Now Barlow must perform like a big-money back

Now that the 49ers have forked out the $6.5 million bonus owed to Kevan Barlow, they are all paid up on the mercurial tailback. That investment means Barlow will get first crack at being the featured back under the Niners' new coaching regime, but that's all the team feels it owes him, and coach Mike Nolan is making it clear what the fifth-year veteran has to do to hold onto the job. "He has to perform," Nolan said. "He has to perform at a better level than he did last year."

The Niners essentially had no choice but to pay Barlow the second half of the two-tiered bonus on the five-year, $20 million contract Barlow inked with the team last February. Though Barlow's signing bonus was split into two separate payments a year apart – he received $1.5 million when he signed last year – the writing in his contract guaranteed him $8 million of that deal.

If the Niners hadn't given him the balance due Tuesday on his guaranteed money, the writing in his contract would have activated a clause that would have forced the 49ers to pay more than twice that to Barlow over the next three years. Hence, it was a safety measure written into to his contract to ensure that he'd get the $6.5 million now – or significantly more later.

But now that Barlow has the cash in pocket, the team doesn't owe him another dime unless he earns his keep as the starting tailback.

Surely, with the investment put into Barlow by the team's previous management regime, the Niners are going to give him every chance to the productive workhorse the team envisioned when he signed his big deal last year. Barlow isn't going anywhere. He'll be around during the 2005 season, whether he's in the starting lineup or not.

Of course, at this point, the Niners are considering the "or not" alternative as a worst-case scenario.

"Kevan is our back," Nolan said. "It's our anticipation that he'll come back and (perform better than 2004)."

He'd better. A reprise of Barlow's disappointing and inconsistent 2004 season simply won't cut it with Nolan and his new coaching staff. Despite the money the team just paid him, Barlow will be playing for his job in 2005. The 49ers won't hesitate to make changes at the position if he reverts to his form of last season.

That's a performance Barlow would rather forget. After an often spectacular breakout season in 2003 – when he rushed for a team-leading 1,024 yards and produced a 5.1 average per carry despite starting just four games – Barlow regressed under the weight of the featured role last year.

He finished with just 822 yards rushing on 244 carries – 43 carries more but 202 yards fewer than the season before – and an average of just 3.4, the lowest among all NFL starting running backs. Barlow had a horrible 10-game stretch in the middle of the season when he rushed for just 438 yards on 159 carries – a 2.75 average – before sitting out the team's Dec. 12 game at Arizona with a concussion.

It may be unfair to pin that failure to produce squarely on Barlow. He worked behind a patchwork offensive line that struggled just as mightily as he did, and the team's weak passing attack didn't do much to take pressure off him. But Barlow also didn't run with the same burst and tackle-breaking explosion that he had exhibited the first three years of his career.

But now it's a fresh start. With a new coaching staff, a new approach and direction, and ostensibly better offensive players around him, everybody is confident now that Barlow can shrug of his poor season and reach his potential as a starter in 2005.

Right?

"Well, it's a two-way street," Nolan said cautiously but honestly. "Kevan has to be committed. Obviously, we're committed as a coaching staff. I'm certainly excited about his potential, but as we all know, that word can get you in trouble at times."

This is not to suggest the 49ers are down on Barlow. But everything with the 49ers is going forward these days. They don't want look back at – or repeat – all the things that went wrong last season. Barlow certainly was prominent on that list.

"He's been a good back," Nolan said. "He's had good games. He certainly has the capability of being what we want him to be. I'm hopeful that will happen."

But the Niners will keep their options open all the way up to the first snap of the season opener. There is no guarantee today that Barlow – despite cashing in on the debt owed him by the team – will be in the offensive huddle for that first snap.

He still has to prove himself to the new regime this spring. With the college draft loaded with quality running back prospects, there is a chance the 49ers might spend a high pick to bring in some competition to challenge Barlow. To be sure, the team is not just going to hand him the job this spring. Somebody – a rookie, a veteran, a free agent – will be brought in to push him for the starting role.

Barlow has been paid like a premier running back. Now he has to play like it.

"That is why we have minicamps, training camp and the whole bit," Nolan said. "I wish I could tell the future. At least, (then) I would know what to do. I'd be 100 percent sure."

And right now, nobody in the organization is 100 percent sure about Barlow, even after the Niners just made him a much richer man.


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