Barlow a bust?

The evidence is piling up against Kevan Barlow, and the critics are piling on. But the 49ers' struggling starting tailback had a clear message Thursday for his growing legion of non-believers. "I am not a failure," Barlow declared. "I'm not going to be a letdown. I'm not a bust. Hell, no, it ain't in my blood."

Like many other elements in San Francisco's disastrous 1-10 season, Barlow has been a disappointment. On the scale of total washouts, he would rate pretty high, mainly because many of San Francisco's offensive hopes were wrapped around his sturdy legs entering the season.

But Barlow has failed to live up to expectations this year after the 49ers signed him to a five-year, $20 million contract extension in February. He continues to hang on to his starting job even though his playing time and productivity are decreasing on a weekly basis.

It appeared Barlow might lose that job after he was benched last week in favor of unheralded backup Maurice Hicks in the second half of San Francisco's 24-17 loss to Miami. Coach Dennis Erickson said he would make changes on offense after that defeat left San Francisco with the NFL's worst record.

After the game, a frustrated Barlow complained about the way he was being used while also stating he'd agree to step aside as the starter if the Niners decided Hicks should get a shot to do better in the role.

But Barlow will remain in the starting lineup for Sunday's game against the Rams in St. Louis. Erickson and Barlow had a long talk earlier this week, and the coach came out of the conversation believing a lineup shakeup is not the wakeup call that Barlow needs.

"Kevan's a sensitive guy," Erickson said. "He's a good guy. He's just got to understand that he has to play better."

That's what others have been saying about Barlow for the past two months. But the outcry has gotten even louder during the past three weeks, when the 230-pound tailback rushed for just 97 yards on 44 carries in losses to Carolina, Tampa Bay and Miami.

Barlow certainly has heard the noise.

"Obviously, we're disappointing as a team and as an offense," Barlow said. "We're not able to run the ball like we have been in the past. A lot of that, I put on me. They made an investment in me to go out there and be productive. They expect a lot out of me and obviously I haven't delivered. Hopefully we can get things changed around these last four or five games."

Barlow hardly is the only underachiever on offense this season, but his struggles are magnified by his pivotal position and the big payday he received earlier this year after rushing for 1,024 yards last season despite starting only four games. His average of 5.1 yards per carry ranked fifth among the NFL's 1,000-yard rushers.

Barlow can say he isn't going to be a letdown, but he already is one this season.

Despite starting all 11 games this year, Barlow has fallen well off his 2003 pace. He ranks 27th in the league with 581 yards on 179 carries – just 22 fewer carries than he had all of last season. His average of 3.2 yards per carry is the lowest of any starting running back in the league.

And it just seems to keep getting worse every week. Barlow had 20 yards rushing on nine carries against the Dolphins after finishing with 30 yards on 14 carries the week before against Tampa Bay. Hicks, a member of San Francisco's practice squad until last month, was the 49ers' leading rusher each of those games. He has rushed for 128 yards in increasing part-time duty over the past three weeks, average 4.6 yards a pop.

Many believe it is time to sit Barlow for his own good and start Hicks. This would seemingly serve several purposes. First, it would give the Niners a better look at Hicks from the get-go and let them see what they might have in him. Second, it would light a fire under Barlow while also allowing him an opportunity to step back and get a different view of the situation during this trying season.

But the Niners remain committed to the guy they paid the big bucks.

"Kevan, he's our guy," 49ers running backs coach Tim Lappano said. "We've just got to get him up in there getting some positive yardage. He's struggling a bit with that and I'm not really quite sure why."

That has been a familiar lament for the 49ers the past two months. After rushing for 190 yards in San Francisco's first two games, Barlow has just 390 on 140 carries over the past nine games. Consequently, the 49ers have dropped to 30th in the NFL in rushing offense. Over the previous six seasons, San Francisco ranked second in the league only to Denver in rushing yards.

"It's basically the same exact runs we did a year ago," Lappano said. "We're running the exact same run plays we were running a year ago. And the same guy, myself, is coaching them. Nothing's changed there. Nothing's changed in the run game."

Except the results.

Barlow, in fact, is struggling whenever he touches the football. He is not breaking tackles or displaying the elusiveness of his first three NFL seasons. Of the league's top 100 players in yards gained from scrimmage, Barlow ranks 42nd with 761 yards rushing and receiving, but he's at the very bottom of that list with an average of just 3.6 yards per touch (carries and receptions).

Over the last 53 times he has had the ball in his hands, Barlow has averaged just 1.4 yards after the first hit. He has averaged more than three yards after the first hit in just two games this season.

For whatever reasons, Barlow just doesn't look like the same big, explosive back he was during his first three NFL seasons. Barlow knows it, too. Though he still talks a good game and is confident he'll live up to his potential, he realizes he must deeply analyze what has gone wrong this season to make it right in the future.

"I haven't really sat down and looked at me on film," he said. "I will this offseason. It's definitely something I have to go and look at this offseason. It's a learning season. That's how you look at it now. That's the only positive you can get out of a losing season. You go out and see what you can do better and figure out what to do in the offseason to make your skills better. I need to improve coming into next year because it's a disappointment. On the other hand, I know we have another year. I'm young. I've got a few years left in these legs - a lot of years, actually.

He expects they will be with the 49ers, even though his struggles this year have shaken the confidence of many in the organization that Barlow can be The Man in the backfield, a potential Top 10 NFL running back that the Niners thought they were paying for when they signed him up for the long haul.

"Without a doubt," Barlow said when asked if he felt the team was still commited to him. "Just like I'm committed to them. They've invested in me. Terry Donahue drafted me and wanted me to stick around. I'm fortunate that they wanted to invest in me. Hopefully, we'll get this season over with and next year we'll come back and reevaluate what we did in the offseason and get our minds fresh and have a good year next year."

And what about this year? Barlow must not forget there's still five games remaining this season. That's still plenty of time to turn failure into accomplishment – as well as time to dig further in the opposite direction.


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