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With Monte Kiffin, Brad Childress, and Jim Johnson all out of the running for the 49ers head coaching job, only two candidates remain. The third candidate, Jim Mora Jr., seems to be a long shot for the head coach position because he hasn't enjoyed the type of success that the other coordinators on the list have. Under Mora, the Niner's defense has finished no better than 13th in the league, due in large part to the strong rush defense-a defense that only allowed 103.3 rush yards per game. For Mora, the coaching change is all or nothing. A situation where the offensive and defensive staff is already in place would be a tough sell for any organization to any coach. When a new head coach is hired he is going to want his staff, and Mora doesn't seem to fit into that scheme. The question remains however, are the remaining candidates actually qualified for the job?
Other than the long-shot names being thrown out here, such as Bill Walsh and Dennis Green, the viable options seem to be Ted Cottrell of the New York Jets, and Romeo Crennel of the New England Patriots. There have been analysts that believe Bill Walsh should come back for one season in order to buy the team more time to acquire a big name coach. This seems far-fetched for two reasons. First, although Walsh is a consultant he doesn't have too much clout in the decision making process for a coach. Walsh is really pushing for Dennis Green and at last word; Green wasn't even contacted for an interview-even though Green has expressed interest in the job. Secondly, Walsh even said that his body wouldn't be able to endure the 8 month marathon that is an NFL season. Moreover, having an "Interim Coach" wouldn't be good for the organization. The transition period would be doubled, being as there would be, in effect, two head coaching changes. Having the players get adjusted to Walsh, and then having them get used to another coach would surely cause more harm then would normally be associated with a coaching transfer. And what if Walsh fails? What if he takes the team, and ends up 4-12 instead of 12-4? It would irreparably tarnish Bill Walsh's reputation as a coach and as a legend within the organization. It would place a shroud over the team of the 80's that would hurt the organization more than this aimless search for a replacement.
Romeo Crennel is an interesting choice for a head coach. We have to think how much of his candidacy comes from the Super Bowl XXXVI win over St. Louis. Although the Rams were not much of a factor this year, they are still the number one challengers to the Niners NFC West title. This year, however, the Patriots defense finished 21st in total defense, a big drop off from last year's Super Bowl run. But the Patriots defense allowed only 198.7 passing yards per game; compared to the Niner's 219.1. Their biggest deficiency was the run stopping, a strength of the 49ers. Crennel often used very exotic coverages and schemes. One only has to look at the November game against the Bills to see how bizarre his schemes are. In the game against the Bills Crennel often used 4 lineman and 7 defensive backs. Sometimes all of the front 7 were in two point stances and other times there was just one linemen.
His "Big nickel" scheme might also be a good fit for the 49ers. In this coverage he plays 3 safeties in the middle of the field and hides the cornerbacks in a zone. This may seem like a good scheme because the 49ers are deeper at safety than they are at the corner position. But throughout the season the 49ers' zone coverages were torn apart by teams like Seattle, San Diego, and Arizona. Mora tried to hide Mike Rumph in zone coverage, but we saw how effective that was when teams would come roaring back after they should have been put away. This analysis does have some merit though, as many have said that Rumph would be a better safety than he would corner. If that as the case we cold see Bronson, Parrish, and Rumph matching up with receivers in the middle of the field while Webster and Plummer cover the edges of the field. I can just hear the safeties punishing receivers over the middle just like the Patriots did in last year's Super Bowl.
The biggest concern is whether or not Crennel was the source of these schemes, or if the brain behind the operation was Bill Belichik. Belichik is always heralded as the defensive genius and received much of the credit for the Super Bowl victory. Nevertheless, Crennel implemented the various schemes and will take much of that knowledge with him wherever he goes.
Despite Crennel's resume, Ted Cottrell is believed to be the front-runner for the head coaching position. Cottrell Joined Herm Edward's squad in New York for the 2001 season and since then has reversed the fortunes of a defense that entered this season with 6 new starters. Although his defense started slow, over the last 10 games they were ranked 2nd in total points allowed and 3rd in rushing defense. The final defensive rankings are a bit misleading because of the slow start, but the progress of their defense was plainly seen in the 42-0 thumping of the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild-Card Playoff game. Cottrell likes to run as aggressive cover-2 scheme, much like the Tampa Bay Bucs. The scheme involves big physical corners that can jam receivers at the line in order to disrupt timing. He is aggressive with the blitz and as a result often uses man-to-man coverages.
The 49ers obvious strength on defense was man-to-man coverage. The Niners used a comparable scheme against the Seahawks in their second meeting. Early in the game, Rumph was brought off the corner to get pressure on Hasselback. It worked for 3 quarters, then the team backed off and the 'Hawks almost pulled out a victory in the final minutes. The scheme could work well with the 49er personnel.
Neither Cottrell nor Crennel have head coaching experience, which is worrisome. But either one will do away with what hurt the Niners the most, a vanilla game plan that was kept simple because of inexperience. It seemed like all the 49er defense did this year was react to what teams did, rather than establish the tempo of the game and dominate teams. It is true that defenses win championships in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens and the Tampa Bay Bucs are the prime examples. Cottrell seems to be the candidate with the edge, but frankly, none of the prospective coaches jump out; each has his deficiencies. While Donahue keeps handing out interviews like candy to assistants such as Gary Blanche of the Bears, it seems like the "plan" to hire a new coach is nothing more than drawing names out of a hat. Even Jeff Garcia has criticized the way the organization is going about the search. Owner John York and GM Terry Donahue seem to have their own agendas directing the search for the new coach. It is becoming apparent that the new head coach of the 49ers will be either a career assistant with no head coaching experience, or a college coach plucked out of anonymity. Either way, the Niners seem hard pressed to find a guy right for the job. The dartboard in John York's office is quickly being filled with second-rate assistant coaches. Lets just hope that when he throws the dart it lands one of the few remaining first-rate coaches.