49ers Nolan Grows As Man. . . and Coach
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 29, 2005

AFTER THE 49ers’ overtime win on Friday night, coach Mike Nolan talked about how the team had fought through adversity with the reaction to the death of reserve offensive lineman Thomas Herrion.

Nolan, too. He grew as a man during that week, and I think it will help him grow as a coach.

There’s a sharp differentiation between the head coach and position coaches on a pro football team. The position coaches get very close to their players because they’re dealing with a small number.

The late Bobb McKittrick, the best offensive line coach I’ve observed, had no ambitions to move up to even a coordinator role because he relished that closeness. Once, he got an offer from the Rams, then based in Los Angeles, to be their offensive coordinator. McKittrick went to 49er club president Carmen Policy and said he had to watch out for his family and the increased salary for the coordinator job was tempting, but he really wanted to stay as the Niners offensive line coach, if he got a boost in salary. That was a no-brainer for Policy, so McKittrick stayed.

Head coaches don't get close to players because they’re dealing with so many more players, and, they're the ones who decide who stays on the team and who goes, as well as who starts. They have to keep an emotional distance from the players. Nolan has admitted he knew very little about Herrion, a marginal player who had briefly been on the Cowboys practice squad the year before and might have been no better than that with the 49ers this season.

But Herrion’s death hit Nolan hard. The first-year head coach is very organized. That shows in his practice, and it shows in the way he deals with the media. He jots down notes while watching practice and he reads them off to reporters when they approach him after practice. On Wednesday, four days after Herrion’s death, he had not yet gotten back to his notes; he just asked reporters if there were questions.

All week long, the talk had been about how the players would adjust to Herrion’s death in the Friday night game. As it happened, the players adjusted well, channeling their emotion into aggressive play.

Nolan adjusted well, too. By the end of the game, he was programmed again. When he greeted the media, he had the perfect sound bite: “The players had Thomas in their hearts but not in their minds. They didn’t allow themselves to be distracted.”

THERE WERE other encouraging signs in this game, the most important of the exhibition season because it’s the only one in which starters play into the second half. (In their final exhibition Thursday night, the starters will play only a couple of series, because Nolan wants to keep them healthy for the regular season.)

The first string defense played very well. It’s clear to anybody watching this team that whatever success the 49ers have will come from the defense. The only hope for the offense is that it doesn’t screw up with turnovers. Tim Rattay is a backup currently masquerading as a starter, he has a suspect offensive line in front of him and he has no go-to receiver. Brandon Lloyd makes some spectacular catches and Arnaz Battle should have a good year, but both are better as complementary receivers, not the main one.

Rattay had a mediocre night against the Titans, but he didn’t throw any interceptions, which was the key. Meanwhile, the defensive starters played aggressively and well, holding the Titans to a field goal while they were in there.

Last year, when Dennis Erickson was the head coach, the 49ers tried briefly to install the 3-4 defense, but it was such a disaster that they gave up on it. “I wasn’t signed in camp last year,” Julian Peterson pointed out Friday night. “This year, we’re all here, and we’re enthusiastic about this defense. We’re very comfortable with it now.”

The other encouraging sign came in overtime, when Alex Smith looked like a quarterback for the first time in his brief 49er career. When he first came into the game, Smith took a couple of sacks and he appeared as rattled as he had in his first couple of games, throwing too quickly and wildly. Boos were heard from the sparse crowd. (I wouldn’t read that as dissatisfaction by season ticket holders because I think that many in the crowd got their tickets from family or friends who don’t want any part of the exhibition season.)

Finally, on the drive that led to the winning touchdown, Smith seemed to get settled into place, throwing a couple of nice passes that, combined with a strong running game, got the 49ers into position for a short field goal by Joe Nedney.

But the most encouraging sign was the way Nolan handled the unexpected adversity of Herrion’s death.

FROM THE start, I’ve been impressed with the way Nolan has handled his job, and last week was a prime example. He gave his players a chance to grieve, privately or in meetings, without trying to pretend nothing had changed. He limited media access to the players; usually, we’re allowed to roam through the dressing room after practice, talking to whomever we want, but last week, the locker room was closed while players were brought out for specific interviews.

Now, I think, the 49ers will be able to put that tragedy behind them and concentrate on improvement for the next season.

A coach can only do so much. Bill Walsh was 2-14 his first year because he had a terrible team. Nolan has better talent with this team than Walsh had with the 1979 team, but it’s still a team that went 2-14 last season. Expecting an immediate turnaround is unrealistic.

Even in his first year, when the results were bad, Walsh was putting in a system and structure that would produce future success. Nolan is trying to do the same. He spoke Friday night of having the right structure and then adding the right players.

The 49ers simply don’t have enough good players, especially on offense, right now, but they have the right coach and the right structure. Success will come. . . just not this year.


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