Nolan In Charge? Not a Good Idea
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 02, 2006

NOW, THE real work begins for the 49ers. The draft will get everybody’s attention, but re-signing free agents and even signing new ones is also important, and the most important question of all is, who will be in charge of all this?

If the answer to that question is Mike Nolan, as I think it will be, the 49ers will still be in trouble.

First, the draft. When it appeared that the 49ers might again have the first pick in the draft, my original thought was that it would be best to trade down and get an additional pick. Even before the Niners slid down to 6th/7th in the draft, I had decided that was wrong.

A winning team has to start with a nucleus of great players, with very good ones filling around them. Though it’s possible to get great players with lower picks – Joe Montana, after all, was taken with the first pick of the third round and his modern-day counterpart, Tom Brady, lasted until the sixth round – a team’s chances of getting a great player high in the first round are significantly higher.

If a team drafts well, it can pick up good players after the first round. The 49ers of the last two years are proof of that. In the most recent draft, for instance, the 49ers picked up Frank Gore, who should be their No. 1 running back next season, and offensive tackle Adam Snyder and guard David Baas, both of whom should be solid OL starters for years.

The much-maligned Terry Donahue regime drafted Justin Smiley, another solid offensive lineman, Shawntae Spencer, who has became an outstanding cornerback, defensive nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and punter Andy Lee – and signed Mike Adams as an undrafted free agent.

Without getting into specifics, because I haven’t gotten beyond Reggie Bush in any analysis of who will be available, the 49ers chief draft needs are: wide receiver, a pass rushing defensive end and a shutdown corner. They can only fill one of those needs with their first pick, so if an outstanding wide receiver is available at their slot, they should grab him.

Alex Smith is still a question mark, but he’s shown enough in spurts that the 49ers must give him every chance to succeed. They’ve made the offensive line changes they needed, and I think this group, with Jonas Jennings back and Kwame Harris benched, will be a good one. Their running game is solid. Now, Smith needs more receivers. That means a tight end who’s a good receiver, who should be available after the first round, because Eric Johnson’s return is not automatic, after he’s missed two seasons of the last three.

They need to re-sign kicker Joe Nedney; since Nedney wants to stay, that shouldn’t be a problem. Re-signing linebacker Derek Smith should be a priority. Some of Smith’s teammates think he might want to go elsewhere because he’s tired of playing on losing teams. Julian Peterson is probably gone. The Niners won’t franchise him again, and working a deal with his agent, Carl Poston, appears to be impossible.

They’ve re-signed Arnaz Battle. I think they should re-sign Brandon Lloyd, too, but once again, there are reports that he’s out of favor with the coaching staff. Join the crowd, Brandon.

WHO’S GOING to make these decisions? More and more, it seems like Nolan will be the one, which troubles me.

Owner John York didn’t hire a general manager to replace Donahue, and he shows no inclination to hire one now, apparently holding the spot open for his son, Jed.

That leaves Nolan, who is not reluctant to assume authority. He said late in the season that he wanted to re-organize the front office after the season, but I’d be surprised if that means bringing in somebody with vast NFL experience and giving him any real authority.

Nolan appears to be one of those men who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, a characteristic he shares with York. That first showed during the draft last year when he thought he could work a deal so that he could slide into Tampa Bay’s slot at No. 5 and take Aaron Rodgers, while getting an extra pick from the Bucs so they could go to No. 1. In the NFL, it’s very important to have somebody in the front office who knows people around the league. Bill Walsh had John McVay. Nolan had only Scot McCloughan, a good talent evaluator but too young to have contacts. McVay could have told Nolan that he had no chance to make that deal, but Nolan drafted Smith and then found out that the Bucs wanted Cadillac Williams all along.

That should have taught Nolan some humilty, but it didn’t. All season, he talked of players “buying into my system.” For some time, I wondered what this magical system was. Finally, I realized it was code for “players who don’t question me.”

In fact, Nolan’s judgment on players was faulty throughout the season. He traded linebacker Jamie Winborn, a big playmaker. He got Trent Smith off the waiver wire, a good move because Smith was the pass catching tight end the Niners needed, but then hardly played him and finally let him go. It took him forever to get Snyder into the lineup, though it was obvious that waiver-wire pickup Anthony Clement was a disaster. Now, he’s apparently at odds with Lloyd, and injured corner Ahmed Plummer is in his doghouse, too.

Meanwhile, his running backs coach, Bishop Harris, had a year-long feud with fullback Fred Beasley, a one-time Pro Bowl player, so Beasley hardly played and will now leave. Harris, as a Jets assistant, almost came to blows with head coach Herman Edwards last year.

There were some real positives with the coaching staff. The defensive secondary was hit with a series of devastating injuries, but secondary coach A. J. Christoff, in his first year in the pros, worked with mostly castoffs and got them to play reasonably well. He also deserves credit for Spencer’s improvement. Mike Singletary did a good job with a linebacking group that seemed to be constantly changing, and was no doubt instrumental in Brandon Moore’s improvement. Offensive line coach George Warhop brought his young group along nicely.

But I really question the overall schemes. There was much talk late in the season about how complex the 49ers schemes were, and how much better the team would play when the players learned those schemes. Give me a break. They’re not re-inventing the wheel here. There’s no evidence that the 49ers were bringing innovative changes to the game, either offensively or defensively. Successful coaches fit their systems to their players, not the other way around. The 49ers coordinators should have been giving their players systems that gave them the best chance to succeed. Defensively, Billy Davis did that reasonably well, but offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy didn’t.

ON THE PLUS side, the 49ers played hard even as the losses built up, and they won their final two games.

But, let’s be realistic about this. The 49ers had their second lowest point total since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, and gave up the third most points in that stretch. Their point differential of a minus 189 tied last year’s team for the worst record in that time.

The jury is still out on Mike Nolan. If he doesn’t get somebody in the front office who can fill in the gaps in his knowledge, if he doesn’t admit that he doesn’t have all the answers on the field, his chief legacy is likely to be a series of high draft picks for his successor.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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