SAN FRANCISCO

To appreciate fully the fourth quarter of Sunday's 49ers-Eagles game, you had to be there to smell it. Until someone invents scratch-and-sniff newsprint, this will have to do:

The 49ers gave up 23 unanswered points, transforming a 26-17 lead into a 40-26 defeat. Their offense made one first down, lost 2 yards, suffered its only three sacks and committed its only three turnovers.

If you're the look-back-in-anger type, this was the deluxe recrimination platter, from the tight-end-around on which Delanie Walker lost 10 yards; to the timeout that had to be burned after the 49ers wasted the play clock with a formation-shifting fire drill; to the 55-yard interception return for a touchdown that put the exclamation point on, well, let's take a thumbs-up, thumbs-down poll:

The worst fourth quarter the 49ers have known at home since they blew a 15-point lead to Dallas in the 1972 Preston Riley playoff game nearly 36 years ago?

But the most troubling aspect of Sunday's tent-folding may have been the thing that had the least impact on the final outcome. Halfway through the fourth quarter, head coach Mike Nolan challenged a 38-yard field goal by David Akers that gave Philadelphia a 27-26 lead.

It seemed a desperate act at the time, given that a) there was no visual evidence to suggest the officials had missed the call, and b) it cost the 49ers a timeout they would clearly need later.

It seemed almost unfathomable afterward when Nolan seemed uncertain why he had thrown the red flag or what he had hoped to accomplish.


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And here we pause for a reset: Nolan barely kept his job after the 49ers struggled to a 5-11 record last season. Sunday's loss, their third in a row, dropped them to 2-4. He absolutely is coaching for his job. His wisdom, his judgment, his leadership are all under scrutiny, and rightfully so.

More background: Field goal attempts were made reviewable before this season, a direct result of a fluky kick last year that glanced off the upright, hit the support pole behind the crossbar, and bounced backward into the end zone.

But conventional kicks are reviewable too, at least those that pass below the top of the uprights. Those that pass above the top of the uprights, as Akers' kick did, are at the discretion of the officials.

So why did Nolan throw the flag?

"They have to make a signal at some point that says it's above the (upright) or not," he said. "Because as it is, I challenged it not knowing that it's above or below. What I'm saying is, I feel I can challenge, then I threw the red flag. I asked them, 'Is it challengeable?' and (referee Ron Winter) said, 'It really doesn't matter now that you threw the red flag.'"‰"

Winter could have allowed Nolan to pick up his flag without charging him a timeout. It's been done before. Instead, he checked the video and upheld the ruling on the field.

"The way it's set up right now," Nolan said, "it's all fine and dandy. Basically what they can challenge is if you got a situation like last year. Otherwise, it's really ineffective."

So again, why challenge the call?

The above is an abridged transcript of Nolan's comments, by the way, and it doesn't do his postgame Q&A justice. It's possible the thoughts made sense inside his head, but as they came flying out his mouth at 800 mph, they sounded like a man trying to defend himself against the indefensible.

He gambled a timeout on a long shot. Later, he had trouble explaining both his action and the rule. There were times when he almost seemed to babble — as when asked what made him believe the 49ers could turn their season around.

"We can move the ball, we can run, we can throw, we can do all that," he said. "I think we've changed the problem. We've got to get our defense back on track. Special teams are still good. And that's why I believe in the squad."

That makes him a member of a very small club. And getting smaller all the time.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.