SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Mike Nolan has the San Francisco 49ers on track for another fast finish in the regular season's final three games.
It's those first 13 games that Nolan hasn't figured out in three seasons with the club - and the coach knows that's why his job could be in jeopardy despite the 49ers' knack for big endings.
``I'd like to hear people say that year in and year out: 'They play well in December - along with September, October, November,''' Nolan said Monday.
Not this year.
San Francisco (5-10) beat the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21-19 on Sunday, rallying for the Niners' first win over a team with a winning record this season after the Bucs put in their reserves for the second half. Nolan didn't mention Tampa Bay's second-string approach Monday, preferring to focus on his players' unchanged effort in yet another lost season.
``I was very proud of the way our guys continued to play,'' Nolan said. ``They've played that way the whole year, but it's been evident the last few weeks what it does when you stay the course.''
For all of Nolan's failings in three seasons rebuilding the NFL's worst team from 2004, his clubs haven't quit on him. Heading into Sunday's finale at Cleveland, San Francisco is 6-2 in the final three weeks of Nolan's three seasons - but just 10-29 before that.
And this strong December isn't as impressive to Nolan, who has touted the last two finishes as reasons for optimism.
Nothing was expected from his previous two teams as Nolan rebuilt the roster from the mistakes of fired general manager Terry Donahue. This season's squad returned from a 7-9 record in 2006 with playoff aspirations, only to drop 10 of 11 games between a season-opening two-game winning streak and the current two-game run.
``This year we started out with a couple wins, and then we fell off the map,'' Nolan said. ``Without question, as far as our record goes, all of us in the organization feel that we've underachieved.''
The 49ers' strong finish has been led by quarterback Shaun Hill, the third-stringer who is unbeaten as a starter. Hill didn't play particularly well against the Buccaneers, going 11-of-24 for 123 yards and an interception, but threw three touchdown passes and kept the offense moving when it mattered.
``I had to double-check the pictures of their defense on the sidelines, because it felt like they had 13 guys out there,'' Hill said. ``We just didn't execute well. I missed a couple of throws and some reads.''
Some 49ers could get used to the idea of Hill as the club's long-term starter, though everything in San Francisco is strictly a short-term engagement at this point.
``I think there should be a competition,'' said tight end Vernon Davis, who had three catches for 30 yards and a score against Tampa Bay. ``There's got to be. You can't have that No. 1 guy sitting there and feeling comfortable. There's got to be some competition for every job.''
Nolan said Hill would be allowed to compete with Alex Smith for the starting job next season - that is, if Nolan returns and Hill re-signs with San Francisco as an unrestricted free agent. Much of the 49ers' future will be up in the air until owner John York - or his wife, Denise, or his oldest son, Jed - breaks the family's near-complete silence about the club's woes.
Most observers suspect Nolan will be given a fourth season to get the 49ers back into playoff contention, given the Yorks' public silence and strong private relationship with Nolan. But John York has pulled abrupt surprises before, most notably firing Steve Mariucci in early 2003, shortly after San Francisco's second straight playoff appearance.
``Nobody knows what anybody's future holds at this point,'' said Davis, who's had a prominent offensive role with Hill after being overlooked by Smith and Trent Dilfer for much of the season. ``When the season goes the way it went for us, nothing is for certain.''

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