Expectations are anything's possible as camp opens

Mike Nolan isn't wavering on his goals for the 49ers as his first training camp with the team begins. Just like he said four months ago after his first practice as San Francisco's head coach, Nolan has his eye on the top prize in the NFC West, and he can quickly recite the NFL's recent history of worst-to-first turnarounds. The 49ers are a long shot to join that crowd, but don't tell that to Nolan, who's telling his team there are no boundaries on what it can become as the real work commences.

And here's the kicker: He really means it.

"It is our goal to take command of the NFC West," Nolan said, echoing comments he made April 1 after the team's first spring minicamp session. "Some people think that is a lofty goal. By experience, I think it is a lofty goal. But it's an attainable goal."

And then, for those scoffing at the suggestion the 49ers – who just completed a disastrous 2-14 season less than seven months ago – could rise to the top of the division five months from now, Nolan pointed to the facts.

The Atlanta Falcons. The San Diego Chargers.

Both were dismal losers in 2003, finishing in the cellar of their respective divisions, with not much hope in sight.

Then, Shazam!

Sparked by young, athletic quarterbacks – and, in Atlanta's case, a first-time head coach who was a defensive coordinator the previous year – both teams climbed convincingly to the top of their divisions in 2004. The Falcons made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

The Falcons and Chargers aren't one-year aberrations. They're part of a trend.

"There have been nine teams (since 1999) to go from last to first in their division," Nolan said.

So why not the Niners?

To get San Francisco to the level of the 2004 Falcons and Chargers, the 2003 Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs, the 2001 Chicago Bears and New England Patriots, the 2000 New Orleans Saints and the 1999 Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams, Nolan alluded to the Niners' past Friday evening when he addressed the team after the entire squad reported to 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara.

That might seem like a strange way to push this team forward, but Nolan wasn't talking about 2004.

"We put that behind us," he said, noting that subject was addressed at the April minicamp for holdover veterans. "Not from the standpoint of forget it and move one. But from the standpoint of learn from it and get better. That is important."

Instead, Nolan went much farther back in his message, to the glory days of the 49ers, to the team's deep and rich tradition and history.

"Because that is in place," Nolan said. "It is one thing to walk into an organization and to have no history of success, and walk into an organization like this where you have five Super Bowl trophies. There's a vast difference. One is a foundation that is set and you're building on, another is you're just trying to establish what the heck it is."

Nolan and his rebuilding team figure to go through a few stretches where they're just trying to establish what the heck it is they are going to be in 2005, but the new coach – whose father Dick coached the Niners to three consecutive NFC West titles in 1970-72 – is making it clear there's a standard in place that this revamped roster – and organization, for that matter – must strive to reach.

"This is the 49ers," he said, "and there is an expectation level of performance. You have a responsibility to the past players to get it back on track, so to speak. That is the responsibility of all the players that are here."

It's the responsibility of the new coaches that are here, too, and Nolan is taking the obligation seriously.

When the 49ers take to the field this afternoon for the first of 39 scheduled practices over the next 26 days, the energetic coach expects to see a team that he has breathed new life into, along with fresh attitude and renewed commitment.

"Expects" is the key word here.

When Nolan was asked specifically about third-year receiver Brandon Lloyd, for instance, he said Lloyd "is a guy that I do expect more consistent play on a higher level out of him."

"That is my expectation – not my hope," Nolan continued, making sure to illuminate the distinction. "The reason I say that is, hopes can be let down and it's not a big letdown. But expectations, that's a bigger deal. I believe the player has to have the same thing. I don't like for players to hope they're going to do something. I'd like them to have the expectations to do those things. That way, they'll hold themselves much more accountable for doing it."

Beginning today, every 49er is being held accountable again. And as far as big expectations for a downtrodden team are concerned… Well, the new head coach has taken care of all that.

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