What Did Nolan Mean?
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 26, 2005

MIKE NOLAN hit the reality wall yesterday,, and he didn’t like what he saw.

Through the spring and summer, Nolan had repeatedly emphasized the obvious when talking to the media: that you don’t turn a 2-14 team around overnight. Inside, though, his heart was telling him that he could make a difference, that he could instill a spirit in the team that would change their pattern.

He’s certainly instilled that spirt, and he’s put in the right structure for future success, but a coach can only do so much without the players. The harsh truth is that the 49ers will be underdogs, deservedly, for almost all their games this season. Everything has to go right for them to win. It did in their opener, when they upset the Rams. It almost did yesterday, when they led until the final two minutes before the Cowboys pulled out the win.

The loss stung Nolan more than the crushing defeat to the much superior Philadelphia Eagles in week 2. Afterwards, he talked of “trust” and implied that some players weren’t buying into his system and, instead of following the plays that were drawn up, were free lancing, resulting in big plays by the Cowboys.

I doubt that. Perhaps Nolan and his assistants will look at the game videos today and see what he thought he saw from the sidelines yesterday, but watching from a better spot – in the press box, with better sightlines and access to television replays – what I saw were simple breakdowns, a lack of execution. And, yes, better players wearing the Dallas uniforms.

From what I’ve seen, in practice and in the locker room, the players have definitely bought into Nolan’s system. In off-the-record conversations, they’ll make comparisons between the lack of coaching, at the top level and among the assistants, last year, and the hands on approach of Nolan and his assistants. On teams with bad coaching, there are always players who voice their dissatisfaction to the media, either on or off-the-record, but that’s not happening with this team.

Nolan has made it plain that he will play those who are doing the job. A salary cap issue has kept Rashaun Woods, the No. 1 pick in 2004, on the roster, but he’s not been active for the first three games because he hasn’t shown enough in practice to deserve that. Undrafted free agent Otis Amey impressed in practice, so he’s active and contributing.

Because the players respect Nolan, they weren’t upset by his postgame comments, but he has to be careful with this because a coach who makes empty threats quickly loses his credibility with the players. If he spots something on the game video that supports his contention that players were free lancing, he needs to point that out to players and, if necessary, release a player or make him inactive. If he doesn’t, he needs to tell the team that he was wrong, and they need to move forward by working on correcting the physical mistakes.

THERE ARE certainly many things to work on this week, as the Niners prepare to play the Arizona Cardinals in Mexico City, an NFL decision exceeded in stupidity only by baseball’s decision to have the Yankees and Seattle open their season in Tokyo.

The breakdowns in pass coverage Sunday were appalling. In their opener, the 49ers pass defense against the talented Rams receivers was superb, so tight that the defensive line and linebackers often got “cover sacks,” in which quarterback Marc Bulger had time to throw but couldn’t find an open receiver before he was sacked.

Yesterday, it was just the opposite as Drew Bledsoe repeatedly found receivers wide open in the secondary, including a 44-yard completion to Terry Glenn in the fourth quarter that was the big play on the winning touchdown drive. Tony Parrish, who had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, seemed to be the only 49er defensive back who played well.

Part of the problem was the lack of a consistent pass rush. Bledsoe, who’s hardly Donovan McNabb when it comes to evading a pass rush, was sacked only twice in 50 pass plays. The truth is that, except for Bryant Young in the first game, the 49ers haven’t gotten a consistent pass rush from anybody. Their sacks have usually come on blitzes. The argument against blitzing more is that it puts your cornerbacks in single coverage, but when the 49ers corners are getting burned so consistently in conventional defenses, what do they have to lose?

For the first three quarters yesterday, I thought Tim Rattay played his best game as a 49er, throwing well and even running well when he scrambled, 21 yards in four carries. Then, in the fourth quarter, he reverted to type, throwing two interceptions, one on a tipped ball.

A sequence at the end of the first half, in which the coaching staff has to share blame with Rattay, was even more damaging.

With under a minute to go, the 49ers were on the Dallas one. They used their last two timeouts on consecutive plays, which was the first mistake. They couldn’t call two plays in advance?

When Rattay fumbled the snap on third down, recovering his own fumble, there was still about 18 seconds left on the clock. From the sidelines, Nolan was signaling to Rattay to spike the ball to stop the clock for the field goal attempt. It didn’t seem that Rattay even looked in Nolan’s direction, but that’s what he did, n=anyway

With that much time left, why couldn’t Rattay have just taken a two-step drop, let it fly to a receiver, probably Brandon Lloyd, if he were open? If not, throw it out of the end zone.

The 49ers kicked the field goal. If they’d scored a touchdown instead, the last Dallas score would only have brought them with one point of the Niners, instead of putting them ahead by three. But the 49ers never gave themselves a chance to score that touchdown.

THE NFL IS a coach’s game, and it’s natural for coaches to think they can do more than they can.

Bill Walsh expected to do much better in his opening season than he did, not realizing how bad his team was, particularly on defense. Nolan has more talent than Walsh had that first year.

The record shows that Walsh’s first team was no better than the last team of the Joe Thomas era, 2-14, but that record doesn’t show that Walsh was putting in the structure for a winning team.

Nolan has to do the same. He has to understand that the wins will be few this year and he has to continue to build for a futue winner. Baseless claims about “mistrust” don’t help.

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