Season review: Running backs

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2004 season by unit. Today: Running backs

Starters in season opener: Kevan Barlow (tailback), Jason Isom (fullback)

Starters in season finale: Kevan Barlow (tailback), Steve Bush (fullback)

Unit MVP: Fred Beasley

Top newcomer: Maurice Hicks

Biggest disappointment: Kevan Barlow

Numbers to note: The 49ers gained just 1,449 yards rushing during the 2004 season, the fewest ever for the team over a 16-game season. That total is the third-lowest in franchise history, which includes all of the Niners' 12- and 14-game seasons.

The good: Beasley, when healthy, continued to assert himself as one of the NFL's best blocking fullbacks, though it seldom showed in the team's overall rushing results. Barlow showed some flashes of the ability that convinced team management to give him a five-year, $20 million contract during the offseason, particularly late in the season when he came on strong against the top rushing defenses from Buffalo and New England. Barlow had two 100-yard rushing games – 114 against New Orleans in Week 2 and 103 in the season finale against New England. Terry Jackson was a serviceable third-down back and led the team's running backs with a 3.9 average per carry. He also had 21 receptions. Hicks was one of the pleasant surprises of San Francisco's otherwise dismal season, producing 362 yards rushing after being elevated from the practice squad on Nov. 3. He started two games in place of a slumping Barlow, producing the season's top individual performance by a San Francisco back when he rushed for 139 yards on 34 carries to spark an overtime win at Arizona in December.

The bad: Barlow's 3.4 average per carry was the worst of any starting running back in the NFL and was the third-lowest by the 49ers' leading rusher since 1973. After a promising start – when he gained 190 yards on 39 carries in San Francisco's first two games – Barlow went into a deep, prolonged slump that saw him gain just 457 yards on 165 carries (a 2.8 average) over the next 11 games in which he played. Beasley missed the first and last games due to injuries and, although he still was a formidable player, did not match his Pro Bowl performance of the season before. The backs, as a whole, struggled in pass protection, and they had a lot of opportunities with defenders beating San Francisco's weak offensive line. Barlow, Hicks, Jackson and Jamal Robertson each lost two fumbles.

The ugly: One of Barlow's lost fumbles came on the first offensive play of San Francisco's season after the Niners had partially blocked a punt and were poised to go for the early kill deep in Atlanta territory. That fumble ultimately played a pivotal role in a 21-19 loss to the Falcons, and seemed to set the course for a season of offensive woes. The next week, Robertson lost a fumble in New Orleans territory – without being hit - when the 49ers had the lead and were in position to run out the clock, allowing the Saints to rally for a 30-27 win. The offense completely stalled once the running game began struggling in late September. Barlow averaged 2.5 yards per carry in six games and 3.1 or less in three others. The Niners finished 31st in the NFL in average yards per rush and 30th in the league in rushing offense. Isom's season ended in ugly fashion when he tore his Achilles tendon in the Oct. 10 game against Arizona.

Looking ahead in 2005: The Niners have a decision to make regarding Barlow, who is due a $6.5 million signing bonus in March as part of the deal he signed last year. The Niners could get out of the big contract by trading him, which is a possibility. That would mean selecting a running back high in the April draft and/or bringing in a free agent, which would leave the Niners basically starting over in their search for a new featured back. Beasley will be back for another go at fullback and Hicks also figures to be given another shot as the backup tailback, since he has high value on special teams. Jackson has value in the same areas, but he's an unrestricted free agent this year and might not figure in the new regime's plans. Whatever happens in personnel, the Niners will be expecting drastic improvement from this unit in 2005.


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