After losing season, Niners refuse to divulge coach Nolan's fate

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Mike Nolan will be the coach of the San Francisco 49ers for at least one more day.

Beyond that, only John York knows - and the club's mercurial owner had little to say Monday about his moribund franchise's fate.

While the players packed their bags one day after a season-ending loss at Cleveland, the 49ers (5-11) delayed, postponed and then finally canceled Nolan's postseason news conference at the club's training complex.

Instead, the coach spent the afternoon deep in meetings with York following Nolan's third consecutive losing campaign. The 49ers have five straight losing seasons overall, a humiliating record low for a franchise with five Super Bowl trophies.

Though the meetings were surely a serious business, the parties involved didn't seem contentious when they finally emerged on New Year's Eve. York and his son, Jed, drove away from the 49ers' training complex at the same time as Nolan and his wife, Kathy.

"We met for some time today, and we're going to meet again tomorrow," John York said from the wheel of his car, giving no timetable for a decision on Nolan's fate. "There's no point in talking about this until we finish."

"I've only got one thing to say - happy new year, and I'll be back in the morning," Nolan said.

Most of Nolan's players left the training complex before lunchtime. Defensive lineman Bryant Young is headed into retirement, while a good portion of the roster could be jettisoned in the inevitable rearrangement of another losing team.

Nolan, who has complete control of San Francisco's football operations, is 16-32 in his three years. The 49ers could have new leadership and a new look by the time rookie Patrick Willis heads to the Pro Bowl next month, but the linebacker is ready for whatever the York family regime has in store.

"If I had the say-so, all of them would come back," said Willis, who led the NFL with 174 tackles. "We know something is going to change. We just don't know what."

Scot McCloughan, Nolan's top personnel executive, is expected to be promoted soon to a position of greater responsibility by the York family, which has been vilified throughout the Bay Area for a decade of largely disappointing management of Northern California's most beloved sports franchise.

After three years, it's clear Nolan has made significant strides in rebuilding San Francisco's decimated roster and installing a competent defense and special-teams unit.

But his three offensive coordinators in three seasons never built a respectable attack, with Jim Hostler's unit this season tying the franchise low and finishing last in the NFL with 219 points.

Just how bad were the Niners this season? They also finished last in the league in total yards per game (3,797), yards passing (2,320), offensive touchdowns (23), first downs (218), sacks allowed (55) and third-down conversions (31.4 percent).

Aside from Willis' brilliance, the dismal 2007 season probably will be best remembered for the embarrassing, tedious public feud between Nolan and quarterback Alex Smith, his first draft pick three years ago.

After separating his throwing shoulder and then struggling through three awful games, Smith publicly accused Nolan in mid-November of failing to understand the severity of his arm injury. Nolan then belittled the quarterback's worries, intimating the former No. 1 pick needed to show more toughness despite his obvious physical problems.

The two traded veiled shots until Smith had season-ending arm surgery in December. If Nolan is fired, the decision might come down to simple math: The 49ers owe many millions to Smith over the next two years, while Nolan has two years left on a five-year, $8 million contract.

Many of the 49ers' offensive problems stemmed from an offensive line that regressed markedly after leading Frank Gore to the Pro Bowl with an NFC-best 1,695 yards last season.

Gore managed just 1,102 yards rushing behind almost the same linemen this season, though he finished sixth in the NFL in total yards from scrimmage. The 49ers' line also allowed a franchise-record number of sacks - one big reason they used four starting quarterbacks.

Shaun Hill, the third-stringer who had never thrown an NFL pass until injuries to Smith and Trent Dilfer got him into the lineup in December, won both of his starts before missing the season finale with a back injury. Hill, an unrestricted free agent this spring, intends to survey his options, but hopes to return to San Francisco.

"I haven't really thought a lot about free agency or anything like that," said Hill, who turned down the 49ers' offers of a contract extension in October. "Every year, everybody is competing for jobs, so that would be nothing new."

The 49ers have few significant free agents, with nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and guard Justin Smiley joining Hill. All three players said Monday they hope to return.

"I'm a Nolan guy, honestly, so I hope I'll be back," said Smiley, a former second-round draft pick who missed the 49ers' final eight games with a shoulder injury after starting every game in the previous 2 1/2 years. "I was one of those guys that wanted to be a lifelong 49er, so I hope I'm back, but we'll see."

At least one key member of the 49ers won't be back next season: Young confirmed his retirement Sunday after 14 seasons with San Francisco. Guard Larry Allen, the 11-time Pro Bowler who seemed exhausted for much of the season, also might not return, though he doesn't plan to retire.

Willis was the unquestioned highlight of the 49ers' season. The Mississippi product thrived in Nolan's 3-4 defensive scheme, and the clear Defensive Rookie of the Year should get consideration as the NFL's best defensive player overall.

"Although things went well, I know there's a lot of work to be done," Willis said. "I'm a firm believer that if you work hard, good things will come of it."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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