Mike Nolan: Pro and Con
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 18, 2006

MY CRITICISM of 49ers coach Mike Nolan has elicited considerable and spirited response, so I thought Iíd list some general points made by those who have disagreed with me and my response.

Q: The 49ers doubled their win total from the previous system. Why donít you give them credit for that?

A: Because the improvement was illusory. For teams at the bottom of the standings, the difference between winning and losing in a game is miniscule. The Houston Texans are an example. They finished with the worst record in the league, earning them the first draft pick, but they could have won at least two more games just by kicking a field goal when they needed one.

Meanwhile, the Niners set or tied franchise records for offensive ineptitude, and they tied a negative record for biggest point differential. Thatís not progress.

If you want to see real progress, check what Nick Saban did in his first year in Miami, improving the Dolphins from 4-9 to 9-7 and just missing the playoffs. In contrast, the 49ers are still among the bottom-feeders.

Q: Donít you think it was significant that Nolan had his players playing hard right through the last game of the season?

A: This is what teams with younger players do, because theyíre auditioning for jobs. Again, the Texans are an example: They played just as hard as the Niners in that last game, which went to overtime, and they were playing for a coach who they knew would be fired as soon as the season ended. Itís teams with older players who just mail in the games when theyíre out of contention. (See: Oakland Raiders.)

Q: Werenít you impressed with the way Nolan built up the offensive line through the draft?

A: Yes. He (or, more likely, Scot McCloughan) made two excellent picks in guard David Baas and tackle Adam Snyder, although it took Nolan much longer than it should have to get Snyder into the lineup. With 2004 pick Justin Smiley, they form the nucleus of what I (and many others Iíve talked to) think can be an excellent line. The Niners also picked up running back Frank Gore, who should start next season. All of those picks came within the first 94 picks in the draft. The rest of the draft cannot be fully evaluated yet.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, the much-maligned Terry Donahue regime did about as well after the first round, picking up Smiley, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, nose guard Isaac Sopoaga and punter Andy Lee. Because the 49ers draft position was much lower in 2004, those picks were spaced out more, with Lee being No. 188.

Donahue whiffed on his first-round pick, wide receiver Rashaun Woods, the 31st player taken. Nolan had the very first pick and took Alex Smith. The jury is still out on Smith.

Q: Wouldnít you say that Nolanís staff was much improved over the previous season?

A: Yes, but they were starting from ground zero. Dennis Erickson, who had been a very good coach but had lost his fire, put together a staff of friends, and that was as bad a coaching staff Iíve seen in almost 40 years of covering pro football.

I give Nolanís staff a mixed review. I was impressed with their work with individual players in practice, and I think some assistants did a very good job. A. J. Christoff, the secondary coach, got better results than could be expected from a group which was largely young and unheralded, and which lost its veteran leader, safety Tony Parrish, to injury about halfway through the season. Offensive line coach George Warhop worked well with the young lineman. Linebackers coach Mike Singletary brought his strong work ethic to the linebackers and made an effective player of Brandon Moore. Running backs coach Bishop Harris, who seems to be in need of anger management counseling, had a season-long dispute with former Pro Bowler Fred Beasley, who hardly played as a result.

Neither the offensive nor defensive schemes were very effective overall, though itís hard to say whether that was because of the schemes or a lack of talent. Mike McCarthy rid his reputation as a coach who can work with quarterbacks into the head coaching job in Green Bay, but in my several trips to training camp, I never saw either McCarthy or quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler working to speed up Smithís throwing motion. Perhaps they felt that there were too many other aspects of Smithís game which needed work.

Q: Wasnít it important for Nolan to have this season to put in his system?

What system? The last coach to take over a 49er team which had gone 2-14 was Bill Walsh, who came in with an innovative offensive system. Watching his first team, though it went 2-14, I wrote that he would produce a winner when he got better players. I saw no such innovaton with Nolan, nor any reason to predict success.

Offensively, the 49ers were supposed to be running an offshoot of the Walsh system in 2005, but there was little evidence of it. Now, with Norv Turner hired to replace McCarthy, theyíre changing systems again.

Defensively, the system put in by Billy Davis, and certainly endorsed by Nolan, emphasized discipline and discouraged creativity. In that respect, it resembled the old Dallas ďDoomsday DefenseĒ under Tom Landry, but the Cowboys had great players to run that system. The 49ers donít and, in the current era, no team will be able to stockpile talent as the Cowboys did. It also took the Cowboys six years to get to .500 while they were adding that talent.

With thinner rosters and more player movement, I think itís important for a team to be able to incorporate playmakers into its defense, but the 49ers inflexible defensive schemes of the past season forced the trade of Jamie Winborn and reduced the efficiency of Julian Peterson, who was supposed to be the teamís best players.

Some of the players really liked Nolanís tough approach. One of those is Jeff Ulbrich, who missed a big chunk of the season with injury but is a very good player. Others were turned off, either by Nolanís approach or the defensive inflexibility. Peterson and Beasley will almost certainly leave through free agency. Derek Smith, the teamís most productive linebacker, may leave because heís tired of playing on a losing team and isnít optimistic that the 49ers will become a winner soon. Brandon Lloyd has fallen out of favor. The oft-injured Ahmed Plummer will be gone, either by his choice or the 49ers.

Nolan took over a roster that was already talent-poor. He canít afford to keep losing players who have been productive and expect to produce a winning team.

FOR THE SEASON, I would rate Nolanís performance as a C, which isnít good enough if the 49ers are going to make substantial improvements.

Much will depend on what happens with the 49ers front office. When Walsh took over in 1979, he brought in NFL veterans John McVay and John Ralston to help him in the front office. Nolan had nobody remotely like that this last season. Some thought that was because owner John York wanted it that way, but Nolan seemed quite happy when he said at the news conference announcing his hiring that heíd be the sole voice of the organization.

Since then, Nolan has said in a radio interview that a talk with Mike Holmgren convinced him that one man canít be both the coach and, effectively, the general manager. Ira Miller, in a recent column in The San Francisco Chronicle, suggested that Mike Reinfeldt, vice president of football administration for the Seahawks, would be a good fit in the 49ers front office. Reinfeldt has worked with McCloughan in the past.

I think Nolan can still do the job with the 49ers if heís willing to get help from a football man in the front office and if heís willing to bend a little in his coaching approach. But, those are two very big ifs.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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