Andre Carter has been limping for most of the season, bothered by foot injuries that have stopped him from rushing the passer with his usual abandon for the Washington Redskins.
Yet he'll have a spring in his step Sunday, despite the Redskins' elimination from the playoff chase, when he takes the field at Candlestick Park -- a place that still feels like home.
The Bay Area native, California graduate and former 49ers defensive end returns to San Francisco for the Redskins' finale with no chance at a playoff berth and an uncertain future in Washington. That hasn't affected his desire to make one more lasting memory at home.
"I always miss the Bay," Carter said. "There's no place like California. I have my residence out there. That's heaven for me, compared to this weather (in Washington)."
Carter was Bill Walsh's final first-round draft pick for the 49ers in 2001, but he left the club as a free agent following the 2005 season. He never won over fired coach Mike Nolan, the former Redskins defensive coordinator who attempted to turn the prototypical 6-foot-4 pass-rushing defensive end into a linebacker.
"It just wasn't me," Carter said. "I held my own to a certain degree, but all that I've ever known was to put my hand in the dirt and go. Of course, I had no hands, too, but I blame my father (former NFL player Rubin Carter) for that one. I didn't play catch with my dad, so that in itself was trippy."
Carter's sack totals are down precipitously, from 10Â½ last season to just three this year. That's a surprise to San Francisco interim coach Mike Singletary, who was in charge of attempting to turn Carter into a linebacker. He acknowledges the experiment's failure even while praising Carter's work ethic, calling him "the consummate pro."
"After he had made the decision (to sign with Washington), I remember sitting down and spending some time with him," Singletary said. "He didn't want to go. He wanted to stay here, but it just didn't work out."
That's been the story of both teams' seasons heading into their finale. Both have been eliminated from playoff contention, the Redskins by a late-season slide and the 49ers by their early-season woes that led to Nolan's firing.
Washington (8-7) had lost five of six before last week's win over Philadelphia, while San Francisco (6-9) extended its second-half surge with a comeback victory over St. Louis. While the 49ers might be on a better roll with four wins in six games, both clubs' first-year coaches hope a final victory will guarantee their job security, even though both seem likely to build on their achievements next fall.
Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president of football operations, recently said coach Jim Zorn would return next year. The 49ers have implicitly made it known they're only waiting until after the season to offer a multiyear contract to Singletary, who's 4-4 since relieving Nolan.
Both coaches are fairly pleased with their first chances to lead an NFL team. Zorn no longer feels like the worst coach in America.
"I don't have a lot of things that I have to redo or rethink," Zorn said. "They're just minor things. I've got to figure out why and how ... we've gone through this season without scoring as much as I feel like we should. There's a reason for that, but that's a long, offseason scheme evaluation and study."
Washington's offensive struggles could be a problem against the 49ers, whose defense has been remarkably good since shortly after Singletary took over. Its play is a big reason San Francisco has a shot at a 7-9 finish -- which would match the franchise's best total during its club-record six consecutive losing seasons -- after starting 2-7.
Although quarterback Shaun Hill gets most of the credit for the late-season turnaround, San Francisco has allowed fewer than 17 points in all but one of its games since early November. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin has suddenly emerged as a force after struggling through his first 1Â½ seasons with the Niners, while linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes have been a devastating duo.
"We feel like we're playing at a different level, and we want to take that into next season with a win this week," said Willis, a Pro Bowl selection and the NFL's third-leading tackler. "Everything is really clicking for us right now, and you can see that on the scoreboard with the few points we're giving up."
While Carter gets a homecoming, the game also could be a reunion for two running backs who have been close friends since their season together at the University of Miami. Clinton Portis was a surrogate older brother to San Francisco's Frank Gore, loaning his car and a few bucks to Gore when the freshman needed some help.
"He was good to me," said Gore, who hoped to get together with Portis before the game -- perhaps to watch the Hurricanes in Saturday's Emerald Bowl. "When you're a young player, sometimes the (upperclassmen) won't help you out, but he was different."
The Washington Redskins play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, starting at 4:15 p.m. EST.