With Sunday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco’s season and playoff hopes effectively came to an end on Christmas Eve, in front of a boisterous home crowd on Fan Appreciation Day.

And sure, it was disappointing. I was there, and could hear the angst from fans on all sides. And there must have been no one more upset at the way his team lost than Mike Nolan, who had to watch his defense give up first down after first down in a Cardinals drive that chewed up the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.

Maybe it was the absence of defensive lineman Ronald Fields, who was lost for the season to a broken arm during the week’s practices, but San Francisco just couldn’t stop the run when it counted this week, and were once again frustrated by the often complete lack of a pass rush. In short, there is no question that the defensive personnel will be tinkered with at the least, and perhaps even completely rehashed this offseason.

But no matter who you are, you have to love where the team is heading into next season.

I’m not the first one to point it out, and I won’t be the last either, but Mike Nolan has done a fantastic job to just make this team relevant heading into the 2007 season. Look at where the Raiders and Lions are now and consider that the 49ers were in there position following the departure of Dennis Erickson, and one can’t help but marvel at the job the young coach has done for the franchise.

Indeed, the 49ers Nolan inherited may have had less talent than either Oakland or Detroit. There was no young Ernie Sims with a long contract ahead of him at linebacker or any receiver approaching Roy Williams’s level of talent on the 49ers roster. And even after two years of rebuilding, I would still trade the Raiders’ defense for that of the 49ers straight up.

In two years, Nolan has taken the 49ers from Tim Rattay and Brandon Lloyd to Alex Smith and Vernon Davis. From Kevan Barlow to Frank Gore. From Derek Smith and Bryant Young to… well Derek Smith and Bryant Young.

Looking back, it’s clear now exactly what Nolan’s plan has been. To rebuild the offense first, stocking it with young talent that could develop while the team grows, and then hope to build a defense quickly following that. And phase one has proceeded well, as the offense looks to be on firm ground with Smith, Gore, and Davis leading the way into the future behind a solid offensive line. To be sure, an added receiving threat would greatly help, but the true task for Nolan now is fixing the defense.

And rest assured, that’s exactly the way Nolan wanted it.

If you haven’t read it already, let me at this point put in a plug for John Feinstein’s book, Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today’s NFL documenting the 2004 Baltimore Ravens. Playing a significant supporting role in the story, is then Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Nolan was one of the architects who orchestrated the building of the second generation of the famed Ravens defense, which was almost entirely scrapped and remodeled following the 2001 season. Under Nolan’s guidance, players like Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Adalius Thomas got their feet wet in the NFL and restored the Ravens D to championship caliber in a strikingly short time.

Aside from being a fantastic read on the modern workings of the NFL, the book manages to illustrate Nolan's particular defensive expertise, and his and Mike Singletary's personalities really seem to emerge over the course of the season. I, at least, finished my reading with an increased sense that Mike Nolan is the right man for the job in San Francisco.

Already in place for Nolan this time around are Shawntae Spencer, the surprisingly productive Walt Harris, and young Manny Lawson. It seems reasonable to expect that Bryant Young will return as well, and the coaching staff obviously thinks highly of Derek Smith, having rewarded the veteran with a new contract last offseason. But make no mistake about it, all other defensive positions are up for grabs.

Although others have certainly solidified their futures on the team, it’s hard to point to anyone else as a definite defensive starter in 2007. While this illustrates just how many holes the 49ers have to fill, it may also lend Nolan and his staff the kind of flexibility they’ve thrived in recently, giving them the ability to draft and sign the best players available regardless of position and plug them into a new system with a reasonable chance of success. Still, it’s a monumental task for any team to almost completely rebuild a defense in one season.

But given Nolan’s past experience, there may not be a better man for the job.

After a four year absence from the playoffs, a little impatience is a justified reaction from San Francisco fans just waiting for their team to contend again, and to be sure the “rebuilding”, “progress” and “wait 'til next year” defenses are growing thin.

But seriously, if Nolan’s track record is any indication, you should—wait for next year I mean.


Notes from the game and beyond:

1) The crowd grew restless with Alex Smith’s performance at several points during the contest, and I heard fans around me particularly upset with the way Smith seldom seemed to throw downfield. Despite a couple of instances where there did appear to be open receivers 20+ yards downfield, though, it may be worth remembering that Smith’s most reliable deep threat was absent from the contest, as Antonio Bryant sat for the first game of his suspension.

2) This was the first game all season where it just seemed like the 49ers were physically beat in the trenches on both sides of the ball. Edgerrin James and the Cardinals seemed to be able to get the tough yards almost at will, and minus the game’s opening drive and a couple of goal-line plays the SF rushing game seemed to lack much pop. If that’s a one game lapse, fine, but if the 49ers want to win in the long run, they’ll have to step up this aspect of their game from what I saw today.

3) I was impressed by what I saw from Smith for the most part. With a receiving duo of Arnaz Battle and Bryan Gilmore/Taylor Jacobs, Smith put together a fairly efficient passing attack. Considering that there wasn’t a 49ers receiver in the game who would have been a third option for Arizona, that’s pretty impressive.

4) Slowly but surely, Vernon Davis is emerging onto the scene as a big play threat. He uses his body to make the catch too often, but other than that, the young man has it all. And when there are other threats in the passing game around him, he will be impossible to cover. It’s important that he and Smith continue building a rapport in the passing game at Denver and into the offseason.

5) I haven’t gotten a chance yet to watch any replays, but based on what I saw at the game I’ve never seen a more blatant officiating gaffe than the “field goal” awarded to Neil Rackers of the Cardinals in the 4th Quarter Sunday. I mean seriously, other than the famous “fifth down” in the Colorado-Missouri game a decade ago has there been a more obvious mistake in judgment by any referee—college or pro?

6) I sure wish the 49ers had been able to keep Daven Holly. Drafted in 2004, Holly was plucked from the San Francisco’s practice squad by the Bears, and later moved on to Cleveland, where he’s seen significant playing time this year and from all reports has had a solid season. Sunday, he scored the Browns’ only points against Tampa, as he returned a fumble for a touchdown. Holly also recorded an interception in the game.

7) Based on the stockpile of picks the 49ers have amassed in the first four rounds of the 2007 draft, I would expect the team make a similar move to last season and invest some of those picks in trading up, for either a second pick in the first round or a higher first round pick. Once again, it seems like the argument can be made that the Niners are much more in need of starters than depth going into next season, and this was the rationale for trading with the Broncos last year for the selection that eventually became Manny Lawson.

8) I like Moran Norris. He hits guys—hard.

9) Great toughness by Vernon Davis to hang onto that pass at the end of the first half. I think that will be a hit they’ll be talking about on the “Jacked Up” segment of ESPN’s Monday Night Football presentation.

10) Now that the 49ers are officially out of the running for the playoffs, I think it’s safe to talk about the ’07 draft order. It’s safe to say that beating Denver on the road in a must win game for Mike Shanahan and his team would be a tall order for a 49ers team that at this point has nothing left to play for beyond pride. That said, if you want San Francisco’s draft standing to possibly improve, hope for Washington (v. NY Giants), Houston (v. Cleveland), and Arizona (at San Diego) wins next weekend.