Niners right back where they started

More than three months ago, the 49ers began their season with a bang. Gone were the memories of a 2-14 season after their rousing 28-25 victory over the Rams in front of an enthusiastic sellout crowd at Monster Park on Sept. 11 in the season opener. But with another game against the Rams coming up Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome, the 49ers that a lot of people thought were a thing of the past have resurfaced.

And with two games to go, the 49ers are staring another 2-14 season in the face. Not only that, if they lose their final two games of the season, they will once again own the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.

Coach Mike Nolan said he did not mind owning the No. 1 pick in the draft last year, as he came to the organization after owner John York decided to clean house with the firings of general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson and almost all of his staff.

All the talk in the Bay Area is about the 49ers' chances of landing USC tailback and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, but Nolan said he does not want the No. 1 pick.

"It reflects the record of your season," Nolan said of his reasoning.

"When it's somebody else's (record) and you walk through the door, it's not a bad thing," he continued. "That's why they're handing out the 2-14 jobs and not the 14-2 jobs. And so at that time, it's OK.

"Wherever we select, we're going to make the most of it. I'm certainly not afraid of the pick. The worst thing about it is it's a reflection of what you did that season."

After the season opener, the 49ers were confident that big things were on the verge of happening for the team.

"I saw great things happening for this team when we won that first game," 49ers defensive end Bryant Young said. "What a way to start the season, winning the opening game. It just didn't go the right way for us. But here we are in the position we're in. so who would've thought?"

Especially after winning the opener, there seemed little doubt the 49ers would make a vast improvement with Nolan at the helm. The atmosphere in the locker room following the game was one of optimism and excitement.

"(Owner) John York pointed out that a lot of the same guys that are in there now were there a year ago," Nolan said. "The same guys that took a lot of criticism last year are in that room and are the same guys that pulled out this victory today. You can imagine how excited and enthusiastic they feel about a victory like that which was so hard to come by a year ago."

Said 49ers linebacker Andre Carter, "This is who we are. We are winners."

But even that game should have been a sign that the 49ers were not going to steamroll anybody. After all, the Rams ran 89 plays, compared to the 49ers' 41. They held a time-of-possession advantage of nearly 19 minutes over the 49ers, and outgained them 405 to 217.

"It goes to show that the best team doesn't always win," Rams receiver Torry Holt said afterward. "Stat-wise, we showed we were a better team, but they beat us to the punch. They made more plays to win the ball game that we did."

The 49ers have changed a lot since the opener, and few of the changes have been for the better. Only three offensive players started at the same spot last week as the season opener. Defensively, no starter in the secondary last week even saw action on defense in the first game of the season.

This has been a trying season for the 49ers, but running back Kevan Barlow said he expects this year to make the organization stronger for the future.

"I don't think things went wrong," he said. "I think we're still on course and on track to what we need to get accomplished. We've had bumps in the road and everything is still on track.

"We've had a lot of different situations. We had four different starting quarterbacks, and a lot of adversity. We took the challenge and we came through it. I think we're closer to where we want to get. Our coach seems to think so. Coach Nolan is our leader. He's our guy. I agree with him."

--- If Young wants to return to the 49ers next season, Nolan said he will be back. Young, who is scheduled to earn $4.25 million next season, has been a candidate to be release for salary-cap purposes the last several seasons. Nolan said the decision to return next season is up to Young.

Young, however, was not committing to anything.

"We have two games remaining," Young said. "To answer that question would be premature right now. For me, it's always been one year at a time and that's been my approach every year. I don't want to jump ahead of myself. You never know what could happen in the next game.

"I would like to be here for another 10 years, but we know all good things must come to an end."

--- Fullback Fred Beasley apologized to his teammates last week after publicly voicing his complaints with running backs coach Bishop Harris.

"I put coach Nolan in a bad position by thinking about myself first (when) I made those quotes last week about Bishop," Beasley said. "I felt that I put myself as big as the team. I told the guys I'm sorry for doing that. I tried to explain to the young guys that's something you don't do."

Veteran Chris Hetherington has replaced Beasley in the starting lineup. Beasley has not played in the last five games. He has been healthy but has not gotten onto the field for the last two games. Beasley said he has no idea whether Harris and Nolan will play him the rest of the season.

"If I do, I do. If I don't, I don't. It's out of my hands," Beasley said.

--- A tradition has formed for the 49ers this season, which takes place about an hour before kickoff. Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga, who grew up in Pago Pago, American Samoa, performs a "haka" dance to get his teammates fired up.

"I'm a leader of inspiring people and pushing them and getting them ready for the game," Sopoaga said. "I want to help get them ready and help them have fun and make people feel comfortable for the game and enjoy everything."

Sopoaga said the dance is used as a way of intimidating the opposition. The dance is traditionally done before rugby matches in the islands.

His teammates enjoy the ritual, even if they don't know exactly what it means.

Said linebacker Andre Carter, "It gets you fired up. I don't know what it is, but whatever it is, it gets you fired up. I think it's the unity it creates on the team. When you see him do it, you know it's game time. It's a good tradition."

The first time guard Justin Smiley saw the dance was when his school, Alabama, played against Sopoaga's.

"Playing Hawaii twice in college, you realize it's not just a show but part of the culture," Smiley said. "Being from south Georgia, I've never experienced that sort of thing. (Sopoaga) started it the first game and now everybody expects him to do it. We circle around him and try to get involved as much as possible, but it's mostly his thing."

--- The team's only linebacker who is assured of returning next season is Jeff Ulbrich, who went on injured reserve five days after Jamie Winborn was traded.

Leading tackler Derek Smith, franchise player Julian Peterson and former seventh overall draft pick Carter are among the players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. In addition, Brandon Moore is scheduled to be free agent. Moore is the second-leading tackler and sack artist on the 49ers this season.

"That's unfortunate," Nolan said of the misfortune and lousy planning to blame for all but one of their linebackers becoming free agents at the same time. "But that's the way it is. There are a few other unfortunate things when it comes to contracts and who has it and who doesn't, but we'll get all of that rectified."

Peterson, whom the club has retained the past two seasons with the franchise tag, is scheduled once again to be an unrestricted free agent. However, his play this season after missing 10 games last year with a torn Achilles' tendon does not seem to warrant the $8.7 million one-year deal it would take to retain his services with the franchise tag.

"J.P.'s a good player and he's a great guy," Nolan said. "I enjoy being around him. He's a joy to coach, so I'm very hopeful. We'll see what we can afford, so we'll wait and see."

Nolan said, "It's something that we'll try to work out in the off-season with those players. We'd love to have them back, that's for sure. We're not trying to lose any of those guys. We want those guys back on our roster. We'll make the efforts in the off-season to make sure they come back."

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