Are these guys dreamers, or what?

A three-day weekend begins today for the 49ers, the only time they'll see that kind of break until their 2005 slate ends in January. Despite what transpired in the five turbulent weeks leading up to San Francisco's schedule bye – a span that resulted in a reeling team with a 1-4 record – the main characters continue to assert the season can be saved and a NFC West title still can be had. When the 49ers return next week to enter the heart of their season, those expectations will return with them.

But who's fooling whom here?

Ask the casual NFL observer, and there probably are more who will tell you the 49ers are the worst team in the league than those who will say they see a possible division champion in its embryonic stages forming in San Francisco.

But earlier this week, as his first 49ers team limped into its bye week after being dumped at home 28-3 by the Indianapolis Colts, coach Mike Nolan refused to let go of the "target" he has set for his first season as a head coach.

After one week – when the 49ers won their season opener and the other three NFC West teams each lost – the target of an improbable division championship still was well in view. But now, after four consecutive losses, most of them not of the pretty variety, the target is shrinking fast in the rear view mirror.

But that's not the way Nolan sees it.

"I'm not changing our goal," he said. "We're still there and we are 1-4. There have been a lot of 1-4 teams that have went on and changed it. I do believe that this division will be close in the end. Hopefully, when we get it turned around, we're in that hunt. I truthfully still believe that."

Nolan must see something a lot of people close to the team don't, or else he believes in pipe dreams and/or has a difficult time facing reality. The 49ers clearly are headed in the opposite direction at this point, making a push to climb back into contention during October and November seem much more like a fantastic hope than a realistic goal.

Nolan went on: "In time, we may get Jonas Jennings and Ahmed Plummer back and I believe that keeps us in the hunt," he said. "I'm not making excuses – this is just a fact – but I think we've played the most difficult schedule in the league. I think that's beneficial to our squad. I'm excited about what these guys do and what they're working for. I guess what disappoints me most is, that when we're in that hunt (in a close game), you have to win it. That's what I hope will start to happen when we have those type of games. I'm certainly not going to jump ship. I'm staying with it for the right reasons."

So, perhaps, Nolan's view is a little skewed, since the 49ers hardly have played the league's toughest schedule to this point. But it's about to get that way. San Francisco's first five opponents will carry a combined 14-11 record into this weekend. The 49ers next three opponents – Washington, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants – take a combined 10-3 record into Sunday's games. All three of those teams currently are in first place in their respective divisions.

Perhaps that's what Nolan really meant with his "most difficult schedule" reference. But the coach insists he's not blind to what actually is going on around him.

So, while some observers are beginning to compare the 2005 49ers to the 2004 49ers, and some are wondering if Nolan might be wise to scale down the expectations a bit to soften the spot where this team ultimately lands, the determined, vision-oriented coach is having none of it.

So don't try to suggest around this guy that another 2-14 disaster is possible – or anything close to it, for that matter. Nolan just can't see that kind of outcome befalling this team, this year.

"I'm not OK with losing," he said. "I'm not OK at all. Our expectation is to win and that bothers me. I'm also not blinded by a loss. You can also be blinded by a loss when it isn't anything there. It's evident to me with the way some young guys played that are doing a good job. I guess the worst thing is when you get a victory and you lose sight of where you really are. I'm a realistic guy."

Even if nobody else is buying it, Nolan still seems to have his players believing. And, really, they're the only ones that matter.

But then you listen to rookie Alex Smith – now the anointed 21-year-old quarterback who shall lead this team out of the wilderness – and you wonder if these guys are being fed different game film than that of actual 49ers games so far this season.

"We're so close," Smith said. "Sometimes the score may not dictate that, but I think we're very close from being very competitive in this league. We're not that far from it. It's coming. I don't think it's time yet to say we're out of it."

OK, so we won't. True belief, after all, is a very admirable and positive thing.

But that said, it should be noted, that time is much closer than some 49ers seem at all willing to acknowledge.


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