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What happened to running backs?

NEW ORLEANS — Emmitt Smith, the man who owns the NFL all-time rushing record now and for the foreseeable future, has a Super Bowl MVP to his credit. So does a roll call of Hall of Famers — the Raiders' Marcus Allen, Redskins' John Riggins, Dolphins' Larry Csonka and the Steelers' Franco Harris.

But not since Denver's Terrell Davis basically led John Elway to his first Super Bowl ring after the 1997 season has a running back been named Super Bowl MVP.

The 49ers' Frank Gore and the Ravens' Ray Rice are hoping to restore some respect to the position Sunday night in the Superdome.

What has happened to this once honorable position in the National Football League? It's amazing how far the mighty have fallen.

The last 1,000-yard rusher to win a Super Bowl ring was (close your eyes, 49er fans) Brandon Jacobs of the '07 Giants. Yes, the same back cast aside by New York after last year's Super Bowl triumph, the same guy picked up by San Francisco and then dumped before this postseason began. That Jacobs.

And if I gave you three guesses as to the identity of the back with the most regular-season rushing yards among the last four Super Bowl winners, could you get it?

I would say no. Not unless your NFL knowledge is so encyclopedic than you can blurt out: "Oh yeah, that's the Saints' Pierre Thomas with 793 yards."

We haven't so much as had an 800-yard rusher (that's a paltry 50 rushing yards per game) on the last four champions.

The Packers were so dismissive of the position that they turned it over to James Starks for the postseason in 2010. He had rushed for all of 101 yards that season. Did it really matter? Aaron Rodgers was throwing darts. Green Bay was crowned in Cowboys Stadium with John Starks as its leading rusher.

And how about last year's Super Bowl? Ahmad Bradshaw scored the winning touchdown when the Patriots didn't even try to tackle him. Realizing what was happening with 57 seconds to play, Bradshaw tried to stop his momentum at the 1-yard line but tumbled into the end zone.

Not very heroic.

When Super Bowl XLVII crowns a winner Sunday night, the champion will have a 1,000-yard rusher on its roster. If Baltimore wins, Rice will have the most yards since Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (1,202) after the '05 season. If the 49ers and Frank Gore (1,214 yards) win, it will be the most rushing yards for a champ since New England's Corey Dillon had 1,635 in 2004.

Rice and Gore are established big-game producers with Pro Bowl credentials. Does either really have a chance to end the 14-year MVP drought for running backs?

Probably not.

Rice hasn't even been the Ravens' lead rusher in two of three playoff wins. That honor has gone to rookie Bernard Pierce, who seems to enter the game with fresher legs.

And Gore may have even less of a chance to win the honor than Rice. If the 49ers win, what are the odds that futuristic quarterback Colin Kaepernick doesn't put on some kind of show worthy of MVP status against Baltimore?

Kaepernick didn't simply set a playoff rushing record for quarterbacks with his 181-yard night against Green Bay. It was an all-time NFL mark, regular or postseason. And while Atlanta slowed him, he still did plenty of damage with his arm.

Rice and Gore could be restoring some sense of balance to a league out of whack, but that seems unlikely. The Ravens' Joe Flacco has averaged 280 yards passing without a turnover in three playoff wins. He doesn't have to tell people he's elite any longer. We can all see it.

And Kaepernick and the 49ers' Pistol offense are getting all the attention for the 49ers. Gore is averaging slightly more than 100 yards rushing in the postseason, which is great. Then again, he's just 7 yards ahead of his decorated quarterback.

"We're just going to keep chipping away, like we did all year, to get where we're at," Gore said.

Rice's respect for the 49er defense creates similarly modest expectations.

"This defense just takes what's there — maybe it's 2 yards, maybe it's 3. You have to make the best of those situations," Rice said. "We know it's not going to be easy at all. But it is the Super Bowl."

It is. And the Super Bowl stage hasn't allowed running backs to perform more than a warm-up act for 14 years.

Even with Rice and Gore on hand, that's unlikely to change.