I tossed Mike Nolan a softball during his afternoon press conference. With his team floundering and in desperate need of something to latch onto, I asked whether Alex Smith's effort Sunday could be something that rallies the troops. After all, the guy took a pounding to his injured shoulder and never came out of the game. His right shoulder and clavicle - his livelihood - were being held snug not by his own ligaments but by medical tape, and he continued to play. No one would have blamed Smith if, down 24-0 and with the Saints' ears pinned back to rush the quarterback, he watched the second half from the bench. But he didn't. Surely, this is something that could galvanize a 49ers' locker room that's in dire need of a spark.
"Possibly," Nolan said. "I know that after the game when we huddled up some players called out his name as far as being the leader on this football team."
And that's all he said on the subject before moving onto the next question. It was the same sort of lukewarm reaction he gave immediately following the game that caused at least two columnists to write today that Nolan had thrown his quarterback under the proverbial bus.
Nolan certainly is not abandoning Smith. He's never had a bad word to say about the quarterback and he has lauded Smith's intelligence and toughness too many times to count. Drafting Smith was the first major move Nolan made as head coach, and the success of one man is tied to the other.
Which is why Nolan's lack of praise for Smith following Sunday's game is so puzzling.
You can easily imagine another coach turning Smith into a latter-day Willis Reed. You can easily imagine another coach masking the ineptitude of his team by discussing the heroics of its quarterback. If nothing else, it would have been a masterful pr move to celebrate Smith as much as possible.
You can easily imagine another coach pointing to Smith's toughness and saying, "This is why we're going to pull out of this five-game skid - because our quarterback has guts."
Instead, Nolan said his hope lies in the fact that the 49ers have so much integrity, work ethic and character in the locker room, never mind the fact that Joe Nedney, a team captain, was caught giving the fans the bird and that helmets were tossed all over the field Sunday in frustration.
"We have a lot of character on the football team," Nolan said. "We have a lot of work ethic on the football team. We've got some talent on this football team. We need to maintain our health better than we have but for those reasons, that's what gives me hope."
Nolan doesn't need to speak in generalities. The most important player on the team embodies all of that, and he showed it in Sunday's game.
* After the game, Smith said he was certain he'd start Sunday against Atlanta. Nolan, however, wasn't as certain and said the quarterback's shoulder will first be evaluated this week before he commits to a starter. "He felt better this morning than he did when he left the game," Nolan said. We reporters have not yet spoken to Smith today.
* Nolan also said he spoke to Nedney about his one-finger salute but that he won't discipline the kicker. The league, however, likely will do so with a fine.
* Nolan liked how Jason Hill performed both on offense and on special teams and said the rookie could see more playing time in coming weeks
* Jonas Jennings will not lose his job at left tackle despite how well Adam Snyder plays in his absence. Jennings has a high-ankle sprain, and it is not yet known when he will return
-- Matt Barrows