SANTA CLARA -- Inasmuch as the most consistent factor in the 49ers' back-to-back trips to the NFC Championship game is their defense, the man who laid the blueprint deserves a measure of appreciation for a job well done.
Even if that man now is the defensive coordinator in Atlanta and stands between San Francisco and its first Super Bowl appearance in 18 years.
Defensive tackle Justin Smith, the pillar of the defense, will extend a hand toward Mike Nolan, who as 49ers head coach was influential in Smith's decision to sign with the team upon becoming a free agent in 2008.
"I'll definitely go over and say 'Hi,' to him if I see him," Smith said, referring to the NFC Championship game against the Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Though only a handful of 49ers remain from Nolan's tenure, which lasted from 2005 until he was fired seven games into the 2008 season, it's a very distinguished handful.
Five of San Francisco's 2012 Pro Bowl selections came to the franchise while Nolan was the chief shot-caller. Two of the five, running back Frank Gore and left tackle Joe Staley, are on offense, while the other three -- free safety Dashon Goldson, linebacker Patrick Willis and Smith -- represent the spine of the defense and are the three most indispensable members of the unit.
The 49ers would not be the team they are -- and Jim Harbaugh would not be the coach he has been -- without taking advantage of Nolan's work as
Along with former vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan, Nolan sought to assemble a roster with high-character individuals who grasped the team concept. Quarterback Alex Smith, Nolan's hand-picked franchise quarterback, was the first man they drafted. Gore was their third pick in 2005. Tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker were added in the 2006 draft.
The '07 draft, however, is where the defense began to take shape. Willis was taken in the first-round (with Staley coming later in the same round), and defensive lineman Ray McDonald, cornerback Tarell Brown and Goldson came later in that same draft.
It was enough, almost, to offset the 2008 draft, which was a complete bust aside from linebacker and special teams ace Larry Grant, who was taken in the seventh round.
Such talented defensive personnel was another factor that convinced Justin Smith, who had spent seven seasons in Cincinnati, to cancel his other visits and join the 49ers.
"I liked the defensive talent they had at the time, and I just wanted to be a piece of that," said Smith, who signed a six-year contract worth as much as $45 million, with $20 million in guarantees. "I liked the stuff (Nolan) was doing, scheme-wise and how he was talking about using me. He was a defensive-minded coach. I thought it was a good fit."
Well, it was. It just took a few years -- and a couple coaching changes.
"I do know that most of the pieces that (Nolan) had are still here, which means that somebody knew what they were doing,'' said strong safety Donte Whitner, who didn't arrive in San Francisco until he became a free agent in 2011.
"But maybe he didn't know how to complete it."
That's the rub. Nolan surely had a sharp eye for talent but too often was blind to his role in developing a full roster and deaf to the tone of the locker room. His record in San Francisco (18-37) is partly the result of having to rebuild the roster but surely reflective of constant instability on offense.
Nolan was a career defensive coach hired to rebuild a roster, reshape the entire franchise. Handed broad powers by owner's representative John York, Nolan most notably mishandled Alex Smith and lacked the vision required to conceive and achieve big-picture aspirations.
Nolan was an outstanding position coach, a specialist, who upon achieving a greater goal was victimized by the Peter Principle. In taking over the full football operation of the 49ers, Nolan had reached his level of incompetence.
In the years since being dismissed in San Francisco, Nolan has returned to his specialty. He's devising defenses and identifying players who best fit his schemes, which are widely respected.
"It's a task and a challenge to understand what they are doing schematically,'' Harbaugh said.
"Their defense is pretty good down there, and he's a big part of that," Justin Smith said. "He's really smart, schematically. He knows matchups and puts his guys in the right position to make plays, which is one of the reasons that drew me to this team."
Nolan has good reason to be proud, and he said as much to reporters in Atlanta. He likely knows where he failed, but he can see where he succeeded.
All he has to do is look across the field on Sunday. He'll see familiar faces. He'll see the fruits of his labor. He'll see proof that his time in San Francisco was not a complete failure.