Weinke to start at QB; Hill's back fractured

The 49ers will finish their season Sunday in Cleveland with Chris Weinke as their starting quarterback after it was revealed that Shaun Hill actually has three fractured vertebrae in his lower back in addition to back spasms and other injuries. Thus, Weinke becomes the fourth QB to start for the Niners this year, and Hill's late-season flourish comes to a grinding halt.

Weinke, the former Heisman Trophy winner who hasn't played since he was with the Carolina Panthers last season, joined the 49ers two weeks ago after Alex Smith had shoulder surgery and was placed on injured reserve.

Weinke will follow Smith, Hill and Trent Dilfer as San Francisco's starting quarterback. Dilfer has been out since suffering a concussion Dec. 9 against Minnesota and will not play against the Browns, his former team before joining the 49ers in 2006.

Hill also has a fractured index finger on his throwing hand and suffered bruised ribs on another hard hit against Tampa Bay, when he also injured his back. Hill, 2-0 as a NFL starter, will not need surgery.

"He's pretty banged up," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He's also got the finger to deal with, and he's got the ribs, so it's best just to keep him out of the game. But (Hill's back) will heal up fine. He will be as good as new, if not better, when he heals up."

Weinke took one snap after Hill was knocked out of last week's 21-19 upset over the Buccaneers on the hit that hurt Hill's ribs. He has started 19 games in his career with the Panthers but was out of football until spending the last two weeks getting a cram course on San Francisco's offense.

"My hope and my expectations is that we move the ball down the field, whatever it is," Nolan said of Weinke moving in as the starter for the season finale. "His leadership, his ability to deliver when it comes time to throw, his ability to make checks in the running game - whatever it needs to be. If we're moving the ball, that's what I expect him to do, whatever it takes."

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The 49ers signed quarterback Drew Olson to the active 53-man roster from the practice squad to back up Weinke on Sunday. To make room on the roster for Olson, the 49ers waived wide receiver LeRon McCoy.

Olson was signed to the 49ers practice squad on November 20 of this season after spending time on the practice squad and active roster of the Carolina Panthers earlier in the year. Olson was originally signed by the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2006 out of UCLA and spent his first NFL season on Baltimore's practice squad. Olson went on to play 10 games for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europa in 2007, finishing third in the League with 1,724 passing yards.

The 49ers will enter Sunday's game without a true No. 3 quarterback on their roster.

"The third quarterback will come out of either Arnaz (Battle) or Michael Robinson," Nolan said. "Hopefully, we'll just stay with Chris Weinke there for the entire game."

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The 49ers finish this disappointing season against the playoff-challenging Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium, then they'll brace for what the offseason holds.

San Francisco opened the season with high expectations after finishing last season strong with a 7-9 record. But the 49ers' hopes for the year were extinguished by an eight-game losing streak that came after they opened with back-to-back wins.

"Without question, as far as our record goes, all of us in the organization feel that we've underachieved from a record standpoint," Nolan said. "But it is not over. Obviously, we have another game and this game is important to us."

The biggest question as the team looks ahead to 2008 will be answered shortly. Will the 49ers bring back Nolan for a fourth season?

The team's chief decision-makers are John and Denise York and their oldest son, Jed. They have given no hints as to their intentions on how to deal with Nolan, who has compiled a 16-31 record since taking over a 2-14 team in 2005.

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If Nolan returns, he said he expects Hill to compete with Smith for the starting job at quarterback. Hill has played impressively since taking over as the team's quarterback after injuries to Smith and Dilfer.

Smith sustained a separated right shoulder Sept. 30 against the Seahawks. When he tried to return after missing two games, Smith was clearly not healthy. He underwent season-ending surgery this month. Dilfer played in seven games, starting six, but the concussion ended his season.

After Dilfer's injury, Hill got the first significant playing time of his six-year career. He has responded well, completing 68.4 percent of his passes in his first 10 quarters. Hill has 501 passing yards with five touchdowns and one interception.

Up to this point in his career, the only way to evaluate Hill would have been his performances in practice and in exhibition games. But Hill is seen more as a player who needs to be seen in games in order to full appreciate what he can do.

"No question," Nolan said. "He's a gamer. He practices at a high level, but there is a difference in practice in tempo to the game. You do try to keep a high tempo in practice. He's a gamer. That's what he's done.

"In the preseason and in practice, what you see in the game is what we've seen in those times. That's not always the case for a lot of players. If you put too much stock in preseason and practice, sometimes you can make a wrong choice. In this case, it hasn't been. He's done a nice job."

Hill faced a stiff challenge against Tampa Bay, which owns the league's No. 2 defense. Hill did not put up great statistics, completing just 11 of 24 passes for 123 yards. However, he did throw three touchdown passes, becoming the first 49ers player to accomplish that since Smith tossed for three scores in an October 2006 game against the Oakland Raiders.

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Not only does rookie linebacker Patrick Willis figure to be a runaway winner of the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award, he might end up getting some votes for the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

Willis became the first 49ers rookie named to the Pro Bowl last week since Ronnie Lott was selected in 1981.

"The Pro Bowl is good, but it's about winning games," Willis said. "It doesn't matter how many Pro Bowls you make. Right now, it's all about trying to help the team win."

Willis continued his remarkable rookie season with an extraordinary game in the 49ers victory over Tampa Bay. Willis was all over the field against Tampa, recording 20 tackles with two sacks, a forced fumble that led to a quick 49ers touchdown and he broke up a pass in the end zone to prevent a touchdown.

The 49ers chose Willis with the No. 11 overall pick in the draft. He has lived up to the team's expectations, as he won a starting job after two exhibition games.

Willis leads the NFL in tackles with 162 -- 29 ahead of the Broncos' D.J. Williams, who ranks second in the league. Tackles are an unofficial league statistic. The 49ers have given Willis credit for 210 tackles on the season from their own film review. Willis has 129 solo stops and 81 assisted tackles, according to the team.

Willis has three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and five passes defensed on the season.

"This is hopefully just the start," Willis said. "I know it's only for a moment. Once that Pro Bowl is over, you have to get right back and working and training and doing everything you can to start again."

Willis was named NFL Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season after his performance against the Bucs.

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The 49ers traded their No. 1 draft pick in 2008 for the right to select offensive tackle Joe Staley with the No. 28 pick in 2007. So the 49ers will send their top pick in April to the New England Patriots.

Currently, that pick is No. 8 overall. The Patriots undoubtedly feel good about that trade, but the 49ers aren't complaining, either.

Staley has started every game at right tackle and is scheduled to make the move to left tackle next season.

Staley feels good about what he has brought to the 49ers even though the 49ers are taking criticism for giving up their No. 1 pick to the Patriots, of all teams.

"Most of those things are said by people who haven't watched us," Staley said. "I think I've played well. How often does a guy from Florida watch the right tackle for the 49ers? You don't keep stats (for offensive linemen) and you don't know what our real assignment is. If people say I didn't play well, that's their decision. I feel I've played well. I have confidence in myself."

Nolan said there are a lot of things he regrets, including the team's 5-10 record, but he would do the same trade today.

"Watching the film of the other tackles that went in the draft, Joe's done an outstanding job," Nolan said. "So, yeah, (I'm) very pleased. The fact that we coached him (in the Senior Bowl), I know that we felt very good about him."

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Staley will become the first 49ers rookie offensive lineman ever to start all 16 games in their rookie season. The last 49ers rookie offensive lineman to start every game was Cas Banaszek (1968-77), who started every game at right tackle in his 14-game rookie season in 1968. The only 49ers rookie offensive lineman to start more games than Banaszek was Walt Downing (1978-83), who started 15 games at right guard in 1978.

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Amid a report that former Packers general manager Ron Wolf recommended his GM services to new Dolphins executive Bill Parcells, 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said he is not interested in leaving San Francisco.

When asked if he is staying with the 49ers, McCloughan said, "Definitely. One hundred percent."

McCloughan is the top scout in the organization and someone Nolan leans on heavily in making personnel decisions.

"You got to finish what you started, you know? You have to," McCloughan said. "I gave a commitment to coach and the organization. I have to fulfill that."

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Dilfer, 35 and in his 14th season, says he is beginning to feel a lot better after sustaining a nasty concussion against the Vikings. Dilfer is under contract for next season, and he said he plans to play at least another season.

"At first they (his family) were real concerned, but we've talked to the doctors a bunch, and we'll continue to," Dilfer said. "As long as medically I'm fine, my intent is to play again."

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Nolan did not give offensive coordinator Jim Hostler a vote of confidence, but Nolan also does not know if he will be back as coach next season. Criticism and blame is part of the job description, he said.

"The head coach, coordinator and quarterback are probably at the top of the list as far as the blame and the praise," Nolan said.

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At age 36, 11-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen looked like he might be slowing down earlier this year in his 14th NFL season.

But Allen has come on strong over the past month and again is making an impact in the trenches. He recently was named a NFC alternate to the Pro Bowl, where he earned a berth last year in his first season with the 49ers.

Allen's two-year contract with San Francisco ends after this season, and it was expected he wouldn't be back with the team and may retire. But with the way he has been playing lately, talk of Allen leaving may be premature.

"I know there's gas in Larry's tank," Nolan said. "There just comes a time when the guys think they're going to leave it in there. He's probably in as good as shape now as he's been in a long time. And that's all season, not just right now. But I don't know what that means for his future."

Nolan said he'll meet with Allen next week to discuss the certain Hall of Famer's plans for the future. Whether or not Allen returns to the team, Nolan said the 49ers plan to add some depth along their offensive line during the offseason.

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