Mike Nolan, 49ers Make Progress
by Glenn Dickey
May 08, 2006

MIKE NOLAN continues to grow as a head coach. I learned of another example of that when I was at the 49ers mini-camp yesterday: Nolan had earlier approached Dr. Harry Edwards, who was first hired by Bill Walsh in the mid-‘80s, to speak to the players about locker room issues.

Football is the ultimate team game. Players don’t all have to be close friends, but they must be close enough that they can play together. Yet, there are many factors tearing NFL teams apart these days. One of them is racial. White and black players come from different backgrounds and they have different attitudes toward what’s acceptable, the most obvious being the “celebrations” that are so common today; most of them are by blacks.

There’s another dynamic that is different from Walsh’s day: The economic structure has been turned upside down. When owners controlled the payroll, players got more money as they progressed through their careers. Now, rookies get huge signing bonuses before they even play a down in the NFL and, to stay under the salary cap, teams often seriously underpay veteran players, in comparison. On the 49ers, for instance, quarterback Alex Smith may have gotten more with his signing bonus than the salaries of all the linemen blocking for him.

Though he has been on the club’s payroll since Walsh first hired him, Dr. Edwards was not part of the Nolan program last year. He still talked informally to players. I was in the locker room during training camp last summer when he was explaining to a young player who Tommie Smith and John Carlos were. (I had just written a piece for The Chronicle on the statue that was being put in place on the San Jose State campus.) Modern-day athletes, black or white, have little concept of history, which they generally regard as anything that happened before last night’s ESPN highlights.

Last year, Nolan thought he could handle everything himself, and his “my way or the highway” approach led to some serious bumps in the road.

“The train got off the tracks for awhile,” said Dr. Edwards, who has much the same opinion about Nolan’s approach last year as I had. “But, to his credit, he didn’t just junk it. He’s got it back on the tracks. He’s learning.”

Nolan seemed much more relaxed yesterday than at any time I saw him last year. He has always been cooperative with the media, but everything was programmed; he would take notes during drills so he would have talking points for the media. There were no notes yesterday. He made a few comments, answered questions, joked with reporters. He’s clearly much more at ease with himself and his situation.

Of course, this is the easy time of year, when a coach doesn’t have to worry either about wins or losses or about decisions on which players stay and which will be cut. “I’m not going to make any evaluations today,” he said, “because the players are just out here in shorts. This is more like a basketball practice than football. When we put the pads on, everything changes because some players don’t like to get hit and their performance goes down. I hope we haven’t drafted anybody like that, but we’ll see.”

ULTIMATELY, THE key to the 49ers’ chances to get back into playoff contention is still the development of Smith. If he doesn’t live up to expectations, the 49ers have to go back to square one at quarterback, which will set them back for at least another two seasons.

When asked if he saw any specific improvement in Smith, Nolan said, “Well, for one thing, he only dropped the snap once during the whole practice. Last year, it seemed like he’d drop the snap twice in every series.”

Smith also had notable problems fumbling the ball in road games, sometimes even losing it as he was in his throwing motion. Other quarterbacks had problems, too, though none as severe as Smith’s, because the balls were so smooth. The home team provided the balls used in games and was not allow to rough up the surface. The owners changed the rule at their last meeting; now, visiting teams will bring their own balls, 12 of them, and they’ll be used in the games, after they’ve been roughed up to provide a better grip.

Watching Smith on the practice field, his body language was much better than at any time last year. He was throwing crisply, and he seemed much more confident in all his movements, making decisions on his throws and then throwing decisively, without the hesitation we saw so often in games. Even in practice last year, he had days when he threw well part of the time but scattered the ball other times. He didn’t do that yesterday.

“Everything was new to him last year,” Nolan noted, “even driving his car to games instead of taking a team bus. Now, everything about the routine is familiar to him, so he can concentrate on the game.”

Nolan often talks about “command in the huddle,” meaning that players are following the lead of the quarterback. If players don’t believe in their quarterback, you have, well, Jeff George. Though George had great physical ability, his teams seldom won because his teammates didn’t believe in him. Many of them actively hated him.

The 49ers coach thought Smith had that control yesterday, but again he cautioned, “We’ll have to wait to see how he does when we’re in pads and he’s under pressure.”

SMITH WILL have a better receiving corps this season than last, with free agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant added, along with No. 1 draft pick Vernon Davis. The first two days of mini-camp (which I didn’t see) Davis apparently struggled, dropping some balls. He was more relaxed yesterday. With his speed and receiving ability, he could be used as a wide receiver, too, which gives the 49ers more flexibility.

The player who most impressed those of us on the sidelines, though, was former Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson, who is being tried at running back and looks as if he’s been playing there all his life. Robinson is probably the fastest of the running backs and, unlike other “slash” backs, he carries enough weight to run over defenders. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him backing up Frank Gore, with Kevan Barlow gradually eased out of the picture.

Interestingly, the 49ers now have three former quarterbacks on their roster – Robinson, Arnaz Battle and Rasheed Marshall, a draft pick last season. Battle is a likely starter at wide receiver, and Marshall is in the mix there. Their versatility almost demands that offensive coordinator Norv Turner put in some “gadget” plays.

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