Sports

Commentary: 49ers earn ugly win, pretty record

ST. LOUIS -- Winning ugly? At this rate, by season's end, the 49ers are going to be uglier than a Miss South Carolina discourse on geography.

They triumphed in another brutal game Sunday. It was even more brutal than their last brutal game, which happened brutally last Monday.

Result: The 49ers are now 2-0 by the combined and extremely skinny margin of four total points. Head coach Mike Nolan isn't sure how to assess that in terms of his team's psyche.

"I don't know what's better, two lopsided victories or two like the ones like we've had," Nolan said. "I think I'd take my chances with the ones we've had."

Good plan, since he doesn't really have a choice. And as the 49ers continue to emerge from their four-year cocoon of bleakness and losing seasons, it would be wrong to get overly picky about style points.

But is it wrong to call the 49ers a little lucky? Because on Sunday, they definitely were.

In their 17-16 meat grinder of a victory over the Rams, the 49ers were outgained by 206 yards. They muffed away one punt return. Alex Smith, their quarterback, lost another fumble. They gave St. Louis great field position on a fourth-quarter drive because Joe Nedney did something he never, ever does -- boot a kickoff out of bounds. And the game wasn't settled until a potential Rams' winning field goal fell just a yard or two short with 1:08 remaining.

Ugliness rules, baby. Ugliness rocks.

"It's huge, to pull out these types of games," Smith said, correctly. "You've got to win these types of games to make the playoffs, be a contender."

Let's not get carried away. But here is what you can say after two games: The 49ers do appear to be a tough out. They hang in there. They hit hard and force their opponent to make mistakes.

And how about this trend? After losing 12 of their first 14 road games under Nolan, the 49ers have now won three in a row dating back to last season. That's got to be worth something, right? "I know we can be a lot better," Smith said. "I think everyone in the locker room knows it. That is the scary thing -- 2-0 and we have a long way to go. We need to keep improving."

No argument there. On offense, especially.

For the second straight game, Smith was good in bursts. But there was trouble sustaining consistent drives. New offensive coordinator Jim Hostler's play-calling explains some of that. So does Nolan's innate football conservatism. Last season, Smith operated well when rolling out and moving. But he's doing much less of that this season, particularly on first and second downs.

Smith isn't griping. It figures that Hostler would rely on Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore to be the 49ers' offensive focus. But as Smith showed last Monday when turned loose on a two-minute drill, he can make things happen on the run.

However, here we were with 5:42 left in the game. The 49ers were trailing by two points, taking over the ball on the St. Louis 26-yard line. A touchdown would be a stake in the Rams' heart. But what were the 49er play calls? Gore on first down for one yard. Gore on second down for three yards. Gore on third down for no yards. Followed by a 40-yard Nedney field goal to go ahead by one point.

And here we were with 2:35 remaining. The 49er defense had just forced the Rams to turn over the ball on downs. If the 49er offense could make one or two more first downs, the game would be over. What were the play calls? Runs on first, second and third down, then a punt -- which gave the Rams their last failed chance.

Nolan didn't regret his decision in either case because of the outcome. And by running, he forced St. Louis to use up all its timeouts. However, Nolan did admit that on the field goal drive with 5:42 left, "I probably would have done something on the third down play if I had to do it again, because we were already in field goal position -- maybe take a shot."

But mainly, Nolan discovered it was lot more fun to second-guess himself after a victory instead of a defeat, as happened here last season.

"I don't have any specific concerns, other than we are going to get better," Nolan said, "and it's nice to evaluate it after a win and not after a loss."

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