Upon review, Nolan wouldn't change a thing

The withering heat did not change Mike Nolan's resolve, not even one tiny bit. Despite the rancorous criticism Nolan has received in the San Francisco Bay Area since his decision to kick a short field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-less-than-an-inch late in Sunday's game at St. Louis, Nolan said a day after the fact that, upon further review, he still wouldn't change a thing.

In fact, after having an extremely disappointing flight back from St. Louis on Sunday night and a Monday morning critique session to re-evaluate the situation, Nolan still said his judgment was a "no-brainer" to send out Joe Nedney to kick a field goal that gave the 49ers a four-point lead with four minutes remaining to play.

"To me, it was the right choice then and it's the right choice now," Nolan said in the aftermath of a 20-17 loss to the Rams that dealt a serious blow to San Francisco's burgeoning playoff hopes.

"I'm just not supporting what I did because there are certainly things that go on in the game that I evaluate," Nolan continued. "There are calls that I would change, but that one there I would not."

Despite the vitriolic reproach Nolan has received from many directions, he made the right call, even if it was the safe call. The San Francisco defense had become dominant over a stagnant St. Louis offense in the second half, and putting the outcome of the game in the hands of a defense that had come through in a similar situation each of the past three weeks can not be considered a bad call.

Except when it doesn't work out, and then everybody screams it was the wrong call.

"We were doing a very good job defensively in the second half, and I thought that if we didn't get (the first down), with it being a one-point game, their kicker may have a chance to kick a long field goal," Nolan said. "He had just kicked a 51-yarder at the end of the first half. For them to get into field-goal range at that point, if we didn't get it, it would have been a one-point game and I didn't think that was the right decision.

"By making it a four-point game, and making them have to score a touchdown, with the way we were playing, I thought that was the right choice."

Nolan went on to further break down his "right choice."

"Looking at the overall thing, at that time I was expressing the same things I am right now," Nolan continued. "Where we were defensively, where we were offensively, and what they needed to beat us. They had only scored one touchdown in the game, and that only came on a 36-yard run after a turnover. It wasn't like they were passing or running the ball up and down the field on us. There was a two-minute concern from the first half, and I was thinking we need to make this a touchdown game, and not jeopardize it becoming a field-goal game."

Leading 10-7 late in the first half, the Rams got the football at their own 24-yard line with 1:11 to play before halftime and whipped down the field, getting from the St. Louis 40 to the San Francisco 33 in the final 22 seconds without the benefit of a timeout. That set up a 51-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins that gave the Rams a 13-7 lead at the break.

The circumstances were different later in the game, and Nolan's strategy ultimately backfired as the Rams drove 80 yards to score the winning touchdown with just 27 seconds to play.

But everybody forgets the strategy started off working perfectly. After making a 24-yard field goal that put the Niners ahead 17-13, Nedney sailed his kickoff into the end zone for a touchback. On first down, defensive end Bryant Young barreled into the St. Louis backfield and dumped quarterback Marc Bulger for a 10-yard loss.

"That made it second-and-20, and then third-and-14, and then we started to break down on fourth-and-1," Nolan said. "I don't believe the breakdown was prior to that. I thought our inability to stop them was where we needed to do a better job. I thought that's where the breakdown came from."

Bulger, who had been held in check most of the game, proceeded to complete 9-of-9 passes during the drive to get the Rams into the end zone for the game-winner. That pushed the 49ers back into a pack with four other NFC teams - including the Rams - at 5-6 and snapped San Francisco's three-game winning streak.

Had the 49ers held on for the victory, San Francisco would have improved to 6-5 and climbed into a virtual tie with New York and Carolina in a battle for the NFC's two wild-card playoff berths.

As it stands, the 49ers still are in the thick of playoff contention as they head to New Orleans this week for a pivotal battle against the NFC South-leading Saints. New Orleans is one of six NFC teams that currently own a record better than the 49ers. New York and Carolina - who currently hold the NFC's two wild-card berths - remain a game ahead of the 49ers in the playoff pecking order.

Nolan's late decision to kick a field goal came after the 49ers had driven down the field to a third-and-1 situation at the St. Louis 7. The 49ers had been mauling the Rams up front and had run on 10 of the previous 11 plays in the drive, including the last eight in a row.

None of those rushing plays had resulted in a gain of fewer than three yards, and San Francisco's only run play that went for negative yardage to that point was an end-around to wide receiver Bryan Gilmore that lost one yard midway through the third quarter.

Running back Frank Gore finished with 134 yards rushing and a touchdown on 21 carries, but he was out of the game for the final four plays of a drive on which the 49ers had a chance to wrap up the victory. He had an ankle bruise, and he also was not part of the team's short-yardage package.

After gaining 40 yards on five carries on the drive, Gore was replaced by Maurice Hicks, who had gains of 9 and 3 yards to the Rams 13. Rookie Michael Robinson, the 49ers' short-yardage back, was inserted into the game, and he gained 6 yards on second-and-7. But on a third-and-1, Robinson was stopped short by a fraction of an inch on third down, and Nolan decided to place more trust in his defense than the run game.

"The way we played the second half, I thought it was the right choice," Nolan reiterated. "It'd probably be a whole different choice if it was (a high-scoring game)."

Nolan opted for the field goal. He said if it were a home game and his offensive line had not been so tired, he might have decided to go for it. He said he carefully weighed all the factors before sending out the field-goal unit.

And then Nolan said, after all that consideration, he'd do the same thing again.

"Everybody's disappointed in the loss. I'm disappointed in the loss, too," Nolan said. "I'll say this: It's not like I don't re-evaluate and look at what is the best decision for the team. Taking all of the situations and circumstances, it (was) the right thing to do. I don't have any questions about that. I'll be the first to say it (if he thought it was a mistake), but that's not one that I would question."

Nolan will let others question it for him.

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