Time to learn about the 49ers

It's the first trial run for the reconfigured 49ers. Saturday's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders also is the first trial run as a head coach for Mike Nolan, and he'll be playing to win.

But as Nolan pointed out early and often Friday afternoon after sending his team through its final practice before the exhibition season begins, the preseason isn't about wins and losses.

It's about discovery. It's about learning. It's about finally getting a read on what your team and your players are all about, in a game situation, with the enemy staring back at you from the opposite side of the line of scrimmage.

This is particularly true for Nolan, finally entering a NFL production as the lead director after 18 years working his way up as a highly-regarded assistant. And even though Saturday's game will soon be forgotten, and is relatively meaningless in the big picture, Nolan – as a head coach – will get plenty out of it that he can carry with him into the regular season, when there will be no more dress rehearsals to work out the kinks.

"I can get an awful lot out of it," he said. "Tomorrow, after the game, win, lose draw – whatever good or bad that happens in the game – everything will be an indicator to me about where we are as a team, where we are as individuals, where our backups are – more so than where our starters are.

"It will also give me a great idea on the structure on which we set up for the game, whether it is the coaching staff, the guys in the box or the guys on the field. Hopefully, we've got 11 guys on the field every time – not 12, not 10. There's just a lot of things like that are going to come out of this game that will tell me a lot about where we are. I'm looking forward to that."

Nolan will have his offensive coordinator, Mike McCarthy, down on the field with him during games while his defensive coordinator, Billy Davis, will operate from the coaches' booth high above the field. In that regard, "Stuff could change," Nolan said, but that is likely the way the 49ers will do it when the season begins, too.

And when the season begins, Nolan and his crew will have just one objective entering games – victory. While that still is an important emphasis Saturday – particularly with it being the first opportunity to show the new operation to the home fans, against San Francisco's ornery Bay Area rival, no less – it's not the foremost thing Nolan will be looking to get out of evening.

"You've got to identify your problems in the preseason," he said. "We have to get a good feel for where we think we are. You've got to come out of the game with some good and some bad. If you've got a 50-50 split in the preseason about the good and bad of your football team, you got a lot more out of the preseason and what it's meant for than if everything was all good."

That's not to say the 49ers aren't out to begin the Nolan era with a win.

Despite the fact the San Francisco offense still appears in its formative stages at this point – particularly with four starters out along the offensive line – the Niners will be making an earnest attempt to end their five-game preseason losing streak.

Nolan knows no other way.

"Yes, we do play to win," he said. "I always do. I tell that to the players. Obviously, there's a plan along the way that we want to win with the different groups. We're certainly trying to play to win. When you're 2-14, your team wants to get that opening win. That's what we play for. Does that mean the starters go back in? No. It just means for the guys that are in there, we're calling plays to win, not to get out of the game. I think that's important, and they need to know that. They've been told that already."

But even if the 49ers were to pull off a resounding victory, Nolan already knows enough as a head coach to know that's not what this game is about.

"It's going to tell you where you need to work," Nolan said. "When you come out of this game, you're going to say, ‘This is what I need to work on. This guy isn't where I thought he was. Our team isn't where I thought it was.' Or, you might be a little bit ahead of schedule. Also, this will challenge the coaching staff. I want to see how that process goes for us as well. Me included."

Especially him.

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