Nolan Learning On the Job
by Glenn Dickey
Nov 17, 2005

THIS 49ER SEASON is important both for the education of rookie head coach Mike Nolan and the improvement of young players, and there has been positive news on both fronts this week.

Nolan announced yesterday that Adam Snyder, the teamís No. 3 draft pick, will start at left tackle, replacing Anthony Clement. Snyder started at guard last Sunday, as Jeremey Newberry sat out the game and Eric Heitman was moved to center. He apparently did fine there. Tackle is much more challenging, because a tackle gets less blocking help, but thatís the position Snyder played at Oregon last fall, when he was the Pac-10 offensive lineman of the year.

The 49er coach also said that David Baas, the No. 2 pick, would be playing more, adding that they had to get a look at their young players to see what they can do. Exactly right.

Next year, Baas will probably be the starting center. Newberry is a courageous player and heís been a very good one, but heís playing without cartilage in one knee and bad shoulders. Heís already looking at a knee replacement in his future, and if he doesnít call it quits soon, heíll have as many post-career problems as Jim Otto.

Itís uncertain whether Snyderís future will be at tackle or guard, but itís time for the Niners to get an idea how well he can play at tackle, because thatís a more difficult hole to fill. If he can do the job there, it lessens the pressure on the team to get a good tackle in the draft next spring.

Right now, the only NFL-calibre tackle the 49ers have among the veterans on their roster is Jonas Jennings, and heís out for the year with a shoulder injury. Clement is totally inadequate. Kwame Harris was moved from left tackle, the more difficult one because the best pass rushing defensive ends are generally lined up on that side, but heís not doing the job at right tackle, either. Harris is a good run blocker, but he is weak in pass protection.

Because of the poor tackle play, Nolan and offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy have faced a dilemna with their tight ends: Should they play a blocking tight end or one who was a pass catching threat? Though I thought earlier that they should use Trent Smith more because of his receiving ability (notwithstanding his drop when he was wide open on a pass down the middle two games ago), I can understand the decision to release him and bring in another blocking tight end. Even with the extra blocking help, the Niners have had trouble keeping quarterbacks healthy. I shudder to think what it would be like without that blocking.

Though other positions are more glamorous, it all starts with the offensive line. When the late Bobb McKittrick was with the Niners, he was not only a great offensive line coach but had a clear vision of the type of linemen he could work with, often undersized but very quick.

Iím not sure the 49ers have a specific model for their linemen any more, but at least, they've realized their problem, drafting two offensive linemen in the second and third rounds last spring and now letting them play.

THE OFFENSIVE line has been especially challenged because of the muddled quarterback picture. McCarthy has tried to emphasize running because of the inexperience of his quarterbacks, but opposing defenses know that and put eight defenders at or near the line of scrimmage.

It wonít get better this week against the Seattle Seahawks, with Ken Dorsey back as the starter. Dorsey is the most experienced of the group, but heís also the least mobile. His performance in his one start, though it was a win over the Tampa Bay Bucs, was not encouraging, 7 of 18 for 40 yards. He avoided interceptions, which was good, but it was the defense that won that game, holding the Bucs to a single touchdown. Dorsey wonít get that kind of defensive support against the Seahawks, who are playing very well.

Fan favorite Cody Pickett is back to No. 3 after two starts, the second a disastrous 1-for-13 effort in an incredible wind in Chicago last week. That kind of wind can be daunting for even veteran quarterbacks Ė ask Joe Montana, who was just 9-for-23 for 125 yards in an AFC Championship game in Buffalo after the 1993 season Ė and it was devastating for Pickett. He may never get another chance to prove himself. Itís unfair, but thatís the reality.

Money talks, and thatís why Alex Smith will be back as the starter as soon as heís healthy. The 49ers already have $24 million invested in him. They arenít just going to wave that goodbye without giving Smith every opportunity to prove himself. As a seventh-round pick, Pickett came cheaply, and heís expendable. His only chance was to show that he was clearly the best choice for the 49ers.

This is a very difficult situation for Nolan. He has three inexperienced quarterbacks, an offensive line that has problems and no real go-to receiver. It hasnít helped that Arnaz Battle has been injured, either.

Nolan has handled the situation the best he could. He knew he had to trade Tim Rattay because he was not part of the 49ers future and would only impede Smithís progress. Iím sure he regards Dorsey as no better than a backup, but Dorsey needs playing time to prepare for that role, too.

So, after Sundayís game, it will be Smithís team again. Nobody knows how long it will take him to become an NFL-calibre quarterback, or if he has a chance to be a standout at the position, but heíll get the opportunity.

THE PROBLEMS Nolan has encountered have caused him to scale down his expectations, but thatís a good sign, too. Now, he can work to make the most of his situation, instead of dealing in fantasy.

Having goals is good, but announcing a goal of winning the NFC West was unrealistic. This year has always been about building a foundation for winning teams in the future. His comments this week about getting young players into the lineup are the best indication that Nolan finally gets that.

E-MAILS: The combination of a torrent of response to my Monday column on Joe Ayoob and the Big Game functions Iíve attended this week have slowed my answering of e-mails, but I will be updating ďLettersĒ with new ones by late afternoon today.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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