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The San Francisco 49ers face a dilemma of sorts in determining who will be the starting running back once the 2006 NFL season begins. Obviously when you look back on a season that wasn't one in 2005 you can see that competition and contention were very evident as Kevan Barlow failed to establish himself as the dominant lead back.
In fact critics have stressed that Kevan Barlow may never be the true running back the 49ers coveted and signed to a multi-million dollar contract soon after Garrison Hearst left in a whirlwind to Denver.
Kevan Barlow was groomed to be the eventual replacement to veteran running back extraordinaire Garrison Hearst within the Steve Mariucci and Dennis Erickson era. Even back then I found that Kevan Barlow never really established himself as the star studded running back that so many had talked him up to be.
He is now two-years into a five-year, $20 million contract that included $8 million dollars in guaranteed money to boot. He has only rushed for 581 total yards in 2005 and scored just three touchdowns, a heavy price tag for the production just mentioned.
In the beginning right before Mike Nolan became the head coach and chief executive of the San Francisco 49ers, he viewed running back Kevan Barlow as a problem child that either had to be eliminated or rectified to fit into his master plan for the offense on this team.
His view on Barlow was that he seemed too hesitant at the line of scrimmage and wasted valuable time in hitting the hole and opportunities that the offensive line presented to him. He seemed to also impersonate himself as a ballroom dancer that loved the world of dance as he could be seen on any given Sunday doing so just behind the line of scrimmage.
The hesitation and the ballroom dancing led to Mike Nolan thinking the worst, but as he got to know him his attitude changed a little bit. Kevan Barlow though still remains a problem child with a checkered and controversial past that exists with many of his teammates and a mouth that doesn't know sometimes when to close itself.
There was a time when Kevan Barlow laid blame on his teammates for his production problems albeit the very unit that assists him in making his career goals in the offensive line. He literally called them out and said albeit jokingly, that the 49ers should consider spending their first seven drafts picks just on offensive linemen.
The comment drew the disgust and anger of his teammates that raised questions about his integrity and maturity as a member of the offensive unit on this team. In fact it fueled an anger inside the offensive line so much that in the following game they paved the way for Barlow's top back-up in Maurice Hicks, to rush for a season-high 139 yards.
Just after that Kevan Barlow began to realize the error of his ways and tried to mend fences with his teammates and even at one time started handing out travel kits from Sharper Image to each of the offensive linemen as gifts.
Offensive lineman Eric Heitmann came forward and welcomed him back into the unit and saw an attitude adjustment that pleased him to the extent that he had this to say: "Running backs and offensive linemen are best friends; we take care of them, and they take care of us," Heitmann said. "I don't think Kevan had to (buy gifts) at all, but it was a nice gesture."
Mike Nolan also had his own observations in Kevan Barlow and had this to say: "Kevan is not a problem child. He just needs structure around him, as a lot of people do," Nolan said.
"I think Bish (running backs coach Bishop Harris) has been a great match for him. He wanted some direction, some guidance. He needs a parent to coach him. He doesn't need a pal. I think that's why he's responded so well. All of the things I've heard about him, with what we've put in place for him, that's the kind of environment he flourishes in."
Back in December Kevan Barlow was placed on injured reserve at Mike Nolan's request, which made him ineligible to play in the regular season finale against the Houston Texans. Kevan Barlow had already up and until that point missed three of the last four games with constant swelling in his left knee.
Because of his injuries the top back-ups in Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks made a lot of noise while he nursed his left knee on the sidelines. In a dramatic game against the St. Louis Rams this past December both Maurice Hicks and Frank Gore led a running attack behind a new makeshift offensive line that produced a season-high 217 yards rushing.
Maurice Hicks jump-started the running game when he brushed off an attempted arm tackle and outran the entire St. Louis defense for a 73-yard touchdown on the first play of the game. He finished with 108 yards in just 10 carries.
"I give credit to the guys up front, the offensive line, the receivers, the tight ends," Hicks said. "They did a great job of blocking and gave me an easy read. I did what I had to do. I made a move on the safety and I was free. I don't think anybody touched me."
On top of all that Frank Gore established himself yet again with 68 yards on 10 carries as well, which included touchdown runs of 10 and 30 yards on the same-play call in which pulling guard Justin Smiley led the interference through the line of scrimmage.
"It's a 96-power," Gore said of the play. "I kind of held on to the back of his jersey and I hit it on through." "Our offensive line is coming together," Gore added. "They're young but they fought their behinds off today."
And the excitement didn't end there with Frank Gore. For the second straight game, rookie Frank Gore made all of us, as fans feel better about our team and ourselves. It even dampened our perception that we were in need of an elite running back like Reggie Bush as the top running back prospect in this year's NFL draft.
Frank Gore in my view can be the tailback of the future for the San Francisco 49ers because of what he showed me in this game. Gore carried 25 times for 108 yards, most of that yardage coming right after the initial hit he took from the first defender. This guy is a bull in a china closet literally and he does not go down easily for anybody.
He fights for every inch of turf he possibly can and displays a determination to move the chains at all costs no matter what the situation may be. His guts and glory attitude earn him my respect and recognition as a true running back in this league and he'll have more success should he remain healthy.
Frank Gore may have 49 fewer carries than starter Kevan Barlow, but he has out gained Barlow for the team rushing lead by 27 yards, finishing with 608. He also became the first rookie to lead the 49ers in rushing since Dexter Carter did in 1990.
Frank Gore remains humble as a running back behind a seasoned starter and refuses to make the contest between Barlow and himself personal. Kevan Barlow at one-point towards the season ending with Garrison Hearst made a gesture on camera proclaiming himself as the future of the San Francisco 49ers.
I can still remember that comment and camera shot of him on the sidelines to this day. But what has it really accomplished and what has he done so far to justify our belief in him?
The competition this off-season between Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore will be intense and real. Mike Nolan is not swaying to either side yet at least with the media but when you look at what really inspires him, it is the toughness Frank Gore has already displayed this past regular season. Nolan tends to like the straight ahead north-south running style of running back Frank Gore and embraces the fact that he'll see more of that this coming training camp.
"We have the whole off-season," Gore said. "Kevan's a great back. Maurice (Hicks) is a great back. We just have to compete. Whoever is the best man, that's who gets the job."
"The identity of our football team has begun to take hold these last few weeks of the season, and I believe we are an aggressive team, a physical team," Nolan said. "The past couple of weeks say a lot about the attitude we have in our line on both sides of the ball."
And I believe he made this comment not just about the aggressive running style of Frank Gore but about the aggressive nature that the offensive line was finally displaying right before our very eyes in both games that signal a strengthened rushing attack for seasons to come.
I believe and I have always believed that the success of the San Francisco 49ers rests on its ability to rush the ball for at least 100 yards every single game. Failure to do that makes the outcome of each game predictable and beats the drums of dissatisfaction.
What many of us didn't know about Frank Gore is that when he was drafted at the top of the third round last year is that Mike Nolan had big plans down the road for him despite the fact he came with a history channel of season-ending knee injuries.
He's got impressive inside outside burst, and he doesn't go down when a defender as much breathes on him like some other 49er backs. He's humble and has a good attitude and a resolute work ethic. All criteria in my book for the role of a starting running back in the NFL, and he'll try and do that in this up and coming off-season throughout mini-camps and training camp itself.
"Not just today, but all along," Nolan said. "I felt that way when we drafted him. The setback was when we found out about his shoulder way back before the season started and we had to back off on his reps."
Come to find out Gore has loose shoulder sockets that are prone to separations, and he did tweak one of them in the pre-season. He has under-gone corrective surgery, but at the time the 49ers felt they needed to limit his activity in practice and in games early to get him through the season.
Gore is convinced that he can be the running back the 49ers need once the 2006 NFL season gets underway. He says his shoulder surgery is no big deal and that both his knees feel great. He further believes he is among the great running backs of his class in the Miami Hurricanes Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and others, but that the injuries of his past has tampered with that notice.
"I want to be something in this league, man," he said. "A lot of great backs have come into this league from the University of Miami, most of them first-year starters. Once I got my opportunity I wanted to show the NFL I'm a top-tier running back from the U. I can do what we do."
Although Kevan Barlow is not a free agent in 2006, and is only two-years into his five-year deal, worth $20 million, he'll make $2.5 million just this year alone. Frank Gore, a third-round pick last April, stands to make $310,000 next year. Although this position on our team is one of the deepest at this time, Nolan still believes Barlow can be a part of this in 2006.
Going back and looking at Kevan Barlow he in some ways has been the mellow Terrell Owens on this club in expressing his demeanor and making bad decisions in front of the media at fragile times that have cost him value in the practical mindsets of his teammates.
He needs to show instant improvement as the off-season gets underway and prove that he is the model citizen on this club and put forth the right foot as mini-camps get started. Mike Nolan already has a preconceived mindset as to where he's going with the running game this next season. He wants a starting running back that will generate an exciting attack and produce numbers in the way of touchdowns each and every game.
I have to say I like Frank Gore and he displaces the notion that we need to draft an elite back in the early rounds of this next draft. I would still be looking for a value tailback throughout the draft, but find it unnecessary to take one early.
Both Frank Gore and Maurice Hicks are so worth keeping a few more seasons to come. And both have established themselves as competitive and tough already. Production is squeezed from this very fountain of wonderful youth. That is the way of our future so Kevan Barlow keep an eye looking over your shoulder because here they come.