome change for the Colts, who monitored Luck's recovery for the nearly six weeks he spent in Europe and the eight weeks he has spent in California since the end of the season.

"Is it going to help having Andrew back in the building? Absolutely," Ballard said. "But I think it will be good for Andrew to be around the locker room and among his guys, and I think he'd tell you the same thing."

He and just about everyone else, though, will miss Gore's leadership and optimism.

Despite playing behind a struggling, ineffective offensive line each season in Indy, he never complained. He simply kept working, talking positive and plugging ahead.

The results were impressive.

After falling 33 yards short of his ninth 1,000-yard season in 2015, he rebounded with 1,025 yards at age 33 in 2016 — making him the oldest 1,000-yard rusher since 35-year-old John Riggins in 1982. Then in December, the ageless Gore had a career-high 36 carries for 130 yards in an overtime loss in a Buffalo blizzard.

He even made passing some of the league's best runners look routine.

Ballard said Gore actually broke his thumb during that Buffalo game and doctors told him they could repair it by inserting a pin. While Gore never hinted publicly he was hurt, it was a different story behind closed doors.

"Frank said 'I'm a football player, I'm playing,'" Ballard said.

Four days later, Gore was back on the field against Denver. Three weeks later, Gore played in his 48th and final game with the Colts — a 24-carry, 100-yard performance that left him just 76 yards short of passing Curtis Martin for No. 4 on the NFL rushing chart.

The only other players ahead of Gore are Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.

Gore's nine 1,000-yard seasons are fifth behind Smith (11), Payton, Sanders and Martin (10), and he holds the league record with 12 consecutive seasons with 1,200 yards from scrimmage.

But he was always about more than numbers.

"He's a legend in my mind," new coach Frank Reich said. "He set the standard for on what backs did in (pass) protection."

And even though, he still wants a ring, he's not willing to sacrifice his principles to get one.

"I know I still can play, and I know I want to help a team," he said in late December. "I don't want to just be part of a team, I want to help a team, and I don't want anyone to say I rode the bench to get a ring."

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