Underdog 49ers won't be down for long

There was talk going around 49erland this summer that the Niners look so much better and more refreshed than last year that they are bound this season to double their victory total from 2004. It's a joke, folks. But you won't see the 49ers laughing as their 2005 season of rebirth approaches, because this is serious business.

Mike Nolan and his bright staff of assistants didn't sign on to become the butt of any gags or for this to be any five-year plan to get San Francisco back to the NFL's hallowed ground of Super Bowl contention.

They want to win. Now.

Of course, they're not dreamy-eyed fools. This season has another important objective besides winning. It's all about putting the next layer atop the foundation the new regime has so meticulously and diligently assembled since Nolan and crew arrived more than seven eventful months ago.

So when someone says the 2005 49ers could look twice as nice in the win column as they did last year, maybe it's not so funny. The punch line is, as everybody knows, that the team flopped to a 2-14 finish last year, its worst in the past quarter-century.

Somehow, 4-12 doesn't look a whole lot better.

Particularly when you consider that this is the proud 49ers, a standard-bearing NFL franchise, a team that has failed to record 10 wins or more just four times in the past 22 seasons, and never has gone more than two years without reaching that plateau during that span.

The 49ers already have had their latest two-year break, going 9-23 under the miserable command of Dennis Erickson, who inherited a NFC West champion in 2003 and – with plenty of help from others – drove it so quickly and deeply into the ground that he could have been drilling for oil in China.

That precedent of recent history means nothing, of course. This isn't going to be a 10-win season, everybody.

No way. Not even close.

That shouldn't surprise anybody, and it probably won't disappoint many. After all, who could expect such a thing after all the turmoil and misdirection this franchise has been through in the past couple of years and, for that matter, the past 10 months alone?

But that's not to say the 49ers are doomed or destined to another season of groveling at the sub-zero bottom of the NFL, meekly taking the whipping straps across their backs every week without much hope of fighting back or avoiding the punishment enjoyably delivered by opponents who used to get the same from San Francisco.

There is so much to like about this team that you want to get your hopes up. That all begins at the top with Nolan, who is the right guy in the right place at the right time to right a franchise that already was getting wobbly years before he arrived.

But these things take time. The 2005 Niners, most definitely, are going to take time.

Lots of time? Maybe so. But also, possibly not.

Nolan demands the utmost from his team and, even in his debut season as a NFL head coach, he'll probably get it.

The 49ers are being programmed to succeed, even if they might not have the ammunition or wherewithal with which to do it today. That counts for something. It counts for a lot.

"I think that's definitely raised the bar this year," linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "It has to."

The 49ers have been collecting the right pieces and parts, but they still are scattered around and being correctly identified, and it's going to take a while for everything to get put in the right place of the puzzle.

This team is trying to groom a 21-year-old kid as its quarterback of the future, but for now incumbent Tim Rattay is the starter - for better or worse. The Niners are trying to rebuild an offensive line in front of him with a whole bunch of shiny new parts, several of which have had injury defects and not much time to be tested together.

The talent-level question – the one that has lingered around the team since the clean sweep of top veterans in 2003 – still is quite legitimate. Wide receiver, running back, defensive back, defensive line … Do the 49ers really have front-line NFL talent at vital positions, or just a bunch of hard-working guys who would be second-teamers on most outfits around the league?

Talent isn't everything, of course.

And for a wonderful example, it all comes back to Nolan.

An undersized defensive back, he struggled to find playing time in high school. Even though college football didn't look like a promising proposition, a determined Nolan walked on at the University of Oregon and – through a few twists of fate – in the space of three days went from a fourth-string walk-on to starting safety in one of the nation's toughest Division I conferences. He then started three seasons on scholarship.

"I didn't do anything to deserve those breaks," Nolan said. "But I grabbed my chance."

The 49ers can use a little bit of underdog mentality right now. It would fit – and serve – this team well.

They'll begin this season thrust into that role on a weekly basis, and it will remain branded on them as they develop team chemistry and cohesion and find their NFL bearings.

All things considered, it's not a bad place for this team to start.

"I think we're on our way," said defensive lineman Bryant Young, the four-time All-Pro and locker-room leader who is the 49ers' last link to the glory days. "We're definitely headed in the right direction to get this thing turned around for us. We just have to really take it one step at a time."

The first step comes now, and it could be a doozy. But even if the 49ers fall flat, nobody will be laughing. Because this team – contrary to where it was headed at the end of last season – won't be down for long.

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