SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -Alex Smith is experiencing several new kinds of pain for the first time in his pro career.
The quarterback's right shoulder has been aching for a month now, affecting everything from his throwing motion to his ability to sleep. Even worse, his San Francisco 49ers (2-5) are underachievers for the first time since the former No. 1 pick joined a club that's had mostly low expectations since going 2-14 before he arrived.
After beginning this season with two wins and budding hopes for a playoff run, the 49ers have lost five straight games to slip back to the same record they had through seven games in 2006.
The offense looks as painful as Smith's injured joint, and the defense is slumping. Even the kicker made an obscene gesture at their fans during the latest discouraging defeat.
But Smith isn't giving up - and he isn't even sitting down, even when his erratic throws seem to suggest he might benefit from more time off to heal his once-separated shoulder.
``The big thing for this team, for me, is finishing,'' Smith said Monday, a day after going 22-of-43 for 190 yards in San Francisco's 31-10 loss to New Orleans. ``We got ourselves into this, and we've got to dig our way out. I'm still learning, but it's going to be uncomfortable. It's still going to hurt.''
That attitude kept Smith in the game against the Saints even though he clearly wasn't comfortable in his first outing since the injury - particularly after taking a hit from linebacker Scott Fujita while trying to get out of bounds.
But Smith's inaccuracy was just one problem for the 49ers, who haven't mounted a strong running game or stayed out of penalty trouble all season. Coach Mike Nolan refused to remove Smith from the game despite his struggles, apparently believing his aching quarterback still provided the Niners' best chance to get something going.
``When your arm is sore, it can change certain things,'' Nolan said. ``But it wasn't sore to the (point) that he thought he had to come out, or couldn't do his job.''
Besides, Nolan has plenty of additional concerns. Sunday's trip to Atlanta will be the midway point of a season that's going completely against the plan set out by Nolan, who thought he had the talent and the character to get the 49ers back to the playoffs.
``Everybody has their chin up,'' said tight end Vernon Davis, whose career-best six catches were a bright spot. ``Everybody is confident. Guys around here, they're not going to show their anger. They're just going to keep their head up and move on.''
Nolan insists the same players who looked lost and discouraged after losing to the Saints can still turn this team around, but he offered no concrete plans for fixing the 49ers - no lineup changes, no coaching reassessments, no variations in the previous five weeks' plans.
Nolan also doesn't plan to discipline Joe Nedney, who was caught making a nasty gesture at booing fans after he kicked a kickoff out of bounds. Nolan expects the NFL to fine his veteran kicker, saying Nedney was ``very apologetic about it. I think he's a little embarrassed by it. Joe has a family, and I know that's meaningful to him that he doesn't set that example.''
The rest of the 49ers expressed their anger in more acceptable ways. Running back Frank Gore was among the players who threw their helmets in disgust, but Nolan continued to praise his players' passion, saying they show nobody has given up on the season.
``I don't think throwing a helmet has ever been construed as quitting,'' Nolan said. ``If I threw my helmet, I would be frustrated. I wouldn't be thinking I just quit. We don't have a quitting football team. We have too much character for that. Our issue is poor performance.''

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