SANTA CLARA -- The day after being dethroned as NFC champions wasn't an easy one for the 49ers.

"I don't think we can keep getting to this spot and just keep losing," tight end Vernon Davis said Monday in the wake of their 23-17, conference-finals loss at Seattle. "It's not fun, it's not good. It sucks. It's just tough."

A mix of sorrow, optimism and well wishes were strewed about the emptying locker room at their team facility as the offseason began.

For linebacker NaVorro Bowman and guard Mike Iupati, they moved slowly on crutches because of their respective knee and ankle injuries that will require long rehabilitations.

For most other players, they packed cardboard boxes at their locker. That included Colin Kaepernick, who took a box into the equipment room and did not return to address the waiting media.

For coach Jim Harbaugh, he told players in an 11 a.m. exit meeting their contributions were much appreciated and they should now go catch up with their families.

"He thanked us for an amazing year," cornerback Tarell Brown said. "We had a (heck) of a run, put up an amazing fight but fell short. He said he'd fight hard to keep this group together, and I think he will, but it's hard with the salary cap."

Brown is one of 10 veterans slated to become unrestricted free agents, a group also highlighted by wideout Anquan Boldin, safety Donte Whitner, kicker Phil Dawson, center Jonathan Goodwin and running back Anthony Dixon.


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Whitner, as do seemingly all, wants to re-sign, and he said general manager Trent Baalke "expressed that he wants me back."

"Since I got here it's been great," said Whitner, who arrived in 2011. "And I don't think this (loss) is heartbreaking. I played in Buffalo, New York, for five years. We're playing in the cold, and we're playing for nothing at the end of the year.

"Here we're playing for championships, each and every year. ... The majority of guys will be back next year, and you have a couple pieces that you need to bring back and then try to make another championship run. So that's what we're looking for."

Harbaugh has taken the 49ers to the NFC Championship game in all three years as coach, advancing only last year to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Baltimore Ravens.

"A lot of people didn't even expect us to get to this game with some of the adversity we faced," linebacker Aldon Smith said. "We grew as a team. We got better in areas, and we'll be stronger when next year comes around."

Smith and Kaepernick, the 49ers' top two draft picks in 2011, are now allowed to sign contract extensions at any time. They're heading into the final year of their rookie deals, with Smith slated to make $2.34 million and Kaepernick $973,766.

Also entering their final seasons under contract are wideout Michael Crabtree ($3.5 million) and running back Frank Gore ($3.3 million). Veterans whose hefty contracts will be mulled over are cornerback Carlos Rogers ($6.25 million), defensive tackle Justin Smith ($3.15 million) and wideout Jon Baldwin ($1.27 million).

"It's tough to keep teams together," Goodwin said. "You have windows of opportunities with certain players, so hopefully there are ways to work around that and keep guys here. ... You've got a special group of guys, and it would be nice to give guys another shot."

Leading that group is Harbaugh. CEO Jed York has expressed a desire to extend Harbaugh, who is three years into a five-year, $25 million pact.

Still under contract are all eight 49ers named to the Pro Bowl. Of those eight, only linebacker Ahmad Brooks plans to attend. The other seven are expected to sit out because of injuries and the wear of 19 games, the past four of which were on the road.

Safety Eric Reid is a Pro Bowl alternate, but he plans to head home to Louisiana. On Monday, he had trouble grasping how fast his rookie season went.

"I remember getting drafted like it was yesterday," Reid said. "I can't believe it's over."

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.

INSIDE

Kawakami: Loss cost Harbaugh, Kaepernick leverage in salary negotiations. PAGE 4
NaVorro Bowman suffered two torn ligaments in his left knee in Sunday's loss. PAGE 4


On a1

Those who know Richard Sherman (left) best shed light on his controversial comments.

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49ers have no complaints about officiating. WWW.MERCURYNEWS.COM/49ERS.