49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

December 31, 2007
Nolan: I'll be back in the morning

Well, a two-and-a-half hour stakeout paid off ... sort off. John and Jed York finally left the 49ers facility at 7 p.m. after meeting for several hours with coach Mike Nolan. The upshot is that nothing has been decided. In fact, the three will meet again tomorrow morning.
Asked if had come to any conclusions regarding Nolan's future with the team, John York said, "No." Asked when there might be a resolution, he said, "It depends when the meetings are over."
Mike and Kathy Nolan left moments later. Nolan lowered his window and said, "I've only got one thing to say to you guys -- Happy New Year and I'll be back in the morning." Then he gave a thumb's up sign and sped off.
The bottom line is that Nolan will be the coach in 2008 ... even if it's only for a day.

-- Matt Barrows

December 31, 2007
York, Nolan meeting; no media availibility

Cue the ominous music. John York and Mike Nolan are currently meeting and we're told that there will be no time for either man to meet with us this afternoon. The after-season press conference, which has been routine since football was invented, originally was scheduled for 12:15 p.m. Because so many reporters were heading in from Cleveland this morning, it was pushed back to 2 p.m. When we landed at 11:40 a.m., we learned it had been pushed back to 4 p.m. so that coaches and players could meet with Nolan. Now it seems like it might not happen at all.

-- Matt Barrows

December 31, 2007
All's quiet ... for now

Just rolled into 49ers HQ after getting back from Cleveland and found that the players are gone but the coach, for now at least, is still here. Nolan originally had scheduled a press conference for 2 p.m. It has been moved back to 4 p.m. Does that time switch auger a bigger announcement? I'm told by the team's PR staff that it's because Nolan merely wants to meet with his coaches before meeting with the press.

A lot has been made of John York's brisk stroll (almost a jog) through the bowels of Browns Stadium yesterday. York never broke stride as reporters asked him questions and he wouldn't say one way or the other whether Nolan would remain with the team. Is that a hint that Nolan's doomed? Maybe. But it also could be that York was peeved he had to answer pesky reporters' questions. I think York felt he would get out of Cleveland scot free. He even seemed to plan his exit for the same time Nolan was giving his post-game presser. It was just dumb luck that one of my fellow reporters -- ok, it was Maiocco -- poked his head out the door at the precise moment that John and Jed walked past. My point is that York was surprised, and if there's one thing we know about Dr. York, he doesn't like surprises.

-- Matt Barrows

December 30, 2007
Report off the Martz

Don't get your hopes up about Mike Martz running the 49ers' offense next season. It ain't happening, according to a team source. For one thing, the personnel in San Francisco is probably the exact opposite of what Martz wants beginning with the quarterback. Martz likes guys with hair-trigger releases (see: Bulger, Marc). Shaun Hill has a similar release but not a lot of arm strength. Alex Smith has arm strength but a slow release.

Another reason is that if Mike Nolan returns as head coach -- and I'm leaning 51-49 that he will -- I can't think of a more mismatched pair than he and Martz. Nolan likes slow, plodding, eat-up-the-clock offenses. Martz wants showtime. Nolan would go nuts the first time Martz's offense goes three and out with three straight incompletions. I'm not sure their egos would even fit inside the same building.

-- Matt Barrows

December 30, 2007
Derek Smith inactive

Linebacker Derek Smith is inactive for today's game in Cleveland, and Jeff Ulbrich will get the start instead. Smith, of course, is one of several veteran 49ers who may not be back next season. He's 32, he'll make a lot of money next season and he has been battling injuries the last two seasons. Smith, however, said this past week that he is not interested in retiring.
The other inactives are Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, Marcus Hudson, Shawntae Spencer, Damane Duckett, Atiyyah Ellison and Jason Hill.
For the Browns, Rocardo Colclough, Marvin Philip, Antwan Peek, Melila Purcell, Isaac Sowells, Travis Wilson and Orpheus Roye are inactive. Ken Dorsey is the third QB.

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Just watched as Scot McCloughan chatted on the sideline for 15 or so minutes with Kathy Nolan. I'm no body language expert, but it seemed like a rather friendly rapport.

-- Matt Barrows

December 29, 2007
McCloughan as GM = Nolan as coach

Question: As a Nolan-Hater I want to be the first to admit that a win in Cleveland might be enough for me to renew my season tickets for next year. The guy has done some positive things. Our defense has made tremendous strides and is actually one or two guys away from being dominant (a healthy Lawson plus Briggs and/or Suggs) teams will no longer run on us PERIOD! And the putrid offense has SOME TALENT, unpolished of course. If Hill was the back up in wk 4 this season could be dramatically different. What is your gut feeling regarding Nolan's future, Matt?

Jason, Sacramento

Answer: My gut feeling is that he's back. If Maiocco's recent report -- that the 49ers will offer Scot McCloughan the GM job -- comes to fruition, I don't see him parting ways with Nolan. McCloughan, by the way, has strenuously denied that this is going to happen. However, it just seems to make too much sense. To wit: 1.) The 49ers' owner has said she is considering bringing in a strong GM. 2.) McCloughan has said he wants to one day be a GM. 3.) McCloughan says he is not interested in the Dolphins GM job, that he wants to finish the job he and Nolan started in SF. QED.

- Matt

Question: It is clear that the offensive players have really rallied around Shaun Hill. Based on recent comments by Vernon Davis and Eric Heitmann, it sounds as though they would prefer Hill over A. Smith. Do you think this is the case? Do you feel that the offensive players had faith in Alex Smith before the shoulder/Nolan/inaccuracy fiasco? Did he have the respect of his teammates then? Who do scouts think is a better QB? Who do you think is better and why? Also, are the players really rallying around Nolan? If so, why? Thanks Matt-love your work.

Stephen, Portland, Ore

Answer: Vernon Davis has been effusive in his praise of Hill because Davis actually got the ball when Hill was in the lineup. True, Hill does have a quick release and seems to be able to get the offense into a rhythm better than Smith did. But the fact that Davis was used extensively as a blocker early in the season wasn't Smith's fault. And neither was the overall conservative nature of the 49ers' offense early on. What I'm saying is that Hill also benefited from better game plans and better play calling at the end of the season.

- Matt

Question: I read on your blog Trent Dilfer's "intent" to return, which my response to is "why"? So my questions are - is there any benefit to the Niners retaining him and is there any salary cap issue here? Can I make a plug for cutting him loose........it's one of the things I asked Santa for was a Dilferless 2008.

Chris, San Jose

Answer: Santa doesn't always bring everything we want. (Case in point: I'm still driving a '98 pick-up). It's obvious that Nolan LOVES Dilfer, so I would imagine that Dilfer's presence next year has a lot to with whether Nolan is still around. Yes, he does count quite a bit toward the cap, but the cap is so high next year that I'm not sure that would be a major consideration.

- Matt

Question: If all the LBs are heathly next year, who starts?

Ed, Sacramento

Answer: Terrell Suggs, Lance Briggs, "Bam-Bam" Willis and Manny Lawson.

- Matt

Question: Hi Matt- How come Nate Clements wasn't penalized for his drum beating celebration after his 62-yard interception return against the Bucs?

Berger, Reno

Answer: Dunno why the "bang the drum slowly" routine didn't draw a flag. You're not supposed to use props. Maybe it's because he didn't score and therefore it wasn't truly an end-zone celebration.

- Matt

Question: Matt first of all Merry Christmas. Second how about a nickname for Patrick Willis "Radar"? Or maybe "The Terminator". I like the first one though. I will send you my address next e-mail so that you can send me my Sacbee shirt signed by you. Thanks.

Rodrigo, Morgan Hill

Answer: Radar? It's obvious you weren't around in the late 70s/early 80s or you would associate that nickname with Gary Berghoff, who is decidedly un-Willis-like.

- Matt

Question: What is the rumor if the 49ers get the 6th pick or below that they are able to keep it for the NFL 2008 Draft instead of giving it to the Pats. Is this true?

David, Granite Bay

Answer: Who's spreading this rumor? McCloughan? It's a damn persistent one but IT'S NOT TRUE!! If that were the case, then every crappy team would give up their next-year's first rounder.

- Matt

Question: Matt - I'm exhausted from the frustration of Nolan as our head-coach. I assume we will pursue (if Nolan/McCloughan stay put) Briggs in free agency in March - any other guys you've heard rumblings of? By the way, I caught a bit of the Browns/Bengals game, and Justin Smith was man-handling Joe Thomas (thank you tivo) - and I mean that in a football way. I would hope he would get some attention from the Niners this March as well. Thanks for the excellent blog and Q & A my friend...have a safe and happy holiday with your family!!!

Lebowski, L.A.

Answer: Well, I know that McCloughan likes my guy, Chris Long of Virginia, and that Long compares favorably to Smith. Smith likely figures as a right defensive end in the team's 3-4 scheme. The 49ers might lose Marques Douglas this offseason but they're also very fond of Ray McDonald.

- Matt

Question: I think you left out one name of the many you wrote is Marty Schottenheimer. Irregardless of his "playoff" record, this guy has been very successful everywhere he's gone, save one year with Washington. Marty ball for Niner ball 2008.

Eric, Antelope

Answer: So we'd go from "Rollin' with Nolan" to "Party with Marty"?

- Matt

December 28, 2007
Weinke to start; Hill has fractures in lower back

Chris Weinke will be the fourth quarterback to start for the 49ers this season and Drew Olson will be his back up on Sunday. That announcement was made today in conjunction with the revelation that Shaun Hill suffered three fractures to the transverse processes, which are part of the vertebrae, in his lower back in Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay. The 49ers had kept that in jury secret because they didn’t want to make Hill a target if he was able to play Sunday against the Browns. Hill, however, has been suffering back spasms all week and has not improved much since Sunday’s game. Arnaz Battle or Michael Robinson would be the No. 3 quarterback.

Hill’s transverse processes were fractured when a Buccaneers defensive player hit him in the back on a two-yard scramble. The injury should heal on its own and Hill said he thought he’d be better in about three weeks. “The timing on this has been frustrating,” he said. “When you finally get your opportunity, you don’t want to go back to sitting out.”

Hill is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, and he and defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga are two players the 49ers want to sign to extensions before they hit the open market. Both men said today that they wanted to return to San Francisco. “It would be nice to get it done and get it out of the way,” Hill said of a new contract. “I’d like to stay in San Francisco, that’s for dang sure.” Sopoaga, meanwhile, enjoyed his best season under the tutelage of new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. He said that he wanted to stay in California because of its proximity to Hawaii, where he went to college, and to Samoa, where he grew up.

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The 49ers elevated Olson from the practice squad. To make room, they cut receiver LeRon McCoy, who has not been in uniform with the team this season. Nolan said he hoped to re-sign McCoy at a later date.

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Buccaneers rookie defensive end Gaines Adams was fined $5,000 for unnecessarily striking Hill in the chest with his helmet on Sunday. Adams was flagged for roughing the passer on the play.

-- Matt Barrows

December 27, 2007
Hill misses another day of practice

A still sore Shaun Hill missed a second straight day of practice Thursday, and Mike Nolan said that the quarterback’s availability might be a game-day decision. Nolan also said he was leaning toward elevating Drew Olson from the practice squad.
Hill said his back improved a little from yesterday but he was still walking and moving gingerly and said the improvement would have to be more dramatic to allow him to play Sunday. Nolan said Hill didn’t have to practice at all this week in order to play against the Browns. If the doctors clear Hill to play and Hill says he’s ready, he will play.
If he can’t, Chris Weinke would start and Olson would back him up. The emergency quarterback would be Michael Robinson. Robinson injured his left – non-throwing – shoulder against the Bengals but said he should play against the Browns. He was limited in practice today.

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Nolan said he did not know whether Larry Allen would play another season. He said Allen, 36, had an outstanding season a year ago. This year, Allen began slowly but has been play much better in recent weeks. Allen himself has not said whether he would return in 2008. “I know there’s gas in Larry’s tank,” Nolan said. “But there’s gas in BY’s tank, too. Some guys want to leave it in there.” By the way, some of us tried to corner Derek Smith to ask him whether he’ll be back. It was obvious Smith didn’t like the subject matter but he did say he wasn’t interested in retiring.

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Patrick Willis is a shoe-in for defensive rookie of the year. The question is whether he’s been the best overall defensive player of the year. He’s played every snap this season despite breaking a bone in his hand and he leads the league in tackles. But Willis has two things going against him – he hasn’t grabbed a lot of turnovers and he plays for a bad team. That is, he might not get as much exposure as some other players. Who else could be the defensive MVP? How about San Diego’s Antonio Cromartie (10 INTs), Seattle’s Patrick Kerney (14.5 sacks), Houston’s Mario Williams (14 sacks) or Indy’s Bob Sanders (a ton of publicity)?

In a related note, fans voted Willis GMC Defensive Player of the Week for his 20-tackle performance against the Buccaneers Sunday. It's the second time Willis has gotten the award this season. After the season, five players will be nominated for GMC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Fans can vote for the winner on NFL.com throughout the month of January.

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I spoke very briefly with taciturn defensive lineman Melvin Oliver, who was in the locker room today. Oliver tore his right ACL six months ago. He said he hopes to be able to re-join his teammates when they have their first minicamp in May.

-- Matt Barrows

December 26, 2007
Hill questionable for Sunday

The 49ers seem to be paying for all the quarterback health they enjoyed last season. Shaun Hill, who is undefeated as a starting quarterback this season, is questionable for Sunday's game in Cleveland. Hill is suffering from an array of injuries, the worst of which are the back spasms he suffered in the first half of Sunday's win against Tampa Bay. Hill also suffered bruised ribs and, of course, he still is dealing with a fractured forefinger on his throwing hand.
Hill sat out Wednesday's practice, giving way to Chris Weinke, who wasn't even on the team earlier this month. Weinke said his biggest task has been learning the language the 49ers use on offense. Today was his first day throwing to starting wideouts Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson. Coach Mike Nolan said he would consider elevating Drew Olson from the practice squad if Hill still is ailing tomorrow.
Starter Alex Smith was lost for the season earlier this month when he decided to undergo shoulder surgery while Trent Dilfer is dealing with the impact of a concussion he suffered in Week 14. Dilfer did say, however, that he intends to return next season. Hill was injured when he was hit from behind on a second-quarter scramble. The hit was hard enough that the 49ers tested to see whether his kidneys were functioning properly. (they are). Hill said he dealt with the injury through the second half but that his back stiffened Sunday night and was still in bad shape today.

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Nolan said he will meet next week with the Yorks, a meeting in which he presumeably will learn whether he will remain with the team next season. ... Nolan also was asked whether Jim Hostler received too much blame for the team's early offensive struggles. Nolan replied that the blame could be spread "all around" this season but that the head coach, the quarterback and the offensive coordinator generally deserve the most blame for offensive shortcomings. "Certain people play a much more integral part in that. The coordinator obviously plays a big role in the effectiveness of the offense, so it's only right that a lot of that falls on his shoulders."
While he was speaking, I couldn't help but think of last year's defensive coordinator, Billy Davis. Nolan generally had very good things to say about Davis last season even though it was obvious that Nolan had taken over the coordinator duties by midseason. This year, of course, Nolan brought in Ted Tollner toward the end of the season to "assist" Hostler on offense. Read into that what you will ...

-- Matt Barrows

December 23, 2007
Special teams standouts out for 49ers

The 49ers' list of inactives includes Michael Robinson (shoulder) and Marcus Hudson (knee), two of the team's better tacklers on its coverage units. Also inactive are receivers Bryan Gilmore and LeRon McCoy. That points to an increased role today -- both on offense and special teams -- by rookie receiver Jason Hill. The other inactives are Trent Dilfer, Shawntae Spencer, Damane Duckett and Atiyyah Ellison.
For the Buccaneers, Ryan Nece, Ronnie Lott's son, is inactive. Byron Storer will start at fullback for B.J. Askew.

December 22, 2007
Great Scot! What will happen to McCloughan?

Question: The speculation is killing me. On one hand, you have Denise York hinting at a major organizational shakeup; on the other hand, members of the '9ers front office and coaching staff are highly sought after around the league. Matt, please add some clarity to the situation. Are the futures of Nolan and McCloughan as 49ers independent of each other, or is their fate tied together? Has there been any indication that the Yorks are committed to keeping McCloughan long term?

Terry, Davis

Answer: The Yorks mostly have been mum on all topics regarding the football side of operations. So, no, there hasn't been any indication that they are committed to keeping McCloughan long-term. I think, however, that they have to at least be toying with the idea of making McCloughan a GM. If another team, say the Dolphins, offers him that position, it might force the 49ers' hand. If I had to guess, I'd say McCloughan is here next season regardless of where Nolan winds up. He's a young up-and-comer and the 49ers would be foolish to let him go.

- Matt

Question: I have two questions. If Mike Nolan gets fired at the end of the year, who is the best possible coach to replace him? Do you think the 49ers hire a new offensive coordinator, considering that Shaun Hill was able to run the offense better than Smith and Dilfer?

Ray, Sacramento

Answer: As far as replacing the head coach, I think it would depend on who else is out there. If Mike Holmgren leaves Seattle, I think he'd be a great candidate because of his ties to the 49ers and because he should be able to whip the offense into shape. He also is familiar with McCloughan. There are also rumblings that Andy Reid could leave Philadelphia after a subpar season on the field and an awful year off it. Another big name is Bill Cowher, although I believe he'll end up in Carolina, New York or Washington. And what about Mike Singletary? As I wrote last week, that would be the easiest fix. As far as offensive coordinator, I think there will be a new one next year no matter who is head coach. Yes, Hill seems to be running the offense more efficiently. But an OC's job is to make sure the offense ticks no matter who is under center.

- Matt

Question: Why has everyone forgotten that players play the game? We're not loosing because of bad coaching but as a result of poor play. It's very easy to place blame on the coaching staff and ask for Coach Nolan's head. Is it Nolan's fault Trent Dilfer throws Int's and Gore fumbles? Give him a break!!! He's held this team together with his own 2 hands. They play hard and never quit! Why would we cast him aside and not let him finish what he has started?

Mitch, Clovis

Answer: Well, that's the in-a-nutshell argument for bringing Nolan back next year. It's what the Yorks will be asking themselves over the next week or so.

- Matt

Question: Does Jed York or his dad for that matter, know enough about football to determine that Nolan's fourth down calls are from an idiot? Or an individual better suited to be a def. coordinator? He has absolutely no game-day management skills and if he stays, a truly high powered, football sound GM needs to be there to fire him in 2008. Better yet, just hire Pete Carroll and let's move on to '08.

Chris, San Jose

Answer: You didn't ask this question directly, but this is something I've been mulling over in my head lately and it touches on what you're asking. I think it will be very interesting to see how the Jaguars do in the playoffs this year. All the other top-notch playoff teams - New England, Indy, Dallas, Green Bay - are pass-first, quarterback dominated teams. The league very much seems to have evolved this way. The Jaguars, however, are like the 49ers. They're led by a former defensive coordinator and they have a run-first mentality. Can that sort of team thrive in today's NFL? It's something I think the Yorks have to ask themselves as they decide Mike Nolan's fate in the coming weeks.

- Matt

Question: Why can't we have a Parcells or some other big name gm/head coach? We're definitely in a larger market than Boston or some of the other teams that seem to get all the big name HC's. The Yorks have said they want to get a gm, Parcells just turned down the Falcons job. Why did we not go after him, it makes no sense. The job he's asking for is way more important than GM since he's going to be finding coaches/gm's etc. The 49ers should be offering him whatever he wants.

Tom, Oakland

Answer: While Nero fiddled, Rome burned. That's been a recent criticism of the Yorks, who many believe have been beaten to the punch as far as hiring new coaches. I'm told, however, that they have a plan in place this season and will act quickly and decisively.... But it's also interesting that you picked Boston as the city that seems to attract all the big-name coaches. When Belichick was hired in 2000, many saw him as a mere re-tread. Which just goes to show that that big names don't always make good coaches.

- Matt

Question: Hey Matt: Can you believe Trent Dilfer is on the NFL Network Pregame show instead of helping his team prepare for the game?

Teddy, Kenner, LA

Answer: Yeah, it's something the Bay Area media - including me - should have hammered Nolan on but didn't. If Dilfer was hired in part to be a mentor, shouldn't he have been mentoring Shaun Hill before his first-ever start instead of basking under television strobe lights? Is that the team-first mentality that Nolan wants from his players?

- Matt

Question: I noticed in your Thursday report that Michael Robinson was injured. Why was he playing on special teams? Hill is playing with a broken finger, Weinke had only been with the team a few days, and Battle has been limping around with Dilfer and Smith out. Is this another example of poor game-day management by coach Nolan?

Ken, Salem, Or

Answer: Well, if Robinson ever had to enter the game as a QB, I'm not sure he'd be asked to do much more than hand the ball off and throw quick outlet passes. Which is to say that Weinke, even without knowing the offense, and Battle, even though he's not as good a passer, probably would be just as effective under center as Robinson.

- Matt

Question: If anyone deserves a nickname - or for that matter, more recognition - don't you think it's the 49ers coverage unit? They've been superbad all season long. I wish the Pro Bowl people selected whole coverage units, rather than just punters/kickers.

Nate, Sacramento

Answer: I think you just gave the unit its nickname: Superbad.

- Matt

Question: Matt, I've always thought "brick" was appropriate for Willis' nickname. It's short, and has a visual-kinesthetic connotation: Brick Willis.

Cal, Sacramento

Answer: Nice. But it's already taken by Jeff Ulbrich. It would be like two women showing up for a party in the same dress. AWK-WARD!

- Matt

Question: Patrick Willis = The Bay City Banger

Glenn, Sacramento

Answer: I think that's more appropo for, say, Wilt Chamberlain or Travis Henry or Tom Brady.

- Matt

Question: The B-52 is a strategic bomber first used by the USAF in 1955, 10 years after WW II, and is still in use today. The P-52 nickname is also close to the P-51 Mustang which was used in WW II and is a single seat fighter aircraft. Sorry...had to correct your history. Having said that, maybe P-52 is the best name since Willis hits like the bomb payload of a B-52 but is as fast and agile as the P-51!

Patrick, Mission Viejo

Answer: Yes, I broke the man-law code by mixing up my military aircrafts. That's like putting the wrong motor oil in my car or not knowing any lines from The Godfather.

- Matt

Question: You write about the NFL for a living and don't spring for Sunday Ticket? Really? I bet SacBee would even pay for it. We got Dallas-Philly here in Reno, sucks that my Sac buddies didn't. Just venting, but Brian Westbrook might have cost me a couple thousand in fantasy winnings by laying down at the one. What the eff?

Jamie, Reno

Answer: Why would I spring for Sunday Ticket when I'm stuck in a stadium press box from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every Sunday during the season? It's only this time of year, when games are on Thursdays and Saturdays, that I wish I had it. ... As far as Westbrook - dude, that must have ripped your heart out. You and the other Westbrook owners might have to form support groups after that betrayal. "Hi everyone. My name is Jamie and I, too, am a victim."

- Matt

December 21, 2007
Walt Harris: I'll be back

Bryant Young is retiring. Larry Allen’s future with the team is iffy at best. Derek Smith – set to make a ton of money in 2008 – might not be back next season, either. Even Trent Dilfer has a question mark next to his name given his recent concussion and the fact that Shaun Hill has been playing lights out.
Yes, the 30-somethings on the 49ers' roster are dropping like flies. That is, except for Walt Harris, who said today that he fully expects to return in 2008. The 33-year-old still has a couple more years on his contract and while he didn’t have as spectacular a season as he did in 2006, he was very solid. And perhaps more importantly, he has been relatively healthy all year. Mike Nolan cuts his most senior players – Young, Allen and Harris – plenty of slack as far as rest, and Harris said that’s very much appreciated at this time of year. “That helps,” he said. “At this point, it’s all about taking care of your body.”

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Cheers to Frank Gore! The 49ers running back won the Garry Niver Award, which is voted on by the team’s beatwriters and given to the player who is most approachable and professional toward the media. Gore certainly got my first-place vote for the way he handled his mother’s death and later the death of friend Sean Taylor. This has been been a terrible season for Gore in many ways, and yet he has always handled himself with dignity. Gore’s name will go up on a plaque along with past Niver winners. Niver was a long-time beat writer for the San Mateo Times.

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Think having two Michael Lewises is confusing? There was a chance the 49ers could have had two Alex Smiths. Mike Nolan recalled today that the 49ers thought highly of the Stanford tight end in 2005, so much so they listed him as a first-day pick. Tight end Alex Smith and the team that ended up drafting him, the Buccaneers, come to San Francisco Sunday.
-- Matt Barrows

December 20, 2007
McCloughan content in Cali

Scot McCloughan brushed off an item on the rumor section of Profootballtalk.com that linked him with a front-office job in Miami. He said that this time of year all the rumors spring from name association. Bill Parcells, just hired by Dolphins, is tight with former Green Bay GM Ron Wolf. Wolf, in turn, was McCloughan's mentor in Green Bay. McCloughan said he was very happy in San Francisco and expected to be here next year. "Definitely. One hundred percent," McCloughan said.

Other odds and ends from Thursday:

* Alex Smith might start throwing in three months but he is not expected to be fully healthy for six months. The 49ers are hoping he'll be ready for their first minicamp after the draft, which typically is the first or second week of May.

* The two teams that were sniffing around Damane Duckett were the Cowboys and Broncos. The Broncos wanted to sign the offensive tackle immediately. The Cowboys were going to do so at the end of the season. Duckett played well against Denver in a preseason game. He is being earmarked for right tackle next season. Who he competes against remains to be seen.

* Coach Mike Nolan said that receiver LeRon McCoy had a chance to be elevated to dress and play this week. However, he likely would be limited to special teams where several 49ers -- Marcus Hudson, Michael Robinson and Jeff Ulbrich -- are injured.

* Patrick Estes, released on Tuesday, was picked up by the Buffalo Bills.

-- Matt Barrows

December 19, 2007
The last goodBYe

Will Sunday’s game be the last opportunity 49ers fans have to say goodbye to Bryant Young? More than likely. That was the phrase Young used today when asked whether the 49ers-Bucs game would be his last at Candlestick Point. If Young is anything, he is unselfish. So he feels a little bit funny about overshadowing the game itself with a retirement announcement. But if you’re holding out hope that he might reconsider and come back to play a 15th season, well, you're dreaming. “The question is when you leave the game,” Young said today. “Do you leave the game when they push you out or when you’re barely walking?” Neither is the case with Young, who after 14 years is still the 49ers’ best defensive lineman. Which is why he feels it’s a perfect time to say goodbye.

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Asked whether three days off helped heal his index finger, Shaun Hill raised that finger and in essence showed that three days indeed was not enough. It looks like a garter snake that has swallowed a bowling ball. That is, the middle knuckle is still badly swollen. Hill had an X-ray recently that he said showed the digit, injured more than a month ago, still is broken.

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Talked to tackle Damane Duckett, who was recently promoted to the active roster. The 49ers love his potential and he could push one of the current starters next season. The question is where? Duckett seems to believe he’ll be playing on the right side. If Joe Staley, as expected, moves to left tackle, that could mean Duckett could be pushing Jonas Jennings for the job at right tackle.
-- Matt Barrows

December 19, 2007
Garcia in the best spot possible

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers get no love. They won the NFC South but no one seemed to notice. They have no Pro Bowl players. They have no prime time games. The leader of that team, appropriately enough, is Jeff Garcia, who wears his persecution complex like a wool blanket. It’s what keeps him warm at night. Whether it’s that he’s too small, too old or has too weak of an arm, Garcia has always had detractors and always has been able to use that negative energy to fuel his game. Now Garcia is leading his merry band of overlooked and underloved Bucs into San Francisco Sunday, and more importantly, into the playoffs in January.

There is no doubt that a lot of ink will be spilled this week wondering what would have happened had Garcia stuck around after the 2003 season and remained in San Francisco to help rebuild the 49ers. With a quality QB already in the stable, so the thinking goes, the 49ers could have used their resources elsewhere – say, for instance, on receiver Braylon Edwards in the 2005 draft. It’s obvious that nearly four years after Garcia was unceremoniously dumped, the 49ers still haven’t solved the most important position on the field.

But I wonder if that fantasy would be quite as sweet as some believe. Remember, Garcia was part of a huge roster dump, one that included bitter rival Terrell Owens, but also several veterans and team leaders like Derrick Deese and Garrison Hearst. Would Garcia have been able to survive with Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd as his wideouts any better than Tim Rattay did? The offensive styles also didn’t suit Garcia’s strengths. He is flourishing in Tampa Bay because that system – and coach Jon Gruden – are tailor-made for him. Dennis Erickson’s system in 2004, and Norv Turner’s in 2006, call for far more downfield passing, which is not Garcia’s forte. There’s also reason to believe that Garcia would have suffered from the revolving-door offensive coordinator problems, although perhaps not to the extent a less experienced player might.

Garcia ran into rough patches in Detroit and Cleveland because his surrounding cast was poor and because those systems weren’t right for him. Gruden today admitted he wanted Garcia as early as 2004, but at the time the Bucs, like the 49ers, were in dire salary-cap straits. Gruden recalled a scene early in 2004 when Garcia called him on his cell phone while Gruden was watching a minor league hockey game. Garcia wanted to play in Tampa Bay and Gruden badly wanted him there. He just couldn’t pay him. “I told him we can offer him a whopping $400 to sign, and he took the $5 million to go to Cleveland,” Gruden joked.

Now Garcia and Gruden finally are together and the relationship is benefitting both men. Would Garcia be in the same spot – playoff bound – had he remained in San Francisco? It’s likely that scenario would have been no better than his stints in Cleveland and Detroit.

*******
The 49ers handed out their team awards today, and it’s no surprise that Bryant Young got the most prestigious honor, the Len Eshmont Award. Young has gotten the honor – given to the most inspirational player – a team-record eight times, including each of the last four seasons. Young leads the team in sacks this year and likely will be playing his final home game on Sunday.

Other winners:
Nate Clements and Patrick Willis are co-winners of the Bill Walsh Award, which is voted on by coaches and given to the team MVP.

Eric Heitmann won the Bobb McKittrick Award given to the player who best represents courage, intensity and sacrifice.

Jeff Ulbrich won the Matt Hazeltine/Iron Man Award, given for durability and dedication.

-- Matt Barrows

December 18, 2007
Duckett moved to active roster

The 49ers shuffled their roster Tuesday, moving quickly improving tackle Damane Duckett from the practice squad to the active roster and releasing tackle Patrick Estes. The team also added two players to the eight-man practice squad -- Sean Estrada, a guard who spent the offseason with the team, and receiver Jerard Rabb, a former Boise State wideout who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cowboys in the spring. Rabb's spot on the practice squad became available when another wideout, Dominique Zeigler, injured his knee in practice and was placed on injured reserve. Estes is not eligible for the practice squad.
-- Matt Barrows

December 18, 2007
Willis, Lee make first Pro Bowl; four others are alternates

This just in ... The outstanding seasons by Patrick Willis and punter Andy Lee have resulted in trips to Honolulu. The 49ers also have four alternates: Guard Larry Allen, cornerback Nate Clements, running back Frank Gore and defensive tackle Bryant Young, who could be playing his final home game Sunday against Tampa.

While we’re talking about Willis, I thought I’d share with you the first cut in the P. Willy Nickname Challenge. I’ve pared the list to 10 and I’ve listed the pros and cons of each. Over the next week, I’ll mull over suggestions, seek counsel with the greatest minds I know (one word: Ratto), toss, turn and eventually trim the list to three. And then I’ll ask Willis himself which one he likes best. So here are the 10 in no particular order:

1. Will-da-beast – Pro: A clever combination. Willis indeed is a beast on the field.
Con: Wildebeests are essentially food for lions. They're like big rabbits. With horns. Willis is more of a predator.

2. P-52 – Pro: It’s hip and sounds like B-52, the famous bomber that helped win W.W. II. **Correction** My knowledge of military history stinks. The B-52 wasn't developed until the 1950s.
Con: It’s almost too hip. It reminds me of the nicknames that merely combine the first initial with the first syllable of the last name. A-Rod, T-Mac, J-Lo, etc., etc, yawn, yawn, etc.

3. Second Samurai – Pro: Alliterative and it points out the relationship between Willis and mentor/coach, “Samurai” Mike Singletary. Samurai also captures Willis’ quiet, disciplined demeanor.
Con: Will it still work if Singletary is coaching the Falcons?

4. Waterboy – Pro: Willis makes tackles all over the field just like the titular character in the Adam Sandler flick.
Con: Wasn’t the Sandler character st..st..st..stupid?

5. Bam Bam – Pro: It’s short, it’s descriptive and best of all, it was given to Willis by a famous peer, Cincinnati’s Chad Johnson, who noted that Willis wasn’t slowed by the club he was wearing earlier this year
Con: Willis ditched the club weeks ago. Also, will “Bam Bam” still work when he’s 33?

6. Baby Ray – Pro: A nice nickname if you believe that Willis is the second coming of another prolific linebacker, Baltimore’s Ray Lewis.
Con: Too phonetically similar to “Baby Ruth.” Also, Willis and Lewis have entirely different personalities.

7. Groundskeeper Willie – Pro: From “The Simpson’s” character. Willis indeed is responsible for sweeping up and cutting down ball carriers on the Candlestick grounds.
Con: Do we want the nickname to be derived from a cantankerous Scottish janitor? Perhaps “The Groundskeeper” is better.

8. Humble Hammer – Pro: Nicely combines Willis’ off-the-field sweetness with his on-the-field ferocity.
Con: Is it too similar to former 49ers’ linebacker Frank Nunley’s “Fudgehammer”?

9. Patty Whack – Pro: Another descriptive moniker that nicely captures the impact of Willis’ tackles.
Con: The havoc that Willis wreaks on the field is closer to a heavy metal anthem than a sing-song children’s tune.

10. Rolling Ball of Butcher Knives – Pro: It’s how Minnesota coach Brad Childress described Willis before Week 14. The definition for that term is essentially: Something you want to avoid. And if you’re an offensive player, that fits Willis to a T.
Con: It’s not exactly original and at seven syllables it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

-- Matt Barrows

December 17, 2007
Hill setting himself up for nice payday

Shaun Hill and his agent have to be feeling pretty good right about now. According to Mike Nolan, who just wrapped up his Monday presser, the 49ers tried to sign Hill to an extension earlier in the year. The two sides couldn’t get a deal done, though, and now Hill is set to hit the open market in March. And if he has another good game Sunday against Tampa Bay, he’ll be in a far more commanding position than he was in August. Asked if he now sees Hill as more than a No. 3 quarterback, Nolan said, “Yes. Sure. Without question.”

****
As has become the custom in 49ersville, Nolan gave his players the day off today. That’s good news for Hill’s sausage finger, which tends to swell every time he throws a football. He’ll have three days off before he resumes throwing again Wednesday.

****
Speaking of ailing quarterbacks, Alex Smith is back from Alabama. He came into 49ers headquarters for treatment on Sunday and Monday. His surgery went off without a hitch, according to sources, and he is expected to make a full recovery.

****
Why did Mike Nolan burn a timeout before a first-half punt? He says he thought the 49ers had 12 men on the field. One of the 49ers’ special teamers had gotten hurt, so Mark Roman filled in on punt coverage. When Nolan saw Roman on the field, he thought he wasn’t supposed to be there. “It was kind of a knee-jerk reaction to the situation,” Nolan said.

****
Nolan said he talked to John York in the locker room following the game, but that they didn’t discuss Nolan’s future with the team. “We have had no conversations with respect to that.”

****
Nolan said that rookie receiver Jason Hill was in on 19 plays Saturday against Cincinnati. The plan is to continue to get Hill repetitions as the season winds down.
-- Matt Barrows

December 16, 2007
Nolan wins, Nolan loses

Mike Nolan went into Saturday’s game with a lot of detractors and a lot of supporters. Both sides emerged claiming victory. The Nolanites could argue that, as was the case a year ago, the coach had his team prepared late in the season. Nolan preaches a never-say-die attitude and his players obviously on board. The Nolanphobes, on the other hand, can point to yet another oddball fourth-down call from the coach. And they can also argue that Shaun Hill should have been inserted into the lineup back when the leaves were still green.

I must say the decision to opt against a 42-yard field goal was bewildering. When the 49ers lined up to go for it, I thought I had missed something. Was there a penalty and this was still third down? Or did Joe Nedney pull a groin muscle? No, it was yet another puzzler from Nolan, and wouldn’t you know it, Larry Allen was somehow involved. Nolan said it was Allen, who wanted to go for an earlier fourth-down conversion, who convinced him to go for it. If you’ll recall, Nolan also called timeouts before critical – and ultimately failed – and-one situations the last two seasons because he noticed Allen was dragging on the previous play.

It was a huge decision, and if Chad Johnson had come down with the ball in the end zone – it was in his hands, after all – you’d be reading stories today about that call instead of about Shaun Hill.

****
Speaking of Hill … that was exactly the type of quarterback performance the 49ers were hoping for all season. Nothing flashy, mind you, but efficient and creative when called for. However, we need to see how he performs against a decent defense that’s still in the playoff hunt. Tampa Bay will be a nice test.

****
I have a new favorite referee – Terry McAulay. His crew called four – FOUR!! – penalties all game and the contest was over in 2:38. And it’s not as if the Bengals are a grind-it-out, chew-up-the-clock kind of team. The game wasn’t choppy and disjointed like too many NFL games are these days. It must have been a fun game to watch on TV. That is, if Bryant Gumbel hadn't been calling it …

****
What’s with the television out here? I was looking forward to a rare all-day Sunday date with my sofa in which I would allow football to wash over me like a drug and maybe write a few Christmas cards. So I turn on the tube at 10 a.m. and there’s only one game – Packers at Rams, which turns out to be one-sided. Fox is teasing me with Eagles at Cowboys throughout that telecast, but when 1 p.m. rolls around, freakin’ “America’s Funniest Videos” is on instead. (Near-paralyzing neck injuries are hil-AR-ious!). So now I’m stuck watching the Raiders and Colts. Thanks, NFL …
-- Matt Barrows

December 15, 2007
49ers pregame observations

Just watched Shaun Hill warm up for about 20 minutes. The wrap on his right index finger is visible from the press box and that finger is so swollen that some members of the media -- ok, it's me -- have taken to calling him "sausage fingers." (It's from "The Office.")
Anyway, it looked like Hill had nice zip up to 25 yards. Throwing long has been problematic with the finger, which is the last one to leave the ball, and he didn't attempt any throws beyond 25 yards.

-- Just saw John York walk up to Kathy Nolan and give her a peck on the cheek. York is walking around the field, shaking hands and looking very much like the guy in charge.

-- "Constantine" from American Idol was in the press box. Dude's a regular on one of my favorite shows, The Soup (and not in a good way). He'll be singing the National Anthem

-- Inactives are Trent Dilfer, Marcus Hudson, Shawntae Spencer, Atiyyah Ellison, Patrick Estes, LeRon McCoy, Ray McDonald and Bryan Gilmore. Gilmore's inactivity means Jason Hill will be active. Will he play? That's another question ...

-- Bengals inactives are WR Marcus Maxwell, CB David Jones, C Dan Santucci, T Willie Anderson, TE Nate Lawrie, DE Frostee Rucker, LB Rashad Jeanty. QB Jeff Rowe is the third QB.

December 15, 2007
Hey, Singletary. They're calling your name

Question: Looks like the end of the Nolan era. With all the possible head coach candidates, how do you feel about our own Mike Singletary? I would hate to lose him as a coach, as there is a good chance he will be head coach somewhere next season.

Webster, Atlantic City, NJ.

Question: Let me preface this by saying that there's still a good chance that Mike Nolan will be back next year. If he's not, however, Singletary would be an intriguing choice for the following reason. The Yorks are worried about starting from scratch for the third time in five years. Singletary would allow the team to keep a lot of the coaching structure - defense and special teams, maybe a few offensive coaches - so that there's a bit of continuity heading into 2008. It also would give the 49ers a jump-start on the rest of the league as far as hiring new assistants. That is, all of the teams that go through coaching changes are picking from the same pool of candidates. The 49ers could dive into that pool earlier.

- Matt

Question: Hi Matthew. Enjoy your insights in the Bee and on KNBR and have a quick question...The Niners are on NFLN (today) and roughly 70 percent of us don't have that channel so will a local station be picking up the game? I know channel 11 (NBC) in the Bay Area will have it.

- Matt, Rocklin

Answer: As far as I know, you're out of luck in Sacto if you don't have NFL Network. The league considers you local enough to be blacked out if there's no sellout, but not local enough to have a local TV channel broadcast the game. Greedy, ain't they?

- Matt

Question: Great article... but... I'm actually not sick of hearing about the Smith / Nolan situation.. I'm just getting the feel for how Nolan treats his players.. Is he still in the stone ages?!!!! How can the Yorks keep this guy around?.. His own decisions (during game conditions) is enough to fire him, but now to pressure his people like this only adds to why he should not be around.. There must be a coach available to take his place (Shottenheimer, D. Green, Norm Chow...) do you think any of these guys would make a good replacement?

Rockne, Lincoln

Answer: If the 49ers were to replace Nolan with someone other than Singletary (see above), I think they'd have to go with an offensive mind. Chow is intriguing. I truly don't know enough about him to say whether he's head-coaching material (Would he be another Norv?) but at the very least he'd be good for Alex Smith.

- Matt

Question: Matt - I agree w/ you 100 percent - I'm sick and tired of reading about this big mess of Nolan's. The Yorks should base their decision this offseason (whether to keep this idiot) on not only a bounty of ugly evidence of his incompetence - but on how high they think the ceiling is for the team under him. That ceiling belongs in a house for little people. What is your best educated guess of how the team would look & perform if we kept the defensive staff intact, and brought in a Josh McDaniel or Jason Garrett as head coach?

Lebowski, L.A.

Answer: Well, that's sort of what I was getting at in the first question. I'm not sure a new head coach - Garrett, for example - would agree to come in and not have a staff that is entirely of his choosing. Singletary would allow the 49ers that luxury. He would merely have to find the next Jason Garrett to run the offense.

- Matt

Question: With Alex's recent "counterattack" against Nolan, do you think he had it coming? Nolan seems to do nothing other than throw everyone under the bus - everyone is accountable other than Nolan himself and his assistants. Do you think other players will start to speak out now that Alex has thrown the gauntlet? Who will the team stand behind, Alex or Nolan? VD has seemed less than pleased with Nolan all season.

Jeff, Fairfax, Va.

Answer: Hey, Jeff. I grew up in Vienna, just a few miles north of you. ... I think the real question is who will the Yorks stand behind, Smith or Nolan? I expect this issue will be one of the things the Yorks study intently at the end of the season before making any decisions.

- Matt

Question: Do you think the oft-injured, doghouse resident Jonas Jennings will be back next year? If Staley takes the left tackle position next year, where does that leave Jennings?

Gordon, Rancho Murieta

Answer: First off, it's plain to everyone that Jennings is not a "Nolan guy" because of his long, long, long list of injuries. But he might be un-cuttable for two reasons. 1.) He makes a lot of money. 2.) The 49ers will suddenly be short of offensive linemen following free agency. I see Jennings at right tackle next season. If Nolan is still around, I think he'll have Jennings compete for the spot.

- Matt

Question: Are the 49ers actively trying to resign Sopoaga? Although he may not be the ideal NT, he flashes the potential to dominate and I can't identify a better prospect in free agency or the draft. Like you mentioned, Sopoaga might be best at LDE, but I'm really concerned about the '9ers depth a NT. Aubrayo Franklin is adequate, but adequate is not a flattering description for a 3-4 nose tackle. Do you have any insight as to how the 49ers plan to upgrade the position? Is there a player on the roster who can develop into a true NT?

Terry, Davis

Answer: Yes, the 49ers recently initiated talks with Sopoaga's people. He seems to be the one free agent the 49ers are intent on bringing back. As far as possible NT's ... Sopoaga certainly could play there. Atiyyah Ellison seems to be the best bet for developing into a good NT - the guy is massive - but he didn't exactly set the world on fire in Baltimore. Joe Cohen is another option, though I would put him well behind Ellison at this point.

- Matt

Question: Not a question, just a comment. The nickname "Bam Bam" is IT. He hits everything...brilliant! Look no further. The 52nd Commandment: Thou shalt use no other nickname but Bam Bam.

Bill, La Canada

Answer: First, I apologize for not following up better on this nickname endeavor that I started. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed by the response. I'm planning on listing what I feel are the Top 10 suggestions and then winnowing the list from there until there is just one standing. I assure you that "Bam Bam" will be in the top 10. It's excellent. But is it perfect? After all, Willis only had the club for three games. Then again, I'm not sure the "perfect" name exists. More on this later ...

- Matt

Question: Sorry, I just missed your posting of draft questions. But what are the odds the Niners trade up before the draft to grab a little better spot? Maybe...cough...to grab...cough...Colt Brennan...?

Austin, Yreka

Answer: You think they'll have to trade up for Brennan? Not so sure. The guy has a bit of baggage and played in an oddball system. I think if the 49ers wanted him, they'd be able to get him.

- Matt

Question: Any possibility we can play Arizona a couple more times before the year is over??? Just curious.

Ray, Davis

Answer: Careful what you wish for, Ray. Old man Warner threw for nearly 500 yards the last time they played. Do you want the defense to finish down there next to the offense?

- Matt

December 14, 2007
49ers introduce Dolich as COO

Just got off the conference call with John and Jed York, who introduced Andy Dolich as their new chief operating officer. Dolich is still under contract with the Memphis Grizzlies but will end that job and be in Northern California by the new year.
Before the Q & A session began, spokeswoman Lisa Lang said that the call wasn't for questions about the football season or about the stadium issues. John York on two occassions said that football-related decisions, such as the possible hiring of a GM, would be made at the end of the season.
York also addressed a report earlier in the day that he would step aside so that son, Jed, could take over the day-to-day operations of the team. "I'm not sure where that rumor started but there's no truth to that," John York said.
As far as Dolich, he will run all the business operations of the team. Everyone on the non-football side of the franchise, including CFO Larry MacNeil and Lang will report to him.
He also will work with Jed York and MacNeil on the new stadium. Dolich has experience in building the Coliseum in Oakland as well as the new $250 million basketball arena in Memphis. A new 49ers' stadium, however, will prove to be far thornier. There already have been several snags in the team's plans to build the new structure in Santa Clara and the city is expected to issue a report on a possible hotel tax increase later today. John York did say that the timeline remains the same. The team hopes to complete the new stadium by 2012.
-- Matt Barrows

December 14, 2007
Shake-up in 49ersland

The 49ers are having a big conference call at 1:30 p.m. today. I know it's big because John York, Jed York and new COO Andy Dolich, a former A's exec, will be on the line. Dolich was hired today -- I was on the phone with spokeswoman Lisa Lang 20 minutes ago; not sure why she didn't tell me -- to run the business side of operations. I'm told he will have nothing to do with football operations. Dolich, who has expertise in building sports arenas, was hired by John York, according to a team press release. Not sure what that says about previous reports that John has yielded power to eldest son Jed.
-- Matt Barrows

December 14, 2007
49ers to set sack record (and not the good kind)

Trent Dilfer on Thursday looked as if he had survived a bomb blast. He was just emerging from a woozy fog from when he was leveled on Sunday and his arm and hand were covered with bandages from when he was “cleated” by a defensive player. “I’ve had nightmares with my hands this year,” Dilfer said. As he was saying that, Alex Smith was in an Alabama hospital recovering from surgery to repair a shoulder that essentially was ripped from the collarbone.

It’s been a bad year for quarterbacks in San Francisco, and if you look at the sack statistics you’ll see why. The 49ers have given up 46 sacks and are on pace to set a franchise record in that dubious category. They gave up 53 sacks in 1998. If they don’t tighten their defenses over the next three games, they’ll allow nearly 57 this year.

Will Shaun Hill – already dealing with a broken index finger that’s the size of a Ballpark frank – suffer the same fate? Well, he seems to be better equipped to handle porous protection than his predecessors. Hill can move – he was a track star in high school – and most importantly, he has a quick release. That’s becoming a more and more important attribute in the pass-rush heavy NFL and it’s something that regular starter Smith doesn’t have. I wonder if, as Smith recovers from shoulder surgery over the next few months, he’ll use that opportunity to shorten his delivery.

****
Chad Johnson is a little like Santa Claus – the guy loves to keep lists. A few years ago, Johnson became famous for keeping a hit list of sorts of the cornerbacks he would be facing in upcoming games. Nowadays, he lets the fans decide whether he has gotten the better of his opponent. The flamboyant receiver has a Web site www.trashtalk85.com that allows fans to vote whether he was covered or not. With every vote, 8.5 cents goes to Feed the Children, an international hunger-relief organization. The money came from donations made by Degree Men antiperspirant as part of its partnership with Johnson. On Tuesday, Johnson presented an $85,000 check to Feed the Children.

Speaking of good deeds, here’s something that unfortunately got brushed aside by all the Nolan-Smith drama this week. The San Francisco 49ers Foundation – the team’s robust charitable arm – announced that 2007 was its biggest year ever. The foundation reported that $1.5 million will be distributed in grants and contributions this year throughout the Bay Area, the largest amount distributed since the foundation’s inception in 1991. Maybe John York isn’t the Grinch everyone makes him out to be …

****
David Peart, the 49ers' VP of sales and marketing, has left the team. Peart, if you'll recall, had the uneviable task of trying to sell tickets and stave off television blackouts following the horrible 2004 season in which the 49ers beat only one team -- the Arizona Cardinals. Peart did it, thanks in large part to the "Faithful" ad campaign that last year won the coveted ADchievement Award for Overall Excellence. Peart also oversaw the open training-camp practices and the draft-day parties that have become so popular with 49ers' fans. These days, however, Peart must have felt like Sisyphus, the guy who was eternally tasked with pushing a giant boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again. After all, how can you ask fans to remain "Faithful" when that faith isn't rewarded? Team spokeswoman Lisa Lang said the 49ers are close to announcing Peart's replacement.

-- Matt Barrows

December 13, 2007
Dilfer not ready to give up on season

Trent Dilfer today said the blow he absorbed Sunday was the hardest, most painful hit he’s taken in a while. But he’s not ready to call it quits for the season and he’s certainly not ready to take off his helmet for good.
“My mindset is I’m going to try to come back,” Dilfer said. “But I’m going to trust the medical staff. I will be ready to play if I’m medically cleared and the team sees fit.”
Dilfer said he has had two other big concussions during his career. The first occurred in 1995 while he was with Tampa B ay. He was so woozy after that play that the tight end was calling the plays in the huddle, prompting running back Eric Rhett to urge the coaching staff to get Dilfer out of the game.
The second hit happened in Oakland in 2001 when Dilfer, then with the Seahawks, was hit under the chin strap by a blitzing linebacker.
Dilfer thinks he might have been unconscious for three to five seconds on Sunday. But he quickly started moving body parts to show himself – and is family – that he’d be alright. The first words out of his mouth also were, “Did I get the first down.” Well, no, he didn’t, but that’s not what trainer Jeff Ferguson told him.
“I didn’t know they lied to me until the next day,” Dilfer said.
-- Matt Barrows

December 13, 2007
Accountability seems to be lacking

You’re probably getting sick of reading about this Alex Smith v. Mike Nolan cage match. And to be perfectly honest with you, I’m sick of writing about it. And yet, there’s one thing that’s still bothering me. It has do with the accountability meeting Nolan was talking about on Tuesday and Wednesday. It was at this meeting – which I believe was held the Monday after the St. Louis Rams game – that Smith felt he was undermined by Nolan.

Nolan has explained that accountability meetings are brutal on everyone. The way I understand it, the meetings are held the Monday after every loss. (Nolan usually gives the players a day off after a win). In the meeting, coaches point out the mistakes that were made in the previous game. You know – blown coverages, missed assignments, ball security, penalties, turnovers, etc., etc. etc.

Said Nolan of accountability meetings: “I believe that everything we say in that meeting is hard on all the players, because nobody looks forward to a Monday meeting when you lose, guys. Nobody looks forward to looking at the film when they’ve played poorly -- ask any player.”

That all makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is why Nolan would take Smith to task at one of these accountability meetings. If the accountability meetings are meant to address in-game miscues then Smith’s issue would seem to be an odd thing to bring up in that forum. Nolan said he used Smith as an example of how the chain-of-information should flow regarding injuries. Usually the way it works is that a player will reveal his injuries to the medical staff and the medical staff deals with the head coach. But in cases where the medical staff clears a player for a game and that player still feels he can’t play, that player has to let the head coach know, Nolan said. He’s not a mind reader, after all.

You can see why Smith would be angry about that meeting. First of all, it takes away all blame from Nolan. Smith has said that Nolan was well aware of his injuries, and really, how could a head coach not be getting detailed reports about his $50 million starting quarterback. What Nolan said in the meeting, however, would leave the impression that Nolan was somehow kept out of the loop. It also leaves the impression that Smith is a wimp. The medical staff cleared Smith to play, after all. If his shoulder wasn’t the problem, it must be that he lacks guts.

The Chron this week reported that in that accountability meetings Nolan said that some players had "abandoned ship" and were boarding the rescue boat with the "women and children.” Asked about that Wednesday, Nolan had a strenuous denial:

“Did I ever say that? No, I did not. I did not even refer to that. And did I say Alex was? No. What I just said is exactly accurate guys and I’ll stand by it until the day I die.”

-- Matt Barrows

December 12, 2007
Odds & Ends from a busy Wednesday

Well, the 49ers managed to attract the biggest media contingent of the season. Of course, the horde was here to talk about the nettlesome relationship between Mike Nolan and Alex Smith. Nolan to his credit faced the music and answered all the questions that were fired at him. He insists his assessment of Smith hasn't changed and that he is still the 49ers' quarterback of the future. Smith spoke to the team -- apologized for being a distaction -- Wednesday morning before jetting off to Alabama for his shoulder surgery.

* Before leaving, Smith got an earful from guard Justn Smiley. Nothing critical, mind you. Instead, Smiley was giving Smith the low-down on Dr. James Andrews, with whom Smiley is quite familiar. Andrews not only is the team orthopedist for the University of Alabama, Smiley's alma mater, he has had a few surgeries there already. The last one occurred four weeks ago, in fact, when Smiley had his right shoulder repaired. Smiley told Smith to skip the hospital food and head to Full Moon BBQ across the street. Smiley might want to load up himself. After beginning the season at 327 pounds, he's down to 295. He said he'll soon be able to start working out again in hopes of rebuilding some of the muscle he's lost because of his injury.

* Why did the 49ers sign Chris Weinke? One reason is that he's good friends with Scot McCloughan from their days together in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system. Weinke was a first baseman; McCloughan was an outfielder. McCloughan knew Weinke was a smart guy -- the type of guy who might be able to pick up an unfamiliar offense in a couple of weeks.

* Speaking of 35-year-old QBs, Trent Dilfer said he's still feeling the after effects of the hit he absorbed Sunday. He said he's had a couple of concussions before in his career, but never as bad as this one. I asked him if having prior concussions makes this one more concerning. His response: "The way I feel right now is concerning." Dilfer is out for Saturday's game and there's no guarantee he'll be back for the Tampa Bay game, either.

* Marcus Hudson (knee) and Dilfer are out for the Bengals game. Arnaz Battle (ankle), Isaac Sopoaga (back), Shawntae Spencer (groin) and Jeff Ulbrich (ankle) did not practice. Frank Gore (ankle) was limited while Derek Smith (groin) did everything.
-- Matt Barrows

December 12, 2007
Bee T-shirt to Ocho Cinco? 49ers sign Weinke

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new contender in the P. Willy Nickname Challenge ... Cincinnati receiver Chad Johnson. We were having a rather dull conference call with Ocho Cinco this morning when someone asked him a throw-away question about facing the 49ers' defense. That's when Johnson turned into the Ocho Cinco we all know and love. (Parents, you may not want to let your kids read the following).
"Who in the BLEEP is 52?!" Johnson said. "Oh my BLEEPING God, I've seen a lot of linebackers over my seven-year career, but that Mother BLEEPER is good."
And then Johnson put himself in the running for the coveted Bee T-shirt. "He was playing with the cast on film and I started calling him Bam Bam. Like on the Flintstones. He is the truth. You just tell him that 85 said he is the truth."
Johnson said he was no defensive specialist, but he did say, "I know when somebody's making every God BLEEP play."

Other OC bon mots:

On Steve Smith jawing with Nate Clements a week and a half ago: "See there's a difference. Steve -- his talking is somewhat serious. My talking is somewhat fun."

On whether Clements or Walt Harris covers him: "I don't care who I see. They could put Oprah out there."

On what kind of CB Oprah would be: "She has so much money. She has to be a man-to-man, lock-down cornerback because those are the only ones who get paid."

****
Mike Nolan reportedly took a long look as Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese when offensive coordinator Norv Turner left for San Diego. Asked whether he spoke to Mike Nolan about Zampese, coach Marvin Lewis said: "Mike and I ... I don't need to get into that." Lewis also said that he liked how former 49ers WR Marcus Maxwell has been performing in practice but that he hasn't been able to suit Maxwell up for the game as much as he'd like.

****
The 49ers signed former Carolina Panthers QB Chris Weinke on Wednesday. Weinke spent six seasons with the Panthers after joining the team as a fourth-round draft pick out of Florida State in 2001. Weinke compiled a 32-3 record during his collegiate career and earned the Heisman Trophy as a 28-year-old senior in 2000. He was the oldest player ever to win the Hesiman. Weinke is four months younger than Trent Dilfer.
Dilfer is doubtful for Saturday's game against Cincinnati with a concussion while Alex Smith will fly to Birmingham, Ala. today to have surgery on his right shoulder tomorrow. Smith was placed on injured reserve.
-- Matt Barrows


December 11, 2007
Smith, Nolan on Tuesday's story

The 49ers just issued a statement from both Alex Smith and Mike Nolan about today's Mercury News story in which Smith says he felt Nolan undermined him in the locker room. Here's what they have to say ...

Alex Smith:

"As I was driving away from the facility yesterday after addressing the media, a reporter approached my car and informed me that he was going to write an article where my teammates commented on me in a negative way. It was a brief exchange. I initially reacted out of frustration based on the questions that were being asked, but the article does not reflect how I truly feel.

This whole season has been frustrating for everyone.

I can see how an article like this can be very damaging, but I know my relationships with Coach Nolan and my teammates are stronger than that.

I met with Coach Nolan today and I never intended this to be a distraction for the team or their preparation for the upcoming game.

My focus now is to concentrate on getting healthy so I can return and continue to help my team."

Mike Nolan:

"Alex and I met today and discussed today’s report. I understand how he can be caught off guard. It is a difficult time for Alex. He has not had to deal with an injury that will require surgery before.

The relationship Alex and I have developed over the past three years is stronger than a negative news story.

Our focus is on getting Alex healthy and our team prepared for Cincinnati."

-- Matt Barrows


December 11, 2007
Nolan the hunted

On June 12, I wrote a story about a movement by 49ers’ fans to support coach Mike Nolan by showing up to the team’s first home game dressed in suits. Six months later, there’s an entirely different movement afoot. These days the Internet is abuzz with various schemes designed to convince the Yorks to cut tied with Nolan.

Some fans plan an en masse walkout of Saturday night’s prime time affair with the Bengals. Fans who once wore “Rollin’ with Nolan” T-shirts now intend to come to the game equipped with signs jeering Nolan. One group has even hired a plane to fly over the stadium in the first quarter with a lighted sign board. The message in the night sky: FIRE NOLAN. Of course, most fans will show their unhappiness with how the season has gone by not showing up at all. Orange seats send a very clear message.

The most damning no-confidence vote, however, was delivered today by someone who six months ago also had an entirely different view of Nolan. Over the past month, it’s been clear that Alex Smith has been upset with how Nolan and the 49ers handled his shoulder and forearm issues. In today’s Mercury News, he enunciated it more clearly than he ever has before, telling the newspaper that he felt Nolan was trying to undermine him in the 49ers’ locker room. Next to today’s story, the Merc ran a photo of Nolan and Smith smiling on the podium the day after the 49ers drafted Smith No. 1 overall in 2005. The photo, however, was ripped down the middle.

It’s a perfect image. The two have been joined at the hip almost as soon as Nolan took the 49ers’ job. Nolan chose Smith over Aaron Rodgers and Braylon Edwards, and it was clear at the time that if Nolan was to become a successful head coach Smith would be the player who brought him there. Now it appears as if the two can’t co-exist. Smith simply doesn’t trust Nolan.

Up until today, I thought Nolan would return as the 49ers’ head coach in 2008. I felt that the Yorks could find just enough reasons to bring him back. I felt that they could convince themselves that if the 49ers’ had just the right offensive guru on board, Nolan could turn the team around. And it seems as if that’s what Nolan thought as well.

Because the Yorks have been mostly mum about the 49ers’ disastrous season, the only voice in the organization who has commented recently on how the Yorks view the job Mike Nolan is doing is, well, Mike Nolan.
“They’ve been as disappointed as anybody,” Nolan said Monday, a day after his team lost its 10th game in 11 tries. “Their expectations were just like ours were, just like our fans’ were.”

Nolan admitted that those lofty expectations came from him. After finishing 7-9 in 2006, Nolan believed that the 49ers would make a push for the playoffs, and he told the Yorks as much. “I was wrong,” Nolan said.

The Yorks fired Terry Donahue and Dennis Erickson because the results of a horrendous 2004 season were not what they were told to expect. Will they cut ties with Nolan for the same reason? Saturday’s game seems like it will be the perfect storm of events – national television, unhappy fans, unhappy quarterback. You have to wonder whether the Yorks still will be rollin’ with Nolan after this weekend.

-- Matt Barrows


* I reported this earlier today: Smith is scheduled to have shoulder surgery on Thursday. Dr. James Andrews will perform the procedure in Birmingham, Ala. You can read into that that Smith doesn’t want anyone affiliated with the 49ers handling his surgery. But I think the real reason is that Andrews is considered one of the foremost orthopedic surgeons in the country. Smith also is tight with the Saints’ Drew Brees, who had successful shoulder surgery performed by Andrews.

December 11, 2007
Smith to head to Birmingham for surgery

Alex Smith will have surgery on Thursday and noted orthopedic surgeon James Andrews will perform the procedure. The recovery period is 10 to 12 weeks, meaning that if all goes well Smith should be throwing again by the time the 49ers begin their spring minicamps. Will he be making those throws in a 49ers’ uniform? Wow. It’s a question that would have seemed absurd six months ago but one that is now very real. I’ll have lots more on the uneasy relationship between Mike Nolan and Alex Smith and the Yorks’ big, big decision later today …

December 10, 2007
Smith opts for surgery

For weeks, Alex Smith has said that having surgery on his throwing shoulder was the option of last resort. On Monday evening, the 49ers quarterback took that option.
Smith has decided to to have a procedure on his right shoulder that is designed to tighten the connection between his shoulder and clavicle. The surgery likely will be performed this month and will require up to 12 weeks of recovery time.
Smith decided on surgery after visiting with team doctors at Stanford Hospital Monday afternoon and after a phone consultation with orthopedist Dr. James Andrews.
“Let's figure this out," Smith said Monday afternoon before his examination. “Surgery definitely is a possibility but the goal is to avoid it, especially with how old I am. The goal, either way, is to get it right."
It is not yet known when Smith will have the surgery or who will perform the procedure.
-- Matt Barrows

December 10, 2007
Three quarterbacks, four injuries

Alex Smith will drive up to Stanford Hospital today for an examination that, combined with a phone call to Dr. James Andrews, will result in a plan of attack for treating his separated shoulder. Smith said that he hoped to speak with Andrews either today or tomorrow.
Smith rested his shoulder for two and half weeks before attempting some light throws last week before practice. One of the options remains surgery, although Smith on Monday reiterated that the report by Fox’s JC Pearson a day earlier -- that Smith already had decided on surgery -- was incorrect. “I don’t know where he got that,” Smith said. If Smith did opt for surgery to repair the ligaments between his shoulder and collarbone, it would be a two-month recovery process. Smith has said that surgery would be a last resort.
Doctors had hoped that those ligaments, torn and stretched when he separated his shoulder Sept. 30, would scar and tighten on their own. There is now a sense that while they have begun to scar over, they have stretched to the point that they will not tighten any more. One positive that Smith reported was that the forearm strain he suffered while attempting to return from the shoulder surgery has not affected the light throwing he has done recently.
Meanwhile, Trent Dilfer was at team headquarters today but declined to speak with reporters after suffering a blow to the head yesterday.
“I can barely think, let alone talk,” he said softly at his locker. Dilfer is doubtful to play Saturday against Cincinnati.
The likely starter also is suffering from an injury.
Shaun Hill spoke to reporters with an ACE bandage around the forefinger of his throwing hand. Hill broke the finger in mid November, and after playing Sunday it was purple and swollen. Hill said that’s a routine event – he and the team training staff remove the swelling from the finger and it returns the next day in practice.
Hill played with a small brace on the finger Sunday, which contributed to the ball twice slipping from his hand and into the arms of Vikings defenders. He said he hoped to practice without any protection Wednesday.
The first slip originally was ruled an interception but was changed to a fumble Monday by the league. He also was given an extra passing yard – he now has 181 yards total – on a play to Delanie Walker. The changes meant that Hill’s passer rating improved to 106.8 –- easily the best rating by a 49ers’ quarterback this season.
-- Matt Barrows

December 10, 2007
Who's back next year? A look at free agents *updated*

“My days are numbered.” Those words came out of Bryant Young’s mouth following yet another atrocious and uncompetitive loss on Sunday. Young is 35, in his 14th season and plays one of the most physically demanding positions in football. You knew he would hang up his cleats and take off his shoulder pads soon, but it was still jarring to hear his words. Who else may never don a 49ers uniform after this season? Here are my best guesses as to which potential free agents will walk and who will be back.

G Larry Allen – Allen says he hasn’t decided whether he wants to play another season. The decision, however, may not be his to make. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he simply can’t move like he used to. Chance of returning: 10 percent.

DE Marques Douglas – Douglas has played well in his contract year. The question is whether the 30-year-old lineman can continue to play at his current level. The 49ers have not discussed a contract extension and they seem poised to allow Douglas to test the market. If the offers he gets are reasonable, Douglas might be back. Chance of returning: 35 percent.

OT Kwame Harris – Harris went from most-loathed 49er to “maybe he wasn’t so bad after all” when the run game sputtered this year. The tall tackle also will hit the free agent market, and like Douglas, could be back if the price is right. However, a young former starter like Harris is likely to command a contract the 49ers aren’t willing to match. Chance of returning: 20 percent.

RB Maurice Hicks – Hicks finally busted a couple of big kickoff returns Sunday against the Vikings but you wonder whether a faster player would have finished those runs in the end zone. Hicks runs hard and is a coaches’ favorite. He’ll be back for camp, but can he hold off another challenge from younger, faster newcomers? Chance of returning: 45 percent.

QB Shaun Hill – Hill showed something Sunday that has escaped both Alex Smith and Trent Dilfer this season – a sense of rhythm. Was that legitimate or was it because the Vikings, ahead 27 points, didn’t care about giving up meaningless yards? Hill could get plenty more chances to prove his worth. Chance of returning: TBD.

G Justin Smiley – Early in the year it seemed as if the 49ers would never be able to re-sign Smiley, who figured to command top dollar on the free-agent market. However, a sub-par season and another shoulder injury likely lowered the guard’s value. The 49ers have a shot at Smiley, but they’ll still let him test the market. Chance of returning: 20 percent.

LB Derek Smith – No, he’s not a free agent. But he’s getting up there in years, he’s slowing down and he’ll have a very high base salary next season. If the 49ers sign another linebacker (See: Briggs, Lance) they may not have room for Smith. Chance of returning: 50 percent.

DL Isaac Sopoaga – The one free agent the 49ers really want back. Sopoaga is young, he’s versatile and he’s finally playing up to his potential. If Young retires, Sopoaga could be the left defensive end of the future. The 49ers will try not to let him hit the open market where the Samoan would find plenty of suitors. Chance of returning: 65 percent.

DE Bryant Young – He admitted that this season of high expectation and low yields has taken an emotional toll. Unlike other 30-somethings, he is still playing at a high level, which opens the door a crack that he could come back. But he also has said that he’d like to walk away from the game while he can still, well, walk. Chance of returning: 5 percent.

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Trent Dilfer was released from the hospital Sunday night but is doubtful to play Saturday against Cincinnati. It looks as if Shaun Hill will get the start. Mike Nolan said the team was weighing whether to elevate Drew Olson from the practice squad or to sign a veteran quarterback this week. And no, Jeff George's name never came up.

****
As predicted, the NFL has found a more attractive game for its Dec. 23 prime time slot than 49ers-Buccaneers. The league replaced it with the Vikings-Redskins game. Both teams are fighting for a Wild Card spot in the NFC. The 49ers game, originally scheduled to begin at 5:15 p.m., has been moved back to 1:15 p.m.

****
Remember earlier this year when Nolan said he couldn't put his finger exactly on what was ailing the 49ers? Well, he said there's far more clarity now. Nolan said there would be a time and place to discuss the root problems but that doing so now would be a distraction. "There will be a time and a place, and when that is, I will be very forthright," Nolan said. We can't wait ...

-- Matt Barrows

December 9, 2007
BY to say goodbye

Bryant Young didn't come out and say that he was retiring. But he sure did leave the impression that this was his last season in the NFL.
"I'm just trying to get through this day," Young said when asked whether he was considering returning next year. "My days are numbered. Let's be real about it. I'll just leave it at that. Read into it how you may."
Young considered retiring last season but felt the ascendant 49ers had a good chance at the playoffs and that he wanted to be part of a postseason run.
"This has been probably one of the most emotional and one of the toughest years I've been through because of expectations," he said. "I'm trying to figure out where it all went wrong. It's been puzzling."
-- Matt Barrows

December 8, 2007
Anyone else feel a draft?

Question: I know it's WAAYYY too early to speculate, but do you know of any good wide receiver prospects in the draft that could fall to the 49ers at the end of round 1?

Justin, Manteca

Answer: Justin, it's never too early to start talking about the draft. That being said, I'll know way more about the subject in two months. I do know there are no Calvin Johnson-type talents this year, but there seem to be a lot of Bernard Berrian-type guys that could fall to the 49ers somewhere on the first day. We've talked about Mario Manningham, who is just a junior but who probably will enter the draft. He and Texas' Limas Sweed should be two of the better prospects. There's also Josh Morgan from Virginia Tech and Harry Douglas from Louisville, although the latter might be too small for the 49ers' liking.

- Matt

Question: What position should the Niners draft w/ 32nd pick of next season?

Harsh, Berkeley

Answer: Well, it probably will be slightly better than pick No. 32 but suffice to say it will be at the end of the round. If the 49ers stick with the "best possible player" approach, it could be a guard. I'd say that, receiver and a 'tweener defensive end who could be moved to outside linebacker would be the best bets.

- Matt

Question: Nice rookie analysis, Matt. Usually, a silver lining to a disastrous season is the promise of a high draft choice. However, being the eternal optimist that I am (at least, in all things relating to the 49ers), I am holding out hope that the '9er's staff (or what's left of it) will be invited to coach the Senior Bowl. Coaching the Senior Bowl is one scenario where having a HC/GM is beneficial and seems to have paid dividends the past couple of drafts. What are the odds that Nolan & Co. are invited back to Mobile?

Terry, Davis

Answer: The odds are pretty good, Terry. In fact, the team already has inquired about it. The 49ers have two things going for them in regards to Mobile. First, the job usually is offered to the two worst teams in the conference, and the 49ers are setting themselves up nicely to be among the NFC's worst. Second, a lot of other coach's reject the offer because they want to give their staffs some time off. Nolan, however, always leaps at the opportunity. I would guess that Bobby Petrino and the Falcons would be the 49ers' biggest competition.

- Matt

Question: Hey Matt. I was just reading some of your posts from last year and you indicated that part of the plan to build the offense was building a strong offensive line. Now it appears that line is in semi-disarray. So what's your take, specifically: Is Staley at left tackle, is it Baas and Snyder at the gaurds, or is Smiley still in the picture. Is Heitmann's leg fully healed, and what about right tackle? Maybe Sam Baker will continue to drop, before the draft, because of the injury, I think that might be a pair of bookends for the future.

Tom, Sacramento

Answer: If I had to guess how the offensive line would be composed on Sept. 10, 2008, I would go with this: LT Joe Staley, LG Adam Snyder, C Eric Heitmann, RG David Baas, RT Jonas Jennings. I don't expect any of the FA's - Smiley, Kwame Harris and Larry Allen - to be back. I think they'll be offered more on the FA market than the 49ers are willing to pay. I think Allen will retire. By the way, I asked Allen this week what his plans were for next year. He said he hasn't thought that far in advance.

- Matt

Question: I thought I heard that the 49ers have the option year on Alex Smith's contract for 2008. Is that true? I also know that the 49ers are in the top 10 for payroll for 2007. Do you know how the team will be "capwise" for 2008? You also do a good job covering the team. Thank you.

Jack, Elk Grove

Answer: I think you can count on Alex Smith being around next season. The 49ers have too much invested in him and it's too soon to give up on him. His injury made this season a wash. As far as cap space, I don't have an exact figure, but the 49ers should be fine. Remember, if Larry Allen and/or BY retire, that ought to free up quite a bit of space.

- Matt Barrows

Question: My question is pretty simple: If a head coach's main responsibilities are 1) preparing his team to play on Sunday, 2) making game-time decisions to win football games, and 3) assembling a competitive team from top to bottom, how can Nolan have any chance of coaching this team next year? He's failed at all three. Thanks for being able to write insightful and compelling pieces on what has been terrible football.

Brian, Sacramento

Answer: Very nicely and succinctly put, Brian. I think the Yorks would argue that your third point, assembling a football team, has been Nolan's strength. I believe there's an understanding from the ownership that the 49ers were in the dark ages as far as talent when Nolan took over. I think they're willing to give him one more year to rebuild it.

- Matt

Question: Who is most responsible for the gross overestimation of this squad's talent-or lack thereof?! If Nolan keeps his job do you feel they NEED to bring in a G.M. who is better at player evaluation than Nolan and McCloughan. The failure of many of the draft picks and signings are too frequent. Also did anyone notice that Banta- Cain had 0 tackles or assists in the Cardinal game. A starting linebacker in on no tackles. He has been the bust of busts. Thanks.

Rod, Elk Grove

Answer: I've argued this before - I think the 49ers have far more draft-day hits than they do misses. And while you mentioned Banta-Cain as a free-agent bust, you didn't mention Nate Clements or Michael Lewis, both of whom have been very, very good this season. No, this team's issue is not the personnel department. This team's issue is offense. The 49ers must catch up with the rest of the league. Look at the top teams in both conferences - NE, Indy, GB and Dallas -- and you'll realize that this is no longer a running league. This is very much a passing league. Successful teams pass the ball a lot and they do it well. If there's a criticism of Mike Nolan's personnel decisions, it's this: He's building a team for a league that no longer exists.

- Matt

Question: Matt- Just read your comment about Brandon Moore being on the field more. Why hasn't he been used this year? My biggest gripe with Nolan is that for defensive expert he has failed to make the defense much better. He hasn't been able to switch to 3-4 because he has failed to get the right players. Why doesn't he run the 4-3, especially since his personnel is better suited for that scheme? Just another reason why he should be fired.

John, San Francisco

Answer: I hear you, John. I will say that the Nolan defense is operating much better than it had in previous seasons. The problem is that there is no pass rush from the position - outside linebacker - designed to rush the passer. If the 49ers stick with the 3-4, they need to find a pass-rushing linebacker. If they go back to a 4-3, they need pass-rushing defensive ends.

- Matt

Question: Why don't the defensive coaches have the 49ers blitz more often like they did on the last play with the Cardinals, which won the game for them? All season I have watched the opposing teams quarterback have way too much time to pass and make plays when a blitz might have caused a fumble or dropped the QB at a loss.

Keith, Rocklin

Answer: The Umbrella of Caution pertains to the defense, too, Keith

- Matt

Question: Hello Matt, my question is why don't the 49ers bench Darrell Jackson and give Jason Hill and Ashley Lelie more playing time. I have been so disgusted in his poor play. His dropped passes have occurred far too often. Is this another sign of Nolan being way to stubborn?

Wayne, Atlanta

Answer: Jackson doesn't lead the league in dropped passes (officially, he only has seven) but I'll bet when you factor in drops vs. number of balls thrown his way, he'd be at the top. Why hasn't he been replaced? Well, Hill has been injured at various points this season while the coaching staff is in the process of breaking Ashley Lelie down and building him back up into what they hope is a better all-around receiver. Lelie has shown a couple of flashes late this season. It'll be interesting to see whether he makes any sort of splash in these last four games.

- Matt

Question: "In San Francisco? Nothing. And that's a big reason why Mike Nolan probably will be back next year. He's still in control. "Why do you think this is a good thing? To fans, it looks like the players just don't care.

Bob, Sacramento

Answer: That's a great point, Bob. The counter-argument to "Well, at least Nolan has control of the locker room" is that perhaps Nolan has assembled a bunch of controllable players. It's one thing to have a locker room that's free of troublemakers, another to have a locker room that's void of passion. If you asked me if the 49ers have a player who can rally the locker room, I'd have a hard time coming up with an answer. Trent Dilfer? That would be my best guess, but I wouldn't say it with a whole lot of conviction.

- Matt

Question: Matt - I keep reading about how the Yorks will keep Nolan around because they like the structure he has in place? C'mon, seriously? Make Nolan the President of Structure, and bring in someone who can coach and develop players. Structure and coaching are two different things. Do the Yorks seriously think Nolan and his staff can develop and coach a team to a Super Bowl victory? What a pipe dream - I can't believe we will have to live thru this fiasco another year!

Lebowski, L.A.

Answer: Well, look at it this way. If Nolan gets another year, I think he'll be forced to break free of his cautious shell. Maybe they'll even - dare I dream this? - throw the ball at the goal line.

- Matt

Question: Why can't I get in to vote for the Patrick Willis nickname challenge? Every time I try to vote, the link takes me to the main Sacbee sports webpage. Hope you can fix this glitch on time. Would really like to vote for the nickname.

H.E., Newark, NJ.

Answer: The vote has been put on hold. I'm still getting solid entries and, of course, the election twice has been sabotaged. I'm considering moving away from a democracy (way too messy) and to a monarchy. As far as this blog goes, I am king. Maybe I should pick the winner myself. His Majesty hasn't decided.

- Matt

Question: Hey Barrows, I still can't vote for Patrick Willis' nickname on your blog, which I think should be either "The Second Samurai" or "The Little Samurai", due to the tutelage he's receiving from the Original Samurai himself, Singletary. Also, I would like to rename D-Jack (Darrell Jackson) "Butterfingers".

Zeb, Sacramento

Answer: Second Samurai is not bad at all. Definitely Top 10 at this point.

- Matt

Question: Bee-rows...P Willie should be called "Dead End." Ya know, running into him is like hitting a dead end. Posted this on your nemesis, Matt M's, Blog. Anyway, that's my suggestion.

Mike, Sacramento

Answer: It's been tainted by being on MM's blog. Sorry.

- Matt

Question: Looks to me Crumpacker beat you to the punch re Willis. Humble Hammer it is. What say thee?

Pat, San Francisco

Answer: Yes, I was a witness to HH when Crumpacker came up with it in the press trailer. Another Top 10 selection. However, I wonder if it's wise to indulge Crumpacker's T-shirt fetish. The man has an entire room devoted to his T-shirt collection.

- Matt

Question: What do you all think about the nickname Patrick "Silent Assassin" Willis? I think his modest and humble approach in the game fits this nickname perfectly. By the way I think we really found a diamond in the draft with Willis and Staley.

Jerry, Harlingen, Texas

Answer: Isn't it redundant? That is, have you ever heard of a noisy assassin?

- Matt

December 7, 2007
49ers tight-lipped about Briggs

Did the 49ers try to snag linebacker Lance Briggs before the Oct. 16 trade deadline? No comment, the 49ers said today. “That player’s on another football team, guys,” Mike Nolan said. “I don’t comment on players on other teams.” You can understand why he would be mum on the topic. First, you’re not supposed to covet players who are under contract with another team. It’s called tampering. Second, you wouldn’t want to alienate your own players – Derek Smith, Jeff Ulbrich and Brandon Moore – who play the same position as Briggs. And lastly, you don’t want to tip your hand as far as free agency when Briggs almost certainly will hit the market.
The questions were prompted by a Yahoo! Sports story that said a would-be deal between the 49ers and Bears was scuttled by the league because Chicago had designated Briggs their franchise player and franchise players can’t sign long-term deals during the season.
Nolan wouldn’t comment on Briggs specifically but he did say the trade rules need to be changed “I would like to see us have a greater window of opportunity than the current window of opportunity,” he said. “I would like to see it go into November, yeah…”

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Safety Mark Roman twisted an ankle in practice and is listed as questionable. If he can’t play, Keith Lewis and Dashon Goldson would fill in. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer is doubtful with a quad strain. Arnaz Battle is questionable with a sprained ankle.

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No fresh news on Alex Smith who continued to throw lightly at the beginning of practice. Yesterday Smith told us that he would have an examination by the team’s medical staff and a phone consult with Dr. James Andrews. Smith was not available to comment today and it was not clear whether he had had another examination.
-- Matt Barrows

December 6, 2007
Willis' place in history? It's fuzzy.

Who holds the record for tackles in a season? Well, it's not Butkus, Singletary or Urlacher. Or Bednarik, Lambert, Lewis or Brooks. The answer is Hardy Nickerson, who tallied 214 tackles for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1993. The 49ers' Patrick Willis, of course, is having a very nice season but he'd have to go ballistic over the next four games to catch Nickerson. If he keeps his current pace, Willis would finish with 171 tackles, tying him with ... drum roll, please ... the Redskins' Kurt Gouveia for 14th on the top-tackle list.

Even if Willis went on a tear and caught Nickerson, don't expect the NFL to stop the game, hand Willis the ball and otherwise make a big to-do. That's because tackles are a very fuzzy statistic in the NFL. The league didn't start keeping track of tackle totals until 1991 (which is why you find Gouveia and not Butkus) and you can't even find tackles in the NFL's record and fact book. The book charts safeties, sacks, punt-returns for touchdowns and various other minutiae. But something as essential as tackles? Nada.

There also are several entities keeping tack of totals, which is why you often find different totals for the same player. The league uses the tackle totals from the official game log when compiling its stats. These are the numbers you'll find on NFL.com. Willis, for example, leads the league with 128 tackles, according to the NFL. Nickerson's 214 tackles in 1993 also are according to the league's tally.

But after the game, coaches go over the film and make a more detailed review, giving players credit for tackles they might not have gotten in the NFL's tally. The 49ers' coaches, for instance, credit Willis with 173 stops this season.

The good news for 49ers' fans is that Willis leads the league no matter who is doing the tally. He leads Houston's DeMeco Ryans by 19 tackles on the NFL stat sheet, and he leads the Ravens' Ray Lewis by six tackles according to the coaches' tally.

Tackle info. also is hard to find. The following lists were compiled by dogged 49ers' employee Andy "Spreadsheet" Lutzky, who went through a lot of trouble to get this information. Thanks, Lutz!

Top 10 tackle totals since 1991
1. Hardy Nickerson 1993 TB 214
2. Jessie Tuggle 1991 Atl 207
3. Chris Spielman 1994 Det 195
4. Jessie Tuggle 1992 Atl 193
5t Dante Jones 1993 Chi 189
5t Mike Merriweather 1991 Min 189
7. Jessie Tuggle 1993 Atl 185
8. Ray Lewis 1997 Bal 184
9. Mike Johnson 1993 Cle 181
10. Mike Johnson 1992 Cle 176

Coaches' tackle totals through Week 13
1. SF Patrick Willis 173
2. BAL Ray Lewis 167
3. TB Barrett Ruud 142
4. DET Ernie Sims 137
5. SD Stephen Cooper 136
6. DEN D.J. Williams 132
7. PHI Omar Gaither 124
8. IND Gary Brackett 123
9. CHI Brian Urlacher 122
10. GB Nick Barnett 121
** Lutz didn't have updated totals for Wash., Buff., St.L, and Oak.

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Speaking of linebackers, Mike Nolan said today that we might be seeing more of Brandon Moore in the base defense. Not only is inside linebacker Derek Smith slowed by a groin injury, Moore has practicing well of late, Nolan said. The same can be said of Jeff Ulbrich. Moore, of course, helped lift the 49ers' defense last year when he was given an expanded role in a win over the Vikings.

****
Alex Smith tossed around a few more short passes today. He has yet to have an MRI that should show whether the ligaments that attach his shoulder and clavicle have begun to scar and tighten. He will visit with the team doctor later this week and have a phone consultation with orthopedist Dr. James Andrews.

-- Matt Barrows

December 5, 2007
Nolan could call plays on Sunday

Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky’s father passed away this week in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and Manusky was in that area today with his family. Coach Mike Nolan said that Manusky would be back tonight but that he might have to return to Pennsylvania for the funeral. It might lead to a situation where Nolan, not Manusky, calls the defensive plays in Sunday’s game against Minnesota. Nolan, of course, has plenty of practice in this area. Not only is he a long-time defensive coordinator but he was the team’s de facto coordinator for much of last season even though Billy Davis had the title. Davis was released at the end of the season and is now the Cardinals’ linebackers coach.
The obituary in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader said that Frank Manusky passed away Tuesday at a local hospital at age 72. He will be buried Saturday in Wilkes-Barre. Manusky’s funeral, of course, will be one of several attended by members of the 49ers this year. Running back Frank Gore has attended two – his mother’s and friend Sean Taylor’s – while Nolan buried his own father last month.

****
Nolan was bombarded with questions about his quarterback situation for next year. He said over and over that he couldn’t comment on the pecking order because he didn’t know if Alex Smith was going to be healthy. The closest he came to committing to Smith was this quote: “If everyone’s at the top of their game, he’s our guy.” Smith has not yet thrown any passes. He is scheduled to go through a light workout at 2 p.m., his first throws since Nov. 18. He also has planned to get another MRI to see whether the ligaments that attach his shoulder to his collarbone have begun to scar over and reattach the two areas.

****
Arnaz Battle will not practice today on the sprained ankle he injured on one of the first plays of Sunday’s game. Battle, however, was walking without a limp and said he expected to be on the field against the Vikings.

****
The Dolphins put Zach Thomas on IR this week and were in need of an inside linebacker. Where did they look? The 49ers' practice squad where they snagged Mark Washington. It's a shame. Washington was miscast as a nose tackle at Texas State. He looked good in training camp and he had a chance to make some noise at inside linebacker next year.
-- Matt Barrows

December 5, 2007
Childress to win Bee T-shirt?

Uh-oh. We have a new contestant in the P. Willy Nickname Challenge. Asked this morning about 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, Vikings coach Brad Childress said, "The words 'rolling ball of butcher knives' comes to mind." Hmmm .... rolling ball of butcher knives. The Urban Dictionary defines the term as: A treacherous, nasty, dangerous person or thing you should steer clear of. Not bad, coach. Not bad at all.
The context, of course, is Sunday's match-up between Willis and Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson. Coming back from a knee injury last week, Peterson was held to 15 carries. He might get a few more touches against the 49ers, but Childress said Peterson still will continue to split carries with Chester Taylor. Childress said Peterson has been symptom-free for about three weeks, and as anyone who watched him last week against the Lions can attest, it looks like the rookie's moves are very much in tact. He rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns.
Childress, however, downplayed the one-on-one match-up between Peterson and Willis. The only way you could do that, he said, would be to set up a couple of bags and have them do the Oklahoma stud drill. And hopefully, Childress said, Peterson would have a blocker to help him.
-- Matt Barrows

December 4, 2007
49ers Rookie Review

They say that you truly can't tell if a player is a success or a bust until he's played three years in the league. Sometimes, however, you get a sense after 12 games. With that in mind, here's a quick run down of the 49ers' nine-man draft class, where they stand now, where they might stand next year.

1A. LB Patrick Willis (No. 11 overall). During training camp, I thought Willis was a pretty good player. Early in the season, I thought he had a shot at defensive rookie of the year. Now I think he's good enough for defensive player of the year. Will he get it? Tackles are great, but they're not as sexy as sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns. But who knows - a stellar performance against Adrian Peterson on Sunday could change that. Willis is fast, instinctual, plays hurt and - this is the scary part - is still getting better. But he's so humble, you wonder if he'll become a locker-room leader. He doesn't have the hot-fire intensity of a Ray Lewis or the cold-fire intensity of a Mike Singletary.

1B. RT Joe Staley (No. 28 overall). Another first-round hit. Staley has been the most consistent 49ers offensive lineman this season and it's likely that he will be switched to left tackle next season. A one-time tight end in college, Staley had quick feet when he arrived and has been fast to pick up technique. He's gotten more aggressive as the season has gone on and he should really benefit from the team's off-season weight program. Was he worth the 2008 first-round pick for which he was traded? The 49ers certainly didn't expect it would be so valuable, but Staley should measure up nicely with whomever the Patriots select.

3A. WR Jason Hill (No. 76 overall). Like all young 49ers receivers, Hill has had a hard time satisfying meticulous position coach Jerry Sullivan. He also has had trouble staying healthy, dealing with various muscle strains that have kept him out of action. But Hill has shown nice toughness when he's on special teams, a trait that bodes well for the flanker position the coaching staff envisions him playing. Hill isn't as fast as his 40-time indicates, but he is bigger and thicker than he appears at first glance. He's an eager learner who should blossom with time ... if he ever sees the field.

3B. DE Ray McDonald (No. 97 overall). McDonald gets off the line of scrimmage faster than any other 49ers' defensive lineman - and that's something you can't coach. He has shown flashes of potential at times, played like a rookie at other times. The 49ers are expecting him to take off next season. The question is whether McDonald has shown enough potential to allow current right defensive end Marques Douglas, an unrestricted free agent come March, to walk.

4A. OLB Jay Moore (No. 104 overall). Moore suffered a bad high-ankle sprain and was placed on IR before the season. Before he got hurt, he was making the difficult transition from three-point-stance defensive end to pass-rushing linebacker. The 49ers love Moore's size - 6-4, 270 pounds - and he has been a punctual student in the film room all year. He should provide nice depth at the all-important OLB spot next season, a la Parys Haralson this year.

4B. S Dashon Goldson (No. 126 overall). The darling of spring practices, Goldson looks like a keeper. He has excellent coverage skills and isn't afraid to lower his helmet for a tackle as shown by his recent play on special teams. Goldson's biggest obstacle is the play of the two players ahead of him at safety. Mark Roman has played well this year while Michael Lewis has played really well.

4C DT Joe Cohen (No. 135 overall). Cohen will have a tough time making the squad next year. He got shoved around in training camp, then suffered a devastating knee injury in a preseason game that left him with a torn ACL. He probably won't start practicing again until training camp. There is also quite a bit of depth at his position. Aubrayo Franklin is the starter while the team also picked up Atiyyah Ellison at the start of the season. Isaac Sopoaga and Ronald Fields - both of whom probably will be back next year - also factor in at the position. The best things that Cohen has going for him is that his rehab partner is Manny Lawson, who is providing plenty of incentive/encouragement for a strong recovery.

5 CB Tarell Brown (No. 147 overall). Ernest and polite, Brown has been a model citizen in San Francisco after a couple of brushes with the law at Texas. He hasn't had a lot of playing time this season but coaches love his athleticism and coverage skills. He almost certainly will factor into the mix at cornerback next season.

6 RB Thomas Clayton (No. 186 overall). Like Brown, Clayton was a guy who arrived with character concerns after a rocky college career. The 49ers coaches tested him early, making him the de facto tackling dummy early in training camp. Clayton handled it all with aplomb, played well in the preseason but landed on the practice squad before the regular season began. In order to beat out Maurice Hicks for a 53-man spot next year, he'll have to improve upon breaking tackles and staying on his feet.

****
Did you see the Ravens game last night? After that unfortunate fourth-and-one timeout (and you think Nolan calls some dubious timeouts!) the reaction from the Ravens' defenders was priceless. It was as if they collectively went Bobby Knight on their own coaching staff. It was a classic case of a coaching staff that had lost control of its players. You're starting to see/hear similar rebellion and unrest in Miami and a few other teams. In San Francisco? Nothing. And that's a big reason why Mike Nolan probably will be back next year. He's still in control.

****
Not sure how to proceed with the P. Willy Nickname Challenge. The vote has been sabotaged twice - P-52 was winning at the time -- and more nickname suggestions continue to pour in. A few recent notables:

1. Decker - Because there are 52 card in a deck and because, well, Willis decks people.
2. Wham Bam Willis
3. Rolling Thunder
4. Groundskeeper Willie
5. Smack Down

To me, the best nickname would combine Willis' humble demeanor off the field with his prowess on it. SF Chronicle writer John Crumpacker, for example, suggested Humble Hammer. Maybe it should be "Silent but Deadly," although that suggestion whiffs of something different altogether.

-- Matt Barrows

December 3, 2007
Fourth and too long

Mike Nolan and fourth downs are not a good combination. They’re like Bill Clinton and high-haired women from Arkansas. Put the two together and there’s trouble. By now we can all recite by heart the fourth-down instances over which Nolan’s been hammered in the past, including the questionable decision to kick a field goal last year in St. Louis and the bizarre decision to go with a field goal/on-side kick combo this year against the Rams. (They lost both games in case you forgot).
Fourth down reared its ugly head again yesterday when a running-into-the-kicker penalty (should have been roughing) would have put the 49ers in a fourth-and-two situation late in the third quarter. The 49ers were trailing by 10 at the time and the penalty would have put the ball on the Carolina 42 yard line. Nolan, however, declined the penalty and chose to stick with a punt that was fair caught by the Panthers at the 17.
Nolan on Monday admitted what several of us suspected last night – that he was so infuriated with the call on the field that he didn’t completely think through the decision to go for it on fourth and two. And to be fair, it did seem like a horrible call. I’m not sure what it takes to draw a roughing-the-punter penalty – which would have been 15 yards and an automatic first down – but apparently it involves baseball bats, brass knuckles and a few guys from North Jersey. Anyway, Nolan was peeved to say the least.
“I was still pretty irate about the call as much as thinking about going for it,” he said as his Monday presser.
Nolan also thought it would have been closer to fourth and three had he accepted the penalty. He said the 49ers have a play for fourth and one (we know: Frank Gore left) but that fourth and two-and-half was pushing it.
Again, that doesn’t exactly show confidence in the offense, but I’m not sure I would have gone for it either. After all, there was still four minutes left to play in the third quarter and the 49ers only were down by 10 points. If it’s midway through the fourth quarter, then you go for it. At that point, however, you trust that your defense will stop 44-year-old Panthers QB Vinny Testaverde (which they didn’t) and you get the ball back. Maybe he should have asked Andy Lee to punt again and hope he pins the Panthers inside their own 10.

****
Nolan said that Alex Smith would do some light throwing on Wednesday and would have his shoulder re-evaluated at that point. He didn’t think, however, that Smith would have a follow-up appointment with Dr. Andrews in Birmingham. I consider it highly unlikely that Smith will play again in 2007. In fact, a Shaun Hill sighting is far more probable.

****
It looks as if Arnaz Battle is questionable with a sprained ankle. He has been by far the most effective receiver on the team, leading the 49ers in receptions (43), receiving yards (545) and TD catches (4). The next-best receiver has been Darrell Jackson whose corresponding stats are 29, 332, 1. I’m not sure what happens if Battle can’t play, but it might send Jackson to flanker and Ashley Lelie or Bryan Gilmore to split end.

****
I did not attend today’s presser. Jim Jenkins – the gentleman that he is – offered to drive in from Sacramento and give me the day off. I arrived from Charlotte (via Dallas) at noon and was back home to watch on my computer the 12:15 p.m. presser that – luckily for me in this case – usually starts at 12:30 p.m.
-- Matt Barrows

December 2, 2007
Greetings from Charlotte

It’s about 50 degrees or so and the sky is gray. Trent Dilfer was one of the first guys to start warming up. He came out with a gray, sleeveless shirt and no hat and has been throwing passes to Bryan Gilmore since about 10:45 a.m. (eastern). He stayed out until 11:20 and then walked back into the locker room with Jim Hostler. Alex Smith and Shaun Hill also were out. Hill threw short passes to Smith who returned them … underhanded. Smith will have a follow-up visit to the doctor’s this week to see about the progress of his shoulder. The very first guys to take the field – at around 10:30 – were Joe Staley and Adam Snyder. I may be wrong, but Staley really seems like a guy who soon will take a leadership role in the locker room.

****
The 49ers inactives are Smith, Marcus Hudson, Shawntae Spencer, Patrick Estes, Atiyyah Ellison, LeRon McCoy, Jason Hill and Ray McDonald. There is no third quarterback. (read: Michael Robinson). For the Panthers, David Carr is the third quarterback meaning rookie Matt Moore is backing up injury-prone Vinny Testaverde.

****
As far as stadiums go, Seattle’s Qwest Field and Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium are two of my favorites. But this park in Charlotte is really nice, too. It’s just off the downtown and it meshes well with the neighborhood it’s in. The charcoal-gray exterior is sharp and they’ve done a good job of planting trees around the stadium. It doesn’t look like it was plunked down in the middle of a parking lot. Most importantly, the press box is nice and low.

****
The P. Willie Nickname Challenge continues to suffer from an overzealous voter. Apparently he/she has rigged a bug that allows him/her to continuously for one of the entries. Dear Sir or Madame, If you want a Bee t-shirt that badly, I’ll send you one …
-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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