End nowhere in sight for G-man

Garrison Hearst returns to where it all began this week with the end of his NFL career nowhere in sight. The 49ers resurgent starting tailback appears to be getting stronger as the season goes along this year after he showed signs of fading at the end of last season. Hearst's inspired and effective rushing is having a huge impact as the Niners shape the direction of this year's team and push to get back in the playoff hunt.

Hearst is coming off his best game of the season after rushing for 117 yards on 20 carries in last week's 24-7 rout of defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay. After enduring two major injuries earlier in his career and an apparent erosion of his skills late last season, a perception thta now doesn't exist, Hearst continues to defy age and the natural wear and tear of his position in his 11th season in the league.

Hearst's first three seasons were spent in Arizona, which made him the third overall selection of the 1993 NFL draft. Those years are not fond memories for Hearst, who was released by the Cardinals before the 1996 season began after he'd returned from a career-threatening knee injury to record his first 1,000-yard season for Arizona the year before.

"It's just another team now," Hearst said. "It's my 11th year now, so I don't look back on grudges like I used to hold. I do enjoy playing there. But more than anything, we are going to see if we can get a two-game winning streak going and put together two good games."

Hearst played a lead role in San Francisco finally putting it all together against the Bucs after the Niners had been plagued by inconsistency the first six weeks of the season. San Francisco rolled to 212 yards on the ground against the NFL's reigning No. 1 defense as Hearst recorded his first 100-yard game since December of last season.

That also was the last time San Francisco assembled a two-game winning streak. At 3-4, the Niners feel they now can ride their established ground game to a string of victories to get them back in playoff contention.

With Hearst and understudy Kevan Barlow sharing carries, the 49ers rank fourth in the league in rushing. Against the vaunted Tampa Bay defense, the one-two punch of Hearst and Barlow pounding on the ground allowed the San Francisco offense to prosper in other areas as the Niners produced a season-high 458 yards.

The combination of that pair is working out so well that Hearst and Barlow both are among the NFC's top 11 rushers this week. Hearst ranks sixth in the conference with 472 yards on 99 carries - 15 carries less than any player listed above him. Barlow, who rushed for 75 yards against Tampa Bay, is ranked 11th with 332 yards on 75 carries.

Though he averages 14 carries a game, Hearst said he felt at his best while getting a season-high 20 last week. Just as he has done all season, Erickson said again this week that the Niners will continue to rotate the two tailbacks to keep both fresh and healthy.

"I like being in the game more, where I can get the feel of it," Hearst said. "I think most backs like to get in there and keep going. I would definitely want to be in there where I can keep running most of the time. Late in the third quarter and fourth quarter, that's when you start getting your bigger runs after you've been in there the whole game.

"It's different when you split it up, as far as seeing plays for yourself and getting a rhythm once you're in there, but when you're running the ball like we did last week, anything works."

Hearst has it working now even better than last season, when he finished just short of his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season as an active player. He's on a pace to surpass that barrier again this year, and needs just 19 yards rushing against the Cardinals to earn a spot among the NFL's top 30 all-time leading career rushers.

With 7,589 career yards rushing, San Francisco's G-man is seventh among active NFL rushers. The leader on both the all-time and active career rushing lists - Arizona's Emmitt Smith - will be on the opposite sideline Sunday. Smith won't play because of a shoulder injury.

Hearst, who turns 33 in January, isn't sure he wants to stick around as long as Smith, who is adding to his record totals in his 14th season.

"I don't know," Hearst said. "I made it this far and I have never put a number on how long I wanted to play football. My thing is that I don't want to be here when I'm not performing, when I'm not helping the team win. I feel like I am still doing that. As long as I can do that and continue to make plays on the field, I'm going to play football."

The way he's playing right now for the Niners, he figures to be doing it quite a bit longer.

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