Barlow's 'game work ethic' taken to task

Mike Nolan has questioned Kevan Barlow's work ethic in games last year, and the 49ers' starting tailback didn't try to deny that's a fair assessment. Nolan said he saw one kind of Barlow on film in 2003 when he tried to stop him as Baltimore's defensive coordinator, then saw a completely different Barlow when he watched film of the 2004 49ers after taking over as the team's coach. "You can tell when a guy quits on reads," said Nolan, who also said he better not see that from Barlow this year.

Nolan described it as a rather stark contrast once he began dissecting San Francisco's game film of 2004, then thought back specifically to what he saw from Barlow on the game film he studied in 2003 as he prepared for the Ravens' November 30 game against the Niners that year.

"I had my feelings (then) about who he was and how he played," Nolan said. "Then I saw him on film this year – because we didn't play them last year – and then I had two different opinions at the time."

It's pretty easy to guess Nolan's different opinions.

In 2003, he saw a tough, bullish Barlow who was emerging as one of the NFL's top young running backs. Barlow averaged 4.4 yards a carry while gaining 48 yards against Baltimore's voracious defense that game, then he took over as San Francisco's starting tailback the next week, when Barlow gained a career-high 154 yards against Arizona. Barlow rushed for 433 yards in four December games to finish the season with 1,024 yards and a 5.1 average.

Nolan almost didn't notice the Barlow he saw again later on 2004 film.

That was a Barlow who lacked the power and explosiveness of the previous year, a Barlow that failed to break tackles while gaining only 822 yards despite carrying the ball 43 more times than the year before. That was a Barlow that averaged just 3.4 yards a carry, the worst average in the league for a starting running back.

Nolan, however, noticed some similarities in Barlow both seasons.

"When I saw him when they played us, I noticed his work ethic in the game," Nolan said. "You can tell when a guy quits on a read, because if you stay with your read, you'll get a lot more runs that are effective. I saw things like that, so it was more from a work-ethic standpoint that I saw that he needed to improve his game. That was the best chance for him to get back on track to the back he needs to be."

When Barlow was asked if Nolan's criticism was valid, he replied frankly, "I would say so. I would think everything was different in 2003."

"We made a lot of changes," Barlow continued. "That's not making no excuses for me or my running style of how I changed, but we were just a totally different team with a totally different mentality from 2003 to 2004. I don't know if anybody was playing the way they normally play. I mean, we won two games. If everybody was playing to their full potential, then we would have won more than two games, and that's everybody in this locker room."

As he continued to discuss the contrast, Nolan got a little more blunt.

"You can talk about all the angles and this and that, but in reality, bust your ass and you perform better," Nolan said. "That goes fore everybody."

Could Barlow have run harder last season?

"I mean, definitely," he replied. "I feel there is something I could have done." But then Barlow again alluded to the team around him last year when he said, "I feel like I go out and give it 100 percent all the time. If there was something I could have done to make it better, then I would have. But I mean, I couldn't."

When asked specifically about giving up on reads, Barlow said, "I think it was a different team, it was a different chemistry up front (last year). I was still trying to learn the offensive line we had. We had five new starters on the offensive line, Jeremy (Newberry) was out, (Justin) Smiley, Kwame (Harris) … It was just finding that chemistry with the offensive line. And then when I almost found my chemistry, somebody would get hurt and we had to make musical chairs up front. So I think that was a big part of it, too, just finding my jell and my camaraderie with the guys."

Even though the 49ers are having injury problems on their offensive line this year, Nolan expects it to be different with Barlow this season. He brought in taskmaster Bishop Harris as his running backs coach, and Harris seems to be developing a strong rapport with Barlow and getting the most out of him so far in the early stages of training camp.

Nolan isn't questioning Barlow's work ethic so far in camp, even though Barlow took himself out of practice with what Nolan termed "heat frustration" during the opening day of camp.

"I think I've seen that so far," Nolan said. "From the structure of the offense, to Bishop Harris, and with the pressure of Frank Gore, I think (Barlow's) doing a great job. Now, he has his moments, but don't we all. He's doing a good job."

Barlow knows he will see many of the same eight-man fronts this year that he saw last season until the 49ers' developing passing game can offer more of a threat to opposing defenses.

But he also knows he must leave behind the image he left from last season, even though it is eternally caught on film.

"I'm pretty much mentally strong," Barlow said. "I'm still going to go out there and play my game. (Last year) definitely hurt. It was a long, tough season. It had to affect everybody. I think everyone on this team went through that, from top to bottom, from upstairs to downstairs. It definitely was mentally draining. You just never can prepare yourself to go through something like that. It was a learning lesson, so if I was ever to through something like that again – knock on wood, I hope that never happens – then I would know what to expect.

" I'm going to go out there and do my job this season. It's a team game, and I'm going to take on any challenge – whatever is thrown at me. That's basically how my life has been, going through obstacle courses and taking on challenges. I'm ready to take on anything. The coaches expect me to do that, and I'm going to do it. I'm getting coached up really well by Bishop Harris; he's put me in the right position to be successful. Whatever it is, whatever they expect me to do, whatever my role is, I'm going to be happy with it. I'm confident in my play and I'm confident that I can go out there and get the job done."

His coaches, meanwhile, will wait to see what Barlow does on 2005 game film before they develop that same type of confidence.

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