When a rebuilding job commences there are few immediate expectations and progress is generally measured by increased competitiveness as opposed to strictly wins and losses.
Unlike his predecessors, Dennis Erickson (who took over a 10-6 squad that had just won the NFC West and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs), Steve Mariucci (who assumed control of a 12-4 team that had lost in the divisional round of the playoffs) and George Siefert (who grabbed the reigns of a championship team that had just won Super Bowl XXIII ), Nolan inherited a losing team with no real promise for the future.
"There was a lot of very poor drafts. As of right now, I don't believe we have one first-rounder on our team from prior to three years ago," Nolan said. "So from our standpoint the unfortunate thing is that we've had to make up some ground."
With so much work to do, Nolan focused on securing the quarterback position first. He selected Alex Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft.
With so many rookies playing key roles, that first season was predictably rough. The 49ers started out 2-12, while Smith struggled to pick up the offense. The season ended on a high note, however, as the team won twice to close out the year.
While the team's 4-12 record was nothing to brag about, the squad was competitive -- progress for a club still squarely in the rebuilding phase.
The franchise was in transition from rebuilding to contending and it could not have happened at a better time. After having had to "wait two years really to do anything (in free agency), because our cap situation was so bad," Nolan and the 49ers finally had room to operate and improve the roster.
Simply becoming more competitive was no longer acceptable. The team now had to win.
And in the first two games of the year, they did just that, beating division rivals Arizona and St. Louis. Then the bottom fell out.
Smith regressed without Turner coordinating the offense (Turner left in the offseason to take the Chargers head coaching job) and the woeful offensive production dragged down an improving defense led by Clements and Willis. By the time Smith's year ended with a shoulder injury, the team was 2-7 and the season was lost.
That put the pressure squarely on Nolan. The franchise was no longer rebuilding and a 5-11 record was no longer acceptable.
There was rampant speculation that Nolan's job could be in jeopardy.
Instead, owner John York responded to the disappointing year by keeping Nolan as coach, but promoting Scot McCloughan to general manager and giving him final say on personnel matters -- a power formerly possessed by Nolan.
Nolan knows, though, that another 5-11 season and he will likely lose more than just personnel control.
"We gotta win this year," said Nolan. "I'm not going to hide behind anything else, we do. We have to win."
Nolan believes they will win with new offensive coordinator Mike Martz and offensive free-agent additions WR Isaac Bruce, WR Bryant Johnson and RB DeShaun Foster bolstering the offense.
But he also knows if he's wrong, another rebuilding project may soon get underway in San Francisco, and he won't be the one in charge.
"In today's NFL it's what have you done for me lately."