Three for the show

Barlow, Gore and Hicks. Those three names combined might not sound as sweet to some as "Reggie Bush," but the 49ers enter 2006 feeling confident they are set at running back with the three players who manned the position for them last season. Even if Bush had fallen into San Francisco's lap with the No. 1 overall draft pick, the 49ers probably wouldn't have selected him, because they already have the backs who can help their offense prosper and put their rushing game on the fast track in 2006.

Everybody wanted to talk about Bush in late December as the 49ers kept losing games and closing in on the possibility of owning the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft for the second consecutive season.

So Gore and Hicks led the 49ers on a mad dash away from that kind of conversation in the season's final two weeks.

And they did it without Barlow, who's one rung ahead of each on San Francisco's depth chart.

Without Barlow, the team's leading rusher in 2003 and 2004, the 49ers finished off the 2005 season by finishing off the St. Louis Rams and Houston Texans with the team's two finest rushing performances of the season. The 217 rushing yards against the Rams were the most in a game by San Francisco since 2003, and the 49ers followed that by rumbling for 182 yards on the ground against the Texans.

The season-ending 20-17 victory over Houston silenced any lingering discussion about San Francisco's chances of landing Bush, the mercurial USC tailback and Heisman Trophy winner.

But the late push by San Francisco's young backs started a whole new dialogue: Would the 49ers really even need Bush if they had a top pick to get him?

"I think we have three pretty good backs here already," Gore said.

The 49ers have been thinking along those same lines most of the season. And especially at the end of it, when San Francisco was displaying the kind of power rushing attack coach Mike Nolan had envisioned all along.

It took a while for the 49ers to get there. With considerable transition along the offensive line throughout the season, San Francisco never developed the kind of continuity and cohesiveness up front that is necessary for a quality rushing game until the very end of the season.

That young line remains a work in progress. But the 49ers feel they're set for the immediate future at running back with the combination of Barlow, Gore and Hicks – not necessarily in that order.

"That would be a great situation," said Gore, who finished the season with 608 yards on 127 carries to become the first rookie to lead the 49ers in rushing in 15 years. "We're all different types of backs. We have different styles and we can all help this team a lot."

Despite battling injuries all year – including tears in both shoulders that required surgery at the end of the season – Gore led all NFL rookie running backs who had more than 55 carries with a 4.8 average every time he toted the football.

Hicks – getting late-season opportunities due to injuries to Gore and Barlow, who missed four of the final five games with a knee injury – ripped off a 50-yard gain on his first carry of the season and also dashed 73 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the Week 16 victory at St. Louis. Hicks finished with 308 yards on 59 carries for a 5.2 average that led the team.

Barlow saw his rushing totals decrease for the third consecutive season – he had 1,024 yards rushing and a 5.1 average in 2003, and 822 yards and a 3.4 average last season – as he finished with 581 yards on 176 carries, a 3.3 average.

But Nolan said that's not an indication the Barlow regressed. In fact, the coach felt Barlow made progress in the first season under a new regime and new offensive system. Just as importantly, Barlow impressed Nolan with his attitude, work ethic and willingness to be a team player.

"Kevan is not a problem child," Nolan said. "He just needs structure around him, as a lot of people do. As a person, it's 180 degrees different than from what I was told coming in. The way he carries himself around the team is better. Kevan had a good season and did a good job. He's dancing less behind the line of scrimmage than he did before. He's a better pass protector than he was at any time. He certainly looked better to me than he did (on film) a year ago."

Barlow is scheduled to make $2.5 million in base salary in 2006, which would make him awfully expensive if he's not the team's featured back. Many expect that role to go next season to Gore, whose blend of quickness, explosiveness and power gives him the potential for star quality.

But Nolan has not made any commitment yet to Gore as the starter, and he seems to fancy using Barlow and Gore in a two-back rotating system – with Hicks as an occasional change-of-pace back – that could make the San Francisco offense flourish in 2006.

When asked if Barlow would be back with the team next season, Nolan said, "I would anticipate it. He's not a free agent, and at this point we have not made any decisions other than that. He certainly hasn't done anything to change that feeling."

Hicks, an exclusive rights free agent, also appears to have a future in San Francisco, as Nolan gushed about the second-year player, "He brings toughness, toughness and I could say toughness again. He's a tough, hard-running, physical guy that competes at a high level. He's what we want players to look like."

Gore – who rushed for a career-high two touchdowns against St. Louis, then followed that effort with a career-high 108 yards rushing against Houston on New Year's Day – appeared to establish himself as a legitimate NFL starter and the team's back of the future. But Nolan seems to enjoy having the option of deciding between two backs for that role.

Or three, for that matter.

"Yes, (Gore)'s a starting NFL running back right now," Nolan said. "Is he over Kevan right now? We'll wait and see when everybody's healthy. That's a down-the-road issue. But Frank is certainly capable of being a starter, and we drafted him knowing at some point he might have to. But we have a good crop of backs and we'll continue to use them all.

"I like our running backs. I like them a lot. I've liked them all year long. And we don't drop off when we go to our third guy."

Reggie who?


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