New Energy for the 49ers
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 03, 2005

MIKE NOLAN has brought a new enthusiasm to the 49ers but even he cautions about making too much of that. When I congratulated him about the spirit of the team after a practice this week, he grinned wryly and said, “Yeah, that’s worth about one touchdown.’’

It’s certainly true that energy isn’t enough. Players have to have the skill to do the job. But it starts with energy and the 49ers have it this year, both in their players and in the coaching staff.

Last year, head coach Dennis Erickson’s assistants were mainly his friends, and they had lost their edge. The players certainly realized it. “I had players tell me they basically coached themselves last year,” said Mike Shumann, who has seen a lot of football practices as a player (Florida State, 49ers) and now as a sportscaster for KGO-TV.

This year, Nolan has put together a strong staff, with Mike McCarthy (offense) and Billy Davis (defense) as his coordinators, and one special coach: Mike Singletary with the linebackers.

The players have responded. Nolan put out a questionnaire with two questions: How can the coaches help you and how can you help them? He said the players all said they wanted the coaches to work them hard, to keep on them. “They want discipline,” he said. “That’s what you want, players who want a coach working with them to improve. The ones who answer, ‘I just want to be left alone to do my thing’ are the ones who are on. . . well, when’s the first cut?”

That answer is an example of how Nolan works with the media, using a little bit of humor in the middle of straight conversation. He is as candid as he can be without giving away anything. Some questions can’t be answered. Everybody in the media wants to know whether Alex Smith will start the first exhibition game but that depends on his progress in practice, which can’t be predicted, so Nolan just tells reporters he isn’t ready to make that decision yet.

IN MY EXPERIENCE, the coordinators who move up to be successful head coaches are the ones who have been planning what to do in that job for years. Jeff Tedford was that way, certainly, and Nolan reminds me of Tedford in the way he has organized everything from practice to meetings. There is no lost time.

Nolan has also given a lot of thought to how he wants players to visualize him. He hasn’t yet gone into a meeting with the defense, for instance, but he always goes to the offensive meetings – for a specific reason. “I know that, if I go into a meeting with the defense, they’ll listen to me because of my reputation,’’ he said, “but I don’t want players to think I’m running the defense; Billy Davis is. On the other hand, I want the offensive players to get used to seeing me because, if I just go in now and then, they’ll disregard what I say because they think I’m just a defensive guy.”

That’s the flip side of how Bill Walsh handled the job. Walsh would talk to defensive coordinator George Seifert to get some specifics and then go in to the defensive meeting and talk to players about the game ahead. He wanted the players to think of him as the team’s coach, not the offensive specialist.

Walsh was, of course, his own offensive coordinator. Nolan will be less hands on. “I’ll let the coordinators do their job,” he said. “I know there are coaches (including Walsh) who have won Super Bowls by being their own coordinators, but I don’t think that’s the best way for me.”

NOLAN GREW UP around the 49ers when his father, Dick, was the coach, and he reminded the players of the team’s great tradition earlier this week with videos going back to the Y. A. Tittle days and including the championship years of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“It’s not living in the past,” he said, “because I’ve said all along we have to build our own tradition, but I wanted the players to see what had gone before. Not many of them know about that; BY (Bryant Young) is the only player left from the last Super Bowl team.

“They had a great thing going here because the players from one team would build a bridge to the next. We don’t have that bridge now, so we have to work to establish our style.”

One way to build that bridge is by having veteran players who can provide an example, by their play and/or words, to young players, but the 49ers have very few in that category. Young, of course, and Nolan mentioned Johnnie Morton as a player who could help young receivers – as Morton has said in interviews that he will. “I think Julian Peterson could be a great example for a young linebacker,” he said, “but we don’t really have any.” Linebacking is the one group that has talented veterans, which is why the Niners will be working with the 3-4 this year.

So, Nolan will have to build his tradition with younger players. He’s been realistic about that. Before the draft, he noted that, “If this team hadn’t gone 2-14 last year, I wouldn’t be sitting here.” New coaches seldom come to winning teams. Walsh inherited a 2-14 team, too, and had another 2-14 season before he turned it around.

Nolan knows it all starts with the quarterback, which is why he’s giving Smith most of the snaps in practice so far. Like all coaches, he says things about competition at every position, but he knows the 49ers aren’t going anywhere with Tim Rattay at quarterback. Smith is the future, and the sooner he can become the present, the better.

THERE WAS a feeling of déjà vu for me this week as I thought of the first time I talked with Nolan’s dad, in August, 1969. I was covering a 49ers exhibition game in Anaheim and I got a chance to talk to Dick Nolan one-on-one. He was never good at mass interviews, but the force of his personality came through in individual meetings, and I was convinced he’d build a good team, as I wrote after that meeting.

It didn’t happen that year, when the Niners were 4-8-2, but as the good players arrived and Nolan’s philosophy took hold, the 49ers made three straight trips to the postseason.

Notice the “good players” part of that last sentence. Mike Nolan continually emphasizes the need for good players and I think it will take three solid drafts, including the last one (which can’t be properly evaluated yet) for the 49ers to be a top level team. Right now, 49er fans can only hope – but they should know they have the right coach.

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