The whispers began to grow, week by week, as Frank Gore struggled with a slow start this season.
He had lost a step. There was too much wear on his running-back tires. The 49ers never should have given him that big contract extension in August.
But the 49ers' star delivered a resounding message Sunday as he cranked out his second consecutive 100-yard game in a 48-3 rout of Tampa Bay at Candlestick Park: He's nowhere close to being done yet.
"Nah, I never heard any of that stuff," said Gore, who rushed for 125 yards on 20 carries with one touchdown. "Those were some tough games, no doubt. But defenses were gearing up to stop the run. But now my man Alex Smith is playing well, and they can't do that."
And Gore is running wild again.
"He has his burst back," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "He looked like Frank. He's having fun out there. That's the thing I see in Frank -- that he's enjoying football."
Gore clearly is benefiting from the 49ers' improved offensive balance as he and Smith, the 49ers' much-maligned quarterback, are forming a nice synergy under Harbaugh's direction.
Smith was coolly efficient against Tampa Bay, throwing for 170 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That, in turn, helped create running space for Gore -- and vice versa.
It's completely different from what Gore said he saw as he studied game film from the first three weeks of the season.
"I could see what defenses were doing," said Gore,
Those early games, though, stoked mounting concerns that perhaps everything was beginning to change for Gore. After all, he had spent his entire 49ers career finding a way to gain yardage despite a feeble passing attack.
But the third-leading rusher in franchise history had run for only 148 yards on 59 carries after three games. He also was hobbling because of an ankle injury suffered against Cincinnati on Sept. 25.
That just added to the already existing questions about the wisdom of awarding Gore -- who at 28 has reached an age when most NFL running backs are slowing down -- a three-year, $21 million contract extension. (In that deal, $13.5 million is guaranteed by the 49ers.)
If Gore was hurting, maybe it was even time to work rookie Kendall Hunter more into the offense.
Uh, not so fast.
Gore ran for 127 yards in the come-from-behind victory over Philadelphia on Oct. 2, scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 12-yard run with three minutes remaining.
And he looked like vintage Gore on Sunday against the Buccaneers. His 2-yard touchdown dive midway through the second quarter capped a short drive that gave the 49ers a 21-3 lead as the game quickly progressed into a blowout.
"It's amazing how he hits the holes," tackle Joe Staley said. "There were a couple of times where I thought he was stopped and got nothing. But then he managed to break them for 8 or 10 yards."
Gore was positively giddy after posting his 26th career 100-yard rushing game. He said his ankle no longer was giving him any problems. Each time he was asked a question about his personal performance, he tried to redirect it into praise of the entire offensive unit.
But he did acknowledge that the 49ers' 4-1 start is sweet redemption for both him and Smith after enduring so many losing seasons.
"I'm just happy, man," Gore said. "We came into the league together, and we've been through some rough times. But we believed. Now we're getting the opportunity to let everyone know that we know how to play ball."
Actually, Gore has been showing that from the moment he put on a 49ers jersey. Sunday was just another reminder.
"I've still got room to grow," he added. "And I will get there."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.