Mike Nolan Is No Bill Walsh
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 06, 2005

A NEW 49ER coach will inevitably be compared to Bill Walsh, which is unfair, because only a handful of coaches in NFL history have been in his class. But it does give us a measuring stick for Mike Nolan’s progress, and what we can see is not encouraging.

Both men inherited dismal teams, 2-14 the year before they arrived and with rosters depleted of talent by bad decisions by general managers Joe Thomas (the absolute worst) and Terry Donahue. But Walsh and Nolan approached the challenge quite differently.

Walsh constantly talked of making “incremental” improvement. Though his first team was also 2-14, he put in an offensive system which set club records and made the team much more exciting than its record. While some coaches think a loss is a loss, whatever the score, Walsh thought it was better to lose by a touchdown than 3-4 touchdowns, because that gave the players hope.

Nolan came in saying his goal was to win the NFC West this year. This week, he said it was realistic to say the division is weak enough that 9-7 could win it, and that it was realistic to say that, at 1-3, the 49ers were only one game out of first place in the division. But it is also realistic to say that the 49ers may not win another game this season; I can see only one game, their final one at home against Houston , when they might be favored. Goals are good, but when a coach sets one which is clearly unattainable, he risks breaking the spirit of his team.

Both men assumed total control of the franchise when they came in. When Walsh came in as coach, he was supposed to hire a general manager. He said later that the franchise was so down, nobody wanted to come to San Francisco, but he didn’t look very hard, either. He always wanted to call all the shots. Nolan made no pretense. At the news conference announcing his hiring, he said he would answer only to owner John York and everybody else would answer to him.

But Walsh surrounded himself with very good men. He had two former NFL head coaches – John McVay and John Ralston – in his front office, and respected scout Tony Razzano became his personnel man. (Tony’s son, David, is with the St. Louis Rams; the 49ers should have hired him away years ago, but they haven’t.) Nolan has only Scot McCloughan, in his first year as an NFL personnel chief, and a bunch of computer whizzes around him.

McVay and Walsh worked closely together, with Walsh identifying a course of action and McVay doing the grunt work to carry it out. One example came in 1981 when Walsh targeted Fred Dean as the pass rusher he needed for his defense and McVay worked to make the trade. Another came in the 1986 draft, when Walsh decided to trade down out of the first round to get additional draft picks and McVay made the phone calls which made it happen.

Without that kind of help, Nolan has struggled. He thought he could make a draft-day trade of Alex Smith, so he could pick up an extra draft pick and still be in position to draft Aaron Rodgers, but he couldn’t. He apparently wanted to pick up Trent Dilfer, who could have been the veteran quarterback he needed to play while Alex Smith was being prepared, but he wouldn’t give up a draft pick; a fourth rounder would have done it. Now, he’s stuck with the inadequate Tim Rattay as his veteran and has no choice but to rush Smith into the lineup.

He doesn’t seem to be learning, either. The Jamie Winborn move remains mind-boggling, the wrong decision at the wrong time. Giving up play-makers is never a good idea, and Nolan compounded his error by making the move at a time when it was impossible to get value for Winborn.

WALSH WAS his own offensive coordinator, but he picked very good coaches to help him plan and work with his quarterbacks – Sam Wyche, Paul Hackett and Mike Holmgren, all of whom became head coaches.

Walsh also turned over the running game to Bobb McKittrick, who was the best offensive line coach I’ve seen. Pat Morris, who succeeded McKittrick, was a solid coach, but the offensive line has deteriorated ever since McKittrick left, and it’s a disaster now.

After his fourth season, the strike year of 1982, when several players were caught up in cocaine abuse, Walsh threatened to retire. Many of us who were around the team at the time thought he wanted a couple of assistants to leave; Walsh never liked direct confrontations and didn’t want to fire them. One of those coaches was defensive coordinator Chuck Studley. When he left, Walsh elevated secondary coach George Seifert, and Seifert put in defensive schemes that were as brilliant as Walsh’s offensive game plans.

Head coaches delegate more now, so Nolan has two coordinators, Mike McCarthy on offense, Billy Davis on defense. McCarthy has an excellent reputation and showed some imagination in the opener, which the 49ers won, but there’s little he can do with the sad cast of offensive players he has. Davis seems to be a Nolan-clone, and his one big decision – to go with the 3-4 defense – was abandoned after the lopsided loss to Philadelphia in the second game. He’s not the second coming of Seifert.

Although he made some mistakes – trading the No. 2 pick in the draft in 1980 for two picks which became Jim Stuckey and Earl Cooper wasn’t exactly inspired – Walsh was usually very sure-handed with his player moves. Picking up Jack Reynolds before the 1981 season was one example; even Walsh’s associates thought Reynolds was through but his physical play and leadership were an inspiration to his younger teammates in that first Super Bowl year. Everybody knows how Walsh defied conventional wisdom to draft Jerry Rice in 1985. He was unerring in his decisions on when a player should retire; a couple of players resisted his advice and moved to other teams but didn’t do anything.

Nolan and his assistants have made some puzzling decisions. With Jonas Jennings out, the 49ers played waiver wire pickup Anthony Clement at left tackle, and I’ve never seen a worse performance. Why not play draft pick Adam Snyder, who was All-Pac-10 as a tackle at Oregon last year? Trent Smith has become a non-person, though he seems to have the size and speed to be the pass catching tight end the 49ers so desperately need. Kevan Barlow plays too much, rookie Frank Gore too little.

NEITHER MAN is thick-skinned. Walsh has always talked of slights and criticism, some of it real, some imagined. His story about the supposed newspaper series on what was wrong with the 49ers that had to be scrapped when the team started winning in 1981 is a lulu.

But Walsh never let criticism affect his coaching, as Nolan seems to be doing more and more. He’s gotten increasingly defensive, talking about how players are united behind him – after his rant about “trust” after the loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

More and more, too, he seems to be taking the “my way or the highway” approach with players. Walsh was that way, too, but he gained the respect of players early because he put in a system which put them in a position to win. That doesn’t seem to be happening with Nolan. By the end of the season, the comparison may be more with Dennis Erickson than Bill Walsh.


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