Target practice

Mike Nolan isn't exactly easing the 49ers into a new train of thought. Shoving it in their faces is a little more like it. "I'm trying to give some focus to what the target is we're trying to hit," Nolan said Saturday after assembling the team's holdover veterans in a practice setting for the first time. And, to be sure, it's a target nobody can miss.

"The target is for us to take charge of our division," Nolan said exactly three months to the day after the 49ers finished their dismal 2004 season with a 2-14 record, which left them not only last in the NFC West, but also at the bottom of the entire NFL.

Nolan then broke down that rather bold comment into its elemental parts – talking in detail about how the 49ers need to develop their structural components in order to hit that target – before someone finally stopped him and asked if "taking charge" of the division actually means winning the division.

"That's exactly what it means," Nolan said.

There was a nice frozen moment that followed right there, but nobody was laughing. Yes, Nolan said, he's talking about 2005. And what, pray tell, makes him think anything like a worst-to-first turnaround in the NFC West is even remotely possible with the collection of players he currently has on hand at the team's early spring minicamp?

"Nineteen years of being in the NFL, and a lifetime of being around it," Nolan replied.

Give yourself a few more months of being around this team, Mike, and perhaps you'll be revising those expectations.

But then again, Nolan's initial message – and those relayed to the team by Nolan's new coaching staff – is exactly what the Niners, many of them still numb from last year's stunning disaster, need to hear.

"That's the attitude that you have to have," cornerback Ahmed Plummer said. "That's the winning-type attitude. Your division play has so much to do with the rest of how the season goes. If you can take care of that part, then that really helps you out with everything else."

Plummer, now in his sixth year with the 49ers and already becoming one of the team's sage veterans, was asked about the realistic possibility of hitting that target in 2005.

"Yeah, it's possible," he said. "I don't see why not. We know we have to take it step by step. We know there's a lot of hard work ahead of us and it's not going to be given to us. But I feel like the guys in here are up to the challenge. I know the coaches are."

That's for sure. Nolan apparently had no problem getting through to San Francisco's veterans – who still will form the core nucleus of the team in 2005 – during team meetings on Friday.

And Nolan's top subordinate, assistant head coach/linebackers coach Mike Singletary, had no problem getting through to them Saturday morning before they took the practice field for the first time.

"Mike Singletary gave us a great speech today and basically told us just to chew up all that stuff we took last year as a 2-14 team," running back Kevan Barlow said. "It was so inspiring. It was very motivational. He had me ready to go play. You just take all that negativity (from 2004) and just use it as motivation as you go forward. It had us all wound up. After a speech like that, you're ready to go out and put the pads on today."

The reference back to last season all was part of Nolan's plan to put some closure to 2004, one of the central reasons he has his new team conducting its first minicamp almost a month earlier than most typical first spring minicamps, which usually take place the first or second weekend after the college draft.

While this weekend also is for introducing players to all the new coaches and beginning the working relationship and interaction between those two groups, Nolan is all about laying the groundwork of his plan for the 2005 Niners.

"You have to start somewhere," said offensive tackle Jonas Jennings, the team's big prize in free agency this year who was one of the few new players in attendance Saturday. "It's new guys, a new group, new coaches. Let's get it going, basically. Let's get tempo. Get that stuff from last year out of your head. I just think it's good to have a starting point, which I think we have now. For a first day of new guys and new coaches, it was an outstanding tempo, and we actually got some things done on both sides of the ball."

Said quarterback Tim Rattay, who will not participate in practice sessions this weekend because of a foot problem, "I've been back here a couple of weeks with the offseason program, and from the first day that you stepped in here, it's just a completely different attitude in (the locker room) and around here. It's been pretty exciting. To me, it's more like a college feel. Everyone's doing stuff as a team. It's good to feel like that, and it carries over with the coaches, and I feel real good about how the attitude of the team has been carried over to practice."

So, what did Nolan see when he looked dozens of returning veterans from last year's debacle straight in the eye and said the mission at hand was taking back the NFC West, a division the 49ers won as recently as 2002?

"A lot of nods, ‘Yeah,'" Nolan said. "You've got to have that. The more people that aren't nodding, the more people you have to change. We have a very good group of guys with a lot of confidence. They've seen (that turnaround) happen. You can get a lot accomplished in one year. I think that's a realistic goal. That's what we'll shoot for."

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