SANTA CLARA -- The first year quarterback Alex Smith came to the 49ers, a banner hung on a wall outside the locker room."Win the West!"That was 2005. The 49ers, just two seasons removed from an NFC West title, were coming off a 2-14 season.Now, the point has finally arrived. With Smith still at quarterback, the 49ers can wrap up the division title with a victory over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at Candlestick Park.
"For anyone who's only been here, obviously, this is new territory for us," Smith said. "It's something we've talked about every year and to all of a sudden have it in our hands and a chance to clinch, it's great."Shortly after he was hired as 49ers coach, Mike Nolan had the banner displayed. It had helmets of the three other teams in the NFC West with a red "X" through each of them. But Nolan was not around to see the goal reached. Nolan was fired after recording an 18-37 record in 3 12 seasons. Fifteen players, including 11 current starters, remain from that era.
Nolan is currently the Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator. The Dolphins declined to make him available for an interview."Organizationally, our policy is that assistant coaches (including our coordinators) only discuss our own players, and not players on other teams around the league," a Dolphins spokesman said.Mike Singletary followed Nolan as coach, and compiled an 18-22 record in 2 12 seasons. Thirteen players, including five starters, remain from the time Singletary was coach. Singletary, currently special assistant to the head coachlinebackers with the Minnesota Vikings, declined an interview request."Coach Singletary said he is happy for the 49ers organization but at this time he politely declines the request," said a Vikings spokesman.Jim Harbaugh, in his first season, has been able to take the 49ers where Nolan and Singletary could not. The 49ers (9-2) will clinch the NFC West with a victory or tie over the Rams. The 49ers can still wrap up the division title with a loss, as long as Seattle and Arizona both lose or tie."It's something we've mentioned this week, about the importance of this game," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "But it's another game for us to go out and get better. It's a big game because it's an opportunity for us to do something we haven't done in a long time."Said Smith, "This is what you work so hard for. We put ourselves in a good situation and now we need to go out on Sunday and finish it."