***** running back hasn't produced
Kevin Lynch, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, December 3, 2004

The plan for the 2004 offense appeared brilliant, and much of it centered on running back Kevan Barlow. The ***** handed their nascent talent a handsome contract and named him the starter.

The theory was Barlow would rip off long runs behind an offensive line infused with youth, the ***** would then fake a handoff to Barlow later in the game and throw deep against a backpedaling defense.

The plan took shape during the end of the 2003 season, when Barlow romped for 420 yards and three touchdowns in the last four games. Not only was he productive, he had matured. When he fumbled twice inside the Bengals' 20-yard line in a 41-38 loss in snowy Cincinnati last season, Barlow said, "I take full responsibility."

He seemed different from the man who took himself out of a 35-7 loss earlier that season in Minnesota. And Barlow reached detente with fullback Fred Beasley, a one-time adversary.

The ***** figured the five-year, $20 million deal would settle Barlow's insecurities and enable him to be the centerpiece of the offense.

Barlow was now the man, something he always wanted, and took the opportunity to boast before the season began.

"Whoever's watching that (season opener against Atlanta), whoever's going to that stadium, they're going to know (Falcons quarterback) Mike Vick was there. And they're going to know that Kevan Barlow was there," he crowed.

Barlow is certainly known by the shrinking crowds at Monster Park these days, but for all the wrong reasons in this 1-10 season. His 3.2 yards per carry average is the lowest of any starting running back in the league, and it's nearly 2 yards below his 5.1 yard average from last season. Despite the woeful production and the mounting losses, Barlow continued to tout his abilities, saying he was still a great player.

Increasingly, his postgame comments sounded shrill. Following Sunday's loss to the Dolphins, in which Barlow carried nine times for 20 yards and spent most of the second half watching, he said coaches had turned him into a "robot."

"If the play calls for me to run to the left, then I have to run left," Barlow said Sunday.

Placing the blame on Barlow seemed appropriate when he was talking big and playing small. But even at that, there are several other factors that figure in this year's awful offense. The line never recovered from losing center Jeremy Newberry, the young receivers haven't developed and quarterback Tim Rattay's 15 turnovers haven't helped.

Nevertheless on Thursday Barlow admitted his part in this forgettable season.

"We're disappointed as a team, as an offense," Barlow said. "I put that on me, too. I haven't really lived up to expectations."

Barlow has been slow to adjust to the lack of cutback lanes. With a diminished offensive line and opposing defenses geared to seal off the back side of a run play, Barlow often finds himself with nowhere to go. At times, Barlow has been belted as soon as he gets the handoff. Naturally, he has tried to make his cut early, but that has only made matters worse.

Instead of letting the play develop, Barlow minces his steps, which allows the defense to pounce.

"That's what Kevan has a little bit of problem with, and that's what frustrates me a little bit, (he doesn't) press the hole enough," running backs coach Tim Lappano said. "A good zone runner presses the hole and then he makes that cut."

Lappano and offensive assistant Jason Tarver have made a tape of Barlow's runs last year and this year , to help Barlow return to his 2003 form.

"You look at last year's film and it's like night and day," Barlow said. "I look and I say, 'What happened to that guy?' I want to go out there and be successful. I want to win. But right now things aren't on my side. Things aren't on the team's side."

Barlow also admitted taking time to adjust to being the featured runner. "I haven't really dealt with that the last three years," Barlow said. "But I think it's made me a stronger person."

Barlow hungers for a new day, and said he will take the offseason to mull this year. He vows to return and fulfill the destiny of becoming the player he envisions.

"I'm not going to be a letdown," Barlow resolved. "I'm not going to be anybody's bust."

Briefly: Cornerback Jimmy Williams returned to practice for the second straight day. Williams has missed the last three games with a broken toe. "I want to get in there, I'm sick of standing around," Williams said.

E-mail Kevin Lynch at klynch@sfchronicle.com.