Rays of hope

Through all the darkness and despair, there was the intermittent glimmer of brightness and hope. The 2005 season wasn't all gloom and doom for the 49ers, who did emerge from the disappointment of their 4-12 finish with a cache of positives and promises for better tomorrows, even if they weren't always so evident on the surface. Here are 10 that come to mind first and foremost:

1. Joe Nedney: Just call him Joe the Toe, the veteran kicker who was so good that coaches voted him as the 49ers' co-MVP above every other offensive player on the team. And that made perfect sense, since Nedney scored all of the 49ers' points in seven games this season and had an amazing stretch over five games when he scored 43 consecutive San Francisco points. In other words, Nedney was the San Francisco offense for more than a month. A native of nearby San Jose, he also brought a refreshing attitude to the locker room and clearly wants to finish his career as a 49er. That shouldn't be a problem, since Nedney scored 67 more points than any other player on the team, made each of his field-goal attempts from between 40 to 49 yards, booted a team-record 56-yarder and finished 26 of 28 to set a new franchise record for field-goal percentage (92.9). The 49ers haven't had a kicker this good since Jeff Wilkins was allowed to skip town a decade ago.

2. Bryant Young: Many were putting this proud veteran out to pasture a few years ago, but that kind of thinking obviously was premature. At age 33, Young has looked as good as ever, and the new life he has found in the twilight of his career suggests he has another season or two at top level left in the tank. Young would have been headed to his fifth Pro Bowl in 2005 if a knee injury in San Francisco's 10th game didn't abruptly halt his charge. Most players would have missed the rest of the season with the kind of ligament damage Young sustained, but he came back and played the final three games on a bum knee. San Francisco's final link to its last Super Bowl team of 1994, Young offers a rare breed of soft-spoken leadership, and he already has said he wants to return next year for his 13th season as a 49er. Get excited, folks.

3. Frank Gore: When's the last time the 49ers had a running back like the explosive rookie from the University of Miami? Well, his name is Garrison Hearst, and we all know what Hearst did during his heyday with the 49ers, producing three 1,000-yard seasons and a team-record 1,570 yards rushing in 1998. Gore's style reminds many of Hearst, and his production is starting to also. Kevan Barlow was a much better back from 2001-2003 when he had Hearst around to share carries with. Maybe Gore will have that same effect.

4. Mike Nolan: Yeah, that's right, Nolan still is The Man in San Francisco. His debut season as a NFL head coach was a little shaky, but Nolan always could be counted upon to stand firm amid all the rumblings around him. Everybody must realize it was a learning season for Nolan, too, and it's difficult not to believe this disciplined, organized individual won't make the most of his tough 2005 lessons to the betterment of both him and the 49ers.

5. That young offensive line: For a unit that was beleaguered and criticized for much of the season – and rightly so – San Francisco's offensive line sure came out looking good at the end of the year. Now, after two seasons of struggling mightily in one of the game's most important areas, the 49ers might actually be developing one of the NFL's better young lines as they move forward. Rookies Adam Snyder and David Baas are keepers who look like solid starters if not potential impact forces, Eric Heitmann has made himself into a quality NFL player and Justin Smiley is kicking in as a significant contributor who's beginning to display his upside. If veteran Jonas Jennings and two-time Pro Bowler Jeremy Newberry can make it all the way back from season-ending injuries, the Niners already could have in place a line that can steer the back toward the top.

6. Brandon Lloyd's five-finger leaping grabs: Say what you will about Lloyd, but he is one reason to never leave your seat during 49ers games because of what he might do when a football comes floating in his vicinity. Lloyd is not exactly a physical presence at receiver, but you won't find a player in the NFL today who can vault his body into the air and make the kind of acrobatic catches Lloyd brings down at least once every couple of games. And he also can do it with one hand, reeling in several receptions this season on passes thrown above and behind him that could only be made with five fingers.

7. Scot McCloughan: He stays in the background, but the team's 34-year-old vice president of player personnel is playing a huge role in building the 49ers from the ground up. He is San Francisco's primary eye of talent evaluation, and his first draft with the team looked better and better as the season reached its climax. But even more impressive was his ability to find fringe free agents who could actually come in off the street and fill gaps to prevent the 49ers from completely falling apart. It's encouraging to think what McCloughan will do with all those 2006 draft picks and all that 2006 salary cap space now that he's a year entrenched in the job.

8. Rugged insiders: Before Jeff Ulbrich was hurt in Week 5, he and Derek Smith were quickly becoming a stalwart duo in the middle of the team's new 3-4 defensive scheme. Ulbrich was among the NFL leaders in tackles before tearing a biceps muscle, and Smith went on without him to record one of his finest seasons as a pro, leading the 49ers for the fifth consecutive season with 163 tackles, his third consecutive year of 160 tackles or more. Smith deserved Pro Bowl recognition for his tremendous season, but had to settle for team co-MVP honors instead.

9. Development of future depth: There was a silver lining to all those injuries that landed 11 players – seven of them key starters – on injured reserve before the season was over. It allowed the 49ers to identify young players who could step up to the challenge of replacing those starters while keeping the team competitive at the same time. Some of these guys might not be front-line starting talent as the team moves forward, but they got valuable experience and could provide the 49ers with the layer of quality depth in the future that every NFL team needs to be successful.

10. Survival: You've got to hand it to the 49ers. They held together and made it through this most turbulent season without completely falling apart, ending on a high note when that hardly seemed possible after five- and seven-game losing streaks. That kind of survival under adverse conditions and circumstances builds thick skin and gives teams the toughness and tenacity needed to survive in today's NFL. Resilience be thy name, 49ers.

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