Biting bullet now sets up 49ers for long term

Coach Mike Nolan has repeatedly stated that he does not believe in quick fixes. Thus, the 49ers struggled to a 4-12 record last season as he declined to enact short-term improvements to the team that might have helped build a better record. And the same goes for this season as the Niners find themselves all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with three games to play.

That might also go for the quarterback position. Last year, Nolan traded away Tim Rattay, the team's most experienced quarterback, to open the door for rookie Alex Smith to begin taking his lumps. And take his lumps Smith did with one of the worst rookie seasons ever by a quarterback drafted with the No. 1 overall selection.

Even though the 49ers signed Trent Dilfer to a backup role in the offseason, Nolan said he has not even considered benching Smith this season, even when he struggled with the team in recent weeks with the team in legitimate contention for a NFC wild-card berth.

Nolan said the goal remains to get Smith on-the-job training to make him as good as he can be - as quickly as possible.

While building the roster in the past two off-seasons, Nolan has taken a largely conservative strategy that was designed to enable the 49ers to make a significant roster upgrade in 2007.

After letting defensive players Julian Peterson and Andre Carter leave the 49ers via free agency, Nolan said he resisted the urge sign free agents who could make an immediate contribution because of the impact it would have on the 49ers' draft next year.

The 49ers expect to get a third-round compensatory pick for Peterson and a fourth-rounder for Carter, Nolan said. If the club has signed more free agents, those compensatory picks would have been minimized or negated entirely, he said.

"There are things that aren't where you'd want them, but in order for us to get it right and be the very best, we have to bite the bullet on some things," he said. "Once this year is over, we'll be as good as we've ever been and might be the best in the league as far as (the salary cap)."

The 49ers expect to head into next year approximately $40 million under the league's $109 million salary cap for next year. Some estimates around the NFL have them being as much as $42 million under in 2007. And they expect to have at least seven draft picks in the first four rounds of the draft.

"The next part is we have to be very good with the money and don't spend it foolishly," Nolan said.

Nolan allows himself on occasion to think about the future, especially after such a disappointing loss as the 30-19 defeat to the lowly Packers on Sunday in San Francisco. That was the 49ers' third consecutive loss, dropping them to 5-8 and all but extinguishing their fading playoff hopes.

The 49ers have a quick turnaround this week, as they face two-time defending NFC West champion Seattle on Thursday at Qwest Field in Seattle. The defending NFC champion Seahawks (8-5) can clinch their third consecutive division crown with a victory.

"Thinking about that keeps your mind positive, because (the Green Bay game was rough)," Nolan said. "I mean, just watching that - watching the last few weeks - I can put understanding to it. But that patience is only for so long, even for me."

There have been times when Nolan has made decisions that might hurt the team's chance to win in the short term while making the club stronger for the future, he said.

That is why he decided to keep receiver Antonio Bryant out of the starting lineup for the first series of Sunday's game. Bryant was about five minutes late for a special-teams meeting at the team hotel Saturday night.

Without Bryant on the field, the 49ers' offense stalled at the Packers' 6-yard line after a first-and-goal situation on their opening drive of the game. The 49ers settled for a field goal. The 3-0 advantage lasted only three minutes before Green Bay scored the game's first touchdown, and the Packers never trailed again.

Also, Nolan confirmed return specialist Brandon Williams, a rookie from St. Louis, was deactivated for the Nov. 26 game against the Rams in his hometown for violating a team rule at the hotel.

"That's part of the structure," Nolan said. "That's all part of it, because if I don't teach them the rules and discipline them, then you start to look like certain teams in this league that have good players but they all do what they want to do."

Because Williams did not suit up for the game against the Rams, Arnaz Battle was forced to handle punt-return duties with a broken left hand. Battle's fumble late in the second quarter set up a Rams touchdown in the 49ers' 20-17 loss.

"There are certain things you can do and certain things you can't do," Williams said. "Everybody has to follow certain rules. It was very tough for me, seeing as how we lost the game, and seeing as how I could've made an impact. It put it into perspective that every little thing counts."

Said Nolan, "It's on a business trip and ... the structure is set up to protect them. When somebody doesn't follow it, they jeopardize everybody around them, whether it's showing up on time or (having) family in the building.

"Everyone knows the rules and what needs to be done."

Now that the structure is in place, and everybody knows what's expected, the 49ers are expecting an influx of talent through the draft and free agency will push them over the top in 2007 - a place they just weren't quite ready to go this season.

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