Niners in familiar spot as stretch run begins

A season that began full of promise and promises appears to be ending with the 49ers back in a familiar position. The organization is on the outside looking into the NFC playoff picture as the Niners enter their final four-game stretch of the season with a game Monday night against the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park.

The 49ers' playoff aspirations took a shot to the stomach last week in Seattle when the error-prone team lost on a field goal on the final play of the game.

Now, coach Mike Singletary's mission is to keep his team motivated for the final four games of the season with the playoffs nearly out of reach.

"For me, we're going to come out next Monday night, and we're going to rock," Singletary said. "We're going to fight, we're going to hit, we're going to scratch, and hopefully win the game. That's our thought process -- can't look at it any other way. We got ourselves in this silly hole, and we just have to fight to get out of it."

After opening the season with a 3-1 record and in first place in the division, the 49ers lost six of eight to fall three games behind Arizona and into a tie for second place in the division with the Seahawks. The 49ers have five road losses by a combined 19 points.

"Frustrated is a great word, for lack of maybe other words," Singletary said. "Frustration is a tremendous word to fill in the blank.

"You go out and you play a game like (Sunday against Seattle) and you end up on the losing side, the only thing you tell your players is that we just have to stay together. We have to continue moving forward. The groundwork from this, somehow, someway this will be a positive for us going forward. But right now it doesn't feel that way."

Singletary has said that the 49ers would be a playoff team for the first time since the 2002 season. He has repeatedly stated his promise that the 49ers would be a "special" team. But the results, simply, have not been apparent.

It has been a tumultuous season for the 49ers, who have dropped six games by seven points or fewer. San Francisco has not finished above the .500 mark since winning its last NFC West title in 2002.

Receiver Arnaz Battle, who has been around since 2003, says the part that makes it disappointing is that the talent on the 49ers' roster is better than it's been at any point during that drought.

"It's frustrating because I've been here for several years and I've seen how this team has evolved," Battle said. "The level of players we have, we feel like we should be winning. But if you look at this decision, it's one or two plays that prevent us from winning."

The 49ers had a 3-3 record when Singletary decided to make a switch at quarterback, inserting Alex Smith into the lineup to replace Shaun Hill.

Although the move has not resulted in victories, the 49ers are feeling more comfortable that Smith is proving that he is the best man or the job -- not only this year but into the future, too.

But with a quarter of the season remaining, Singletary is not ready to anoint Smith the team's undisputed starting quarterback heading into next season.

"What we have seen so far is: so far, so good," Singletary said. "But I don't want to jump the gun. I don't want to say, 'We found him and he is going to be the next great ...' No, I don't want all of that.

"I just want to give him his due. I think he is working his tail off. I think the coaches are doing a heck of a job with him. I think he is using the tools that are around him. I think he is making really good decisions. Hopefully, that will just continue."

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Despite Singletary's reluctance to anoint him as such, Smith is giving the 49ers reason to feel more secure about having their quarterback of the future.

Smith has experienced a rebirth this season after missing most of the previous two seasons with shoulder injuries. Smith continued to show this promise Sunday with his first career 300-yard passing game, coming in his 36th career start.

Smith might have also led the 49ers on the game-winning drive if tight end Vernon Davis had not dropped a potential touchdown pass with three minutes remaining.

Before Smith headed onto the field with the 49ers trailing by three points, Singletary had some words for him.

"I said, 'Here it is. It's your time,'" Singletary said. "He went out there and he was doing what we asked him to do in a crucial situation. He managed the ball. He got it around to different guys."

Smith generally played very well. He completed 27 of 45 passes for 310 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. But the 49ers struggled on third downs, converting just one of their 13 attempts.

In a game with systematic failures across the board, Smith's play might have been the brightest spot in an otherwise dreary loss.

"We just found a way to screw it up," Singletary said. "It's as simple as that. Every situation, we just found a way to screw it up. Championship teams can't do that. Teams that talk about going to the playoffs cannot do that. We did."

Said Smith, "I thought we had a lot of opportunities to win the game. We got to make those plays, and it changes the game. I know we're capable of making them. Good teams have offenses that do that. I think we're capable of it. The expectation level is higher."

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Smith had two chances to lead the 49ers on fourth-quarter drives that would've given his team the lead Sunday, but running back Frank Gore lost a fumble at the Seattle 22 to end the first threat, then Davis dropped a potential touchdown catch with three minutes remaining to force the 49ers to settle for a game-tying field goal.

Davis, who caught a 33-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, dropped three passes in the game to overshadow his setting a new franchise record with 10 touchdown catches for a tight end.

"He just has to continue to work at it," coach Mike Singletary said. "It's as simple as that. No one feels as bad about it as he does."

Davis said he did not see the ball very well coming out of the background at Qwest Field.

"(I) couldn't see it," Davis said. "I saw it at the last minute. (I) didn't know where he (Smith) was throwing it to. I wish I could've looked a little earlier and saw the ball and I could've made the play. But things happen."

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Singletary let it be known that he did not hold the officiating responsible for his team's loss to the Seahawks.

But he certainly felt referee Alberto Riveron and his crew had a bad game -- almost all at the expense of the 49ers.

"Obviously, there were bad calls made and I think in every game there are bad calls made," Singletary said. "For me, there were just a few more than I had witnessed maybe since I've been in the league."

The most obvious call came when it appeared as if Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill grabbed and spun tight end Delanie Walker while the ball was in the air during a fourth-and-goal play from the Seattle 1-yard line on San Francisco's first offensive possession of the game. The pass fell incomplete.

Head linesman Ed Camp was the nearest official to the call. He did not throw a flag, as Walker still nearly made the catch.

When asked if there was one call in particular that upset him, Singletary answered, "There were many."

But Singletary said he did not want to use the officiating as an excuse for the team's loss, which dropped the 49ers three games behind the Cardinals in the NFC West race with four games to play.

"I just want to make sure that our players, coaching staff, our fans, everybody involved with the 49ers, everybody that cares about the 49ers, I want them to understand that this is not about the referees," Singletary said.

"So I don't want to put this on the referees. I certainly feel that some of those calls were questionable, but if we had done what we were supposed to do, we overcome that and we win the football game."

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Cornerback Shawntae Spencer has played exceptionally well for most of the season. On Sunday, the Seahawks decided to stay away from him.

Spencer, who starts on the right side of the 49ers' defense, said there were just three passes that came his way the entire game.

Only twice did Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck noticeably challenge him. Spencer had good coverage on a deep incomplete pass to Deion Branch. Later, he surrendered a 4-yard completion to Nate Burleson.

But Spencer did not take it as a sign of respect. He said it's just the way the Seahawks' offense operates.

"They're a West Coast offense, and a lot of times in a West Coast offense, they're a right-handed team, which is our defense's left," Spencer said. "A lot of the work goes over there. You understand that going into the week."

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Rookie quarterback Nate Davis showed some promise in the 49ers' exhibition season. But once the regular season began, the team's third-string quarterback has seen more action in practice as a wide receiver on the scout team.

Still, he said he continues to learn the 49ers' offense behind the scenes while rarely throwing a pass in practice.

"I go play offense, play receiver, and sometimes I even play defense," said Davis, a fifth-round draft pick from Ball State. "I'll do anything to learn as much about the offense as possible."

Davis said he tries to be a sponge during film sessions after practice with veteran quarterbacks Alex Smith and Shaun Hill.

"We always sit down and watch film for an hour or two and I just listen to them talk," Davis said.

Despite his lack of practice time, Davis said he believes he could do well if called upon in a game.

"I can play, no doubt," he said. "But there are some things (play calls) that are wordy for me that I'd ask to have on a wristband."

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On his radio show on San Francisco's KNBR, Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young said 49ers running back Frank Gore "needs to be traded" if the 49ers decide to stick with a one-back, shotgun formation as its base offense.

"You can't run the spread with Frank Gore being effective," Young said. "He's not the guy who's going to catch the ball like Marshall Faulk, and slash and burn like Joseph Addai and different guys who have thrived in the spread."

Of course, 49ers offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye disagrees with that assessment of Gore, who is the 49ers' leading rusher, best back in blitz pickup and ranks second on the team with 41 receptions.

"I think most coaches would think Frank Gore is a pretty good fit for most offensive systems," Raye said.

However, Gore has seen a dramatic decrease in his rushing attempts and production since the 49ers shifted to more a passing attack. He has just 58 yards and 25 carries over the 49ers' past two games. Singletary said Gore might not be happy about it, but he'll learn to adapt.

"Frank is not going to lose his mind if he doesn't get 100 yards because I think, at the end of the day, it's all about winning," Singletary said. "He may be upset at the moment, but I know he's going to come back the next day and say, 'Hey, you know what? I'm glad we won. I know I did contribute.'

"Frank is a team guy. But it's like anything else. I don't know if you've ever been in a situation where it may be a family member, it may be a team member and somebody else does something great. You want to be happy for them, but it's a natural thing. You can't take away from the fact that you want to do well, too. ... I don't think it's any more than that, but to ask someone not to be natural, to ask someone not to be human. I just think it's just a matter of everybody understanding where we're striving to go. It has to be family. It has to be team, knowing that not everybody is going to happy all of the time."

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Gore has been effective when running out of the shotgun formation.

Since Alex Smith took over at quarterback, Gore has gained 145 yards on 27 carries out of the shotgun formation (5.4 average). With Smith under center, Gore has 250 yards on 58 rushes (4.3 average).

The 49ers have moved almost entirely away from two-back formations in anything other than short-yardage situations. That means second tight end Delanie Walker has taken over with the 49ers' base offense turning into one back with two tight ends -- or "12" personnel.

It creates a matchup problem for opposing defenses. The Seahawks last week kept their base defense on the field, and invited the 49ers to throw the ball.

And that's exactly what the 49ers did, with Smith producing one of his best passing games as a pro.

"I lick my chops; Vernon (Davis) licks his chops," Walker said of teams that decide to keep three tight ends on the field when the 49ers are in their "12."

"We know they have linebackers sticking both of us and it's a mismatch because we're faster than most linebackers. We got the fastest linebacker here, that's Patrick (Willis), so when they keep their base defense on the field, we love it."

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The 49ers placed defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer on injured reserve earlier this week.

Balmer, who injured his right shoulder against Jacksonville on Nov. 29, had successful surgery to repair a torn labrum on Dec. 9.

Balmer, the team's first-round draft pick in 2008, finished his second season with 20 tackles, two quarterback hits and two quarterback pressures.

The team signed defensive tackle Baraka Atkins to replace Balmer on the roster.

Atkins (6-foot-4, 268 pounds) originally entered the NFL as a fourth round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2007. Atkins was released by the Seahawks in September after recording 28 tackles, two sacks, two fumble recovers and one pass defensed in 21 career games.

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Brandon Jones took the blame after he and Arnaz Battle misconnected on an attempted reverse on a punt return in the first quarter. Up to that point, the 49ers were dominating the game, holding a 77 to minus-6 yard advantage in total offense.

"It was my fault," Jones said. "I should've given him a better pocket (for the handoff), and I should've dove on (the fumble). ... I screwed it up."

The Seahawks recovered the loose ball at the San Francisco 13-yard line and three plays later scored a touchdown to pull even with the 49ers at 7-7.

Singletary said there was miscommunication that resulted in the reverse being called by special teams coordinator Al Everest.

Singletary said just because the play was practiced during the week, he should've let Everest know that the 49ers did not have to call the play during the game.

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