49er Players Have Given Up On Nolan
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 25, 2005

YOU CAN’T solve a problem before admitting that it exists. That’s the situation for 49ers coach Mike Nolan.

After the crushing defeat by the Washington Redskins on Sunday, when the 49ers yielded the fourth most points of any game in their history, Nolan told the media that he hasn’t given up his goal of winning the NFC West. The players have, though, and they’ve given up on Nolan, too.

Coming off a bye week and a good defensive effort against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts, the 49ers should have been energized. Instead, they showed a conspicuous lack of effort, which showed primarily on defense, with the missed tackles and blown assignments that are typical of a team playing without focus. Nolan has lost his team, and the process started weeks earlier.

When the story of this season is written, the pivotal events will be those in the immediate wake of the loss to Dallas in the third game of the season.

First, there was Nolan’s postgame rant about “trust” and players not buying into his system. In fact, there was nothing wrong with the 49ers effort that day, as they very nearly beat a superior Dallas team. Nolan’s rant planted a seed of doubt in the minds of players who had been solidly behind him to that point.

He followed that up by saying linebacker Jamie Winborn would be released or traded (Winborn was eventually traded to Jacksonville for a seventh-round draft pick next year), though Winborn was one of the team’s best playmakers.

Nolan has never adequately explained what happened with Winborn. Those around the team think he was unhappy because Winborn did too much free lancing. If so, there was a better way to handle it. Redskins coaches were unhappy with LaVar Arrington’s failure to play within the system, so he was benched at the start of the season. When he showed he could play a team game, he was restored to the starting lineup and had a great game against the Niners. Nolan could have made his point the same way with Winborn, and he wouldn’t have given away a talented player.

The “my way or the highway” approach works for a coach like Bill Parcells, who has a long record of success, but Nolan is only a rookie head coach. He’s always been on trial with his players, who were waiting to see how he would react to adversity. Right now, he’s failing the test.

NOLAN’S UNREALISTIC goal has also led to a serious mistake with his offensive line, picking up offensive tackle Anthony Clement off the waiver wire and playing him for the still-injured Jonas Jennings.

He should have given a shot to third-round draft pick Adam Snyder, who was Pac-10 offensive lineman of the year at Oregon for the 2004 season. Snyder would have made mistakes, of course, but he also would have learned from them. All Clement can learn is what was already clear: He’s not very good. With Kwame Harris, he gives the 49ers one of the worst offensive tackle combinations in NFL history.

(Parenthetically, Harris also shows the flaws in using computers to make draft picks. He has the size and intelligence to be outstanding, but he doesn’t have the quick feet a tackle needs to pass protect. That’s something that doesn’t show up on the computer, but the 49ers are still relying heavily on the computer in their scouting, so we can anticipate similar mistakes in the future.)

Nolan has made Alex Smith the starter, trading Tim Rattay to get him out of the way, and that’s a good move, though it’s tough on Smith, with an inadequate line in front of him and limited offensive weapons.

I’m already hearing from 49er fans who think Smith is a bust, after just two regular season starts. Give him a chance. Peyton Manning was only 3-13 as a rookie, despite the fact that he’d played four years in a pro-type T formation against top-level competition at Tennessee – and had Archie Manning as a father. Smith has none of those advantages.

It’s impossible to predict how well Smith will do in his career, but his only chance is to keep playing and learning. He wasn’t going to learn the speed of the pro game on the sidelines. Smith has the ability and the temperament – please, no more Ryan Leaf comparisons – to be successful in time, but he also needs a stronger team around him. The 49ers had two Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young, during their dynasty years, but neither Montana nor Young could have won with this team.

FOR NOW, no matter how much nonsense he talks to the media, Nolan has to be honest with his team. He has to tell them they’re all auditioning for jobs next season and beyond. He has to make every effort to get playing time for rookies, especially Snyder, fellow offensive lineman David Baas and running back Frank Gore, to get an idea how much they can help in the future.

He also has to be looking forward to the draft. At this point, it seems that the 49ers and Houston Texans will be playing for the No. 1 draft pick in the final game, on New Year’s Day. If the 49ers again have the No. 1 pick, it will be much more valuable than last year’s, which Nolan could not trade. Reggie Bush is the current flavor of the month, supplanting Matt Leinart, who would have been the unquestioned No. 1 if he’d come out this year. There are undoubtedly teams which will give up extra draft picks for a shot at Bush.

In the meantime, Nolan has to remember that honesty is the best policy, at least with his players. The goal is not to win the NFC West this season – that train left the station weeks ago – but to build a team which can win the division and more in the future.

49ER NEWS: For the most complete look at the 49ers, visit www.49ersparadise.com. Bryan Hersh does a superb job of compiling all that’s written on the Niners.

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