Hicks starting on horizon?

Most NFL players that consistently produce poorly over an extended period get benched. Is that what it has come to for Kevan Barlow? With Maurice Hicks waiting in the wings and performing like the better tailback, you've really got to wonder.

The last thing the 49ers want to do this season is remove Barlow from the starting lineup, since he is their future as the featured tailback after signing a five-year, $20 million contract in the offseason, $8 million of which is guaranteed.

But Barlow continues to play like a frustrated back who is going nowhere.

Let's face it, his confidence is shattered. He technique has imploded – he stops and stutters after taking handoffs instead of exploding into the hole. He's a 230-pounder who can't break tackles. What, exactly, has happened to this guy?

San Francisco's 35-3 whipping in Tampa Bay on Sunday was the latest episode in a season-long saga that has seen Barlow go from one of the league's most promising running backs to one who is in the tank and sliding toward even greater depths.

He finished with 30 yards rushing on 14 carries before finally giving way to backup Maurice Hicks in the fourth quarter for the second consecutive week.

Barlow had eight carries for four yards in the first half. His latest slump – which has seen him gain 194 yards on 71 yards in San Francisco's past four games, a paltry 2.7 average – was typified by a second-quarter stretch when he had consecutive carries that produced minus-2, minus-2, zero and minus-1 yards.

It's not all his fault – not with a line that's struggling big-time in front of him – but Barlow isn't getting the job done. In 10 games, he now has only 561 yards rushing on 170 carries, producing a 3.3 average that is the worst among the NFL's 25 leading rushers.

After rushing for 1,024 yards and averaging 5.1 per carry while making just four starts last year – numbers that earned him his big payday – Barlow is on a pace to gain just 898 yards this season, a season in which he becomes more and more of a disappointment as the weeks pass.

Should the Niners let another week pass before they turn to Hicks as their featured rusher?

Hicks was brought up from the practice squad just a few short weeks ago, but now he already is out-playing Barlow on a consistent basis – at least, if you can call two games consistent.

When the Niners finally pulled Barlow from the game in the fourth quarter of last week's meltdown against Carolina – after he'd produced minus-13 yards rushing on five carries in the second half after rushing for 60 yards and two touchdowns by halftime – Hicks entered and immediately ripped off a 35-yard gain on his first NFL carry to dig the Niners out of a second-and-26 hole deep in their own territory.

That hole was dug deeper by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty on Barlow.

Hicks ultimately finished one yard behind Barlow for team-leading rushing honors against Carolina with 46 yards – despite carrying the ball just eight times to Barlow's 21 tries.

This week, after Barlow's stretch of futility in the second quarter, Hicks broke off a 14-yard gain on San Francisco's final play of the period – producing more than half of San Francisco's 26 yards of total offense at halftime.

And this time, once the Niners finally started feeding the ball more to Hicks in a lost cause after halftime, Hicks finished as San Francisco's leading rusher with 36 yards on seven carries.

Hicks, who hits the whole quicker than Barlow and appears to have better shiftiness and tackle-breaking ability, is averaging 5.5 yards on his 15 carries as a 49er. He also led the Niners in receiving yards Sunday, pulling in three receptions for 37 yards. Barlow had five receptions for just 14 yards.

As low as things have gotten – and as much as San Francisco doesn't want to destroy Barlow's already fragile psyche – the Niners seriously must consider turning to Hicks as the starter while the offense attempts to sort things out after Sunday's latest debacle.

"Obviously, you can't continue on like this offensively," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said after the Tampa Bay defense limited his team to 197 total yards. "We have to sit down as a coaching staff and look at it. Are we playing the right guys? Are we doing the right things? We have to find a way to put our guys in the best position to win."

And they have to put their best guys on the field. Right now, at the all-important tailback position, that guy is Maurice Hicks.

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