Season in review: Running backs

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2005 season by position. Today: Running backs

Starters in season opener: RB Kevan Barlow, FB Fred Beasley

Starter in season finale: RB Maurice Hicks (in a one-back set)

Unit MVP: RB Frank Gore

Biggest disappointment: The rift that developed between Beasley and RBs coach Bishop Harris, which made the veteran fullback virtually an afterthought in a struggling offense

On the rise: Frank Gore

On the slide: Fred Beasley

What went right: Despite being hampered all season by a variety of minor injuries that forced him to miss two games, third-round draft pick Gore became the first rookie in 15 seasons to lead the 49ers in rushing, finishing with 608 yards on 127 carries, a 4.8 average that led all NFL rookies who toted the football more than 55 times. Gore's powerful, quick-hitting style belied his 5-foot-9 stature and he displayed explosiveness and a quick burst when in the clear. Gore finished the season with 255 yards rushing on 54 carries in San Francisco's final three games, sparking the 49ers' season-ending two-game winning streak with two rushing touchdowns against St. Louis and a career-high 108 yards in the finale against Houston. Though he missed four of the final five games with a knee injury, Kevan Barlow was an improved rusher over the season before, even though his numbers (581 yards on 176 carries) don't suggest that. Barlow's season-best 101-yard effort sparked the 49ers to a midseason upset of Tampa Bay, and he also had a 99-yard output against a tough Indianapolis defense. His blocking on pass protection also was improved. Hicks, who didn't get his first carry until the 10th game of the season, ripped off a 50-yard gain on that first carry and got the most out of his late-season opportunities. Hicks finished with 308 yards on 59 carries, a team-leading 5.2 average, and his 73-yard touchdown burst on the first play from scrimmage in Week 16 against St. Louis – San Francisco's longest run of the season – pointed the 49ers to their biggest rushing output of the season (217 yards). As in recent seasons, Terry Jackson performed well in his limited opportunities as a third-down back. Fullback Chris Hetherington, whose role increased as the season progressed, had his moments as a lead blocker, particularly in the final two games, when the 49ers rushed for 399 yards. That late surge lifted the 49ers to a No. 17 final NFL ranking in rushing offense and a No. 16 ranking in rushing average, San Francisco's highest finishes among 15 offensive categories recorded by the NFL.

What went wrong: Barlow was inconsistent hitting holes with authority, and that allowed defenders to swarm him as the blocking up front often had its problems. Barlow, who started the first 11 games before his knee problems flared up, finished with a 3.3 average that was even worse than his 3.4 average of 2004. No player above him among the NFL's rushing leaders had a worse per-carry average. Barlow had several ineffective stretches – 56 yards on 24 carries (2.3 average) in Weeks 1-2; 123 yards on 60 carries (2.1) in Weeks 9-12 – that bogged down an offense that needed a running game to support inexperienced quarterbacks. Barlow finished the season with just 156 yards on 71 carries in the final five games he played. Beasley, the NFC's Pro Bowl fullback in 2003, fell into disfavor with both Harris and head coach Mike Nolan and never was much of a factor the entire season. After starting seven of the first nine games, he missed the next three due to injury, then didn't play at all in the final four games even though he was healthy and in uniform. That hardly could be considered the best use of Beasley's talent on a talent-deprived offense.

Looking forward in 2006: All indications point to Gore taking over as the featured back next season, but a steady rotation involving both Gore and Barlow is more likely. Nolan indicated Barlow will be given an opportunity to retain his starting role – that is, if he is back next season – and the 49ers like the idea of hitting opponents with the different sizes and styles of their two lead backs. Hicks also is likely to return and have some sort of backup role as a change-of-pace back. The future is cloudy at best at fullback. Beasley says he wants to return, but that scenario is unlikely. The 49ers may re-sign Hetherington to have a veteran fullback to take into next season, but they will definitely look to add to the position if Beasley is not brought back.

Final 2005 unit grade: C-plus

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