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Two years ago, during one of many speeches from the podium, San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan promised a new agenda for this franchise and made it vividly clear that he had the complete backing of owners Dr. John York and Denise DeBartolo. His outline was to set the foundation and build upon that foundation with key personnel that would enhance, and form intense competition within, the ranks for seasons to come. Sprinkle in some key veteran free agents along with drafting the right kind of football players and you find yourself looking at the makeup of today’s 49ers.
Mike Nolan’s short tenure has been a roller coaster ride for many. He has made both popular and unpopular decisions based upon what he saw. He has brought dignity and a sense of accountability back into this franchise that was, without question, blatantly nonexistent under the previous management. Nolan has faced an array of obstacles that threatened to derail his promises at the start of almost every off-season. After finishing out the 2006 season strong with a 7-9 record and defeating the playoff hopeful Denver Broncos on their own turf, Mike Nolan’s sophomore season turned into something appetizing (from a coaching and personnel standpoint) to other teams.
Sophomore 49er quarterback Alex Smith had a very successful season while under the care of experienced and knowledgeable offensive coordinator Norv Turner. That dream team was erased following Norv Turner’s departure for the San Diego Chargers head coaching position. The tremendous void left the 49ers offense reeling, especially after finally instituting an offense that was training friendly. Alex Smith was finally able to see the whole playing field and the playmakers around him. Finding the right offensive coordinator was critical to helping him advance that continuity and consistency he suddenly came upon this past season.
The late off-season purge that took Norv Turner away, left Mike Nolan to ponder the inevitable question of who would be the right person for the job and still provide the needed mentorship that is required to keep Alex Smith on the straight and narrow. After evaluating every aspect and scenario he looked to quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler, who had been an offensive coordinator at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.
Many people thought the most logical choice on Mike Nolan’s staff was wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, who had NFL experience as an offensive coordinator briefly with the Arizona Cardinals. Nolan thought that Jerry Sullivan, although very capable of being a sound offensive coordinator, was probably the best wide receivers coach in the league. With the weakness on the depth chart, he was reluctant to pull the trigger.
Looking at the offensive staff as a whole, we have been fortunate to have one of the best teams assembled inside the league today. Other coaches validate this when they are asked about the complexities of our offense. Bishop Harris, our running backs coach, was eliminated as a candidate based upon his excellent work with up and coming super star Frank Gore and his new battering ram in Moran Norris. Offensive line coach George Warhop is also on a tear in revamping the very line that provided Alex Smith better pass protection and has opened up better opportunities for our entire running game. Tight ends coach Pete Hoener was also the other leading candidate outside of Jerry Sullivan and Jim Hostler because of his extensive experience in being an offensive coordinator at six major colleges.
But what about the person that worked more closely with Alex Smith than any other coach, and who was in constant ear and eye shot of both Mike McCarthy back in 2005 and Norv Turner in 2006? During the interview, Jim Hostler showed Nolan an inner motivation to strive for excellence. As a quarterbacks coach, it was Hostler’s main responsibility to have a comprehensive understanding of the offense and what made it tick. He impressed Nolan at the interview by showing him the detailed and even laminated game plans he has formulated on his own last season.
Jim Hostler, in fact, was almost a right hand to offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who in just one short season helped turn around a struggling offense and a young quarterback to find their own identity. Hostler worked hand in hand with Alex Smith through two offensive coordinators and helped him in processing and understanding the complexities of two entirely different offensive philosophies.
“In interviewing Jim. I was impressed with what he was doing,” Nolan said. “We have an outstanding offensive staff in place. Everybody has to do it for a first time (at the NFL level), but he’s got a great staff to support him. I feel very good about the decision. I believe it makes us better. I feel very confident that with the way it’s worked out, we’re getting better in the long run.”
Jim Hostler came to the San Francisco 49ers while Mike Nolan was assembling his first coaching staff back in 2005. Hostler, 40, says he’ll bring his own fresh perspective to the offense in conjunction with maintaining what Norv Turner has already made successful here.
“Jim has great roots in the offensive system we had in place last year,” Nolan said one afternoon. “Our goal was to keep the same structure and continuity in the offense, and Jim’s a great teacher who was instrumental in putting in the offense last year. Because of the strength of our staff, I thought it was the best decision for us going forward.”
Jim Hostler joined the San Francisco 49ers in 2005 after spending two seasons with the New York Jets as the team’s wide receivers coach (2004) and quarterbacks coach (2003). He joined the Jets after serving as an offensive assistant/quality control coach and assistant wide receivers coach (2001-2002) for the New Orleans Saints. He actually began his career in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs as an offensive assistant/quality control coach (2000).
As far as his credentials go, he’s had a great eight-year run inside the NFL. He has helped tutor a talented group of playmakers, which include quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Vinny Testaverde, wide receivers Santana Moss, Wayne Chrebet and Justin McCareins with the Jets. He has also coached the 2002 first round draft selection wide receiver Donte Stallworth as a member of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff.
So when you look at what the possibilities were, you now come to understand why Mike Nolan chose to go with Hostler. I see further development of Alex Smith happening, while at the same time, a continuity of what Norv Turner has already set in place here and has made successful. He has the same ties to the Dan Coryell offense as Norv Turner did dating back to when he was working with Jimmy Rae in Kansas City.
Many 49er fans and sports analysts looked for us to go outside the box in acquiring an offensive coordinator. However, being that late in the off-season, we would’ve had to give-up far too much to sign one probably costing us a key draft pick as compensation to another team.
“The philosophy has been set by coach Nolan in how we’re going to try and win football games,” Hostler said. “I understand the importance of balance in this league, understand what it means to put your best players in a position to make plays. I’m confident in what I’ve learned along the way, and coach Nolan has put together a strong structure and environment to be successful here.”
Mike Nolan believes that Hostler has the most familiarity with Norv Turner’s offense and Alex Smith has the best chances of profiting from his promotion. As far as calling a game, he also believes Jim Hostler (based upon the descriptions and formulated game plans he has been gathering since day one) is enough to allow him a shot at making the key calls from the sidelines or up above the field.
Having a relationship of trust and mutual respect between Hostler and Smith will be critical to his continued development as a quarterback inside this league. It will speak volumes to the success out on the field as the regular season starts.
Jim Hostler’s promotion to offensive coordinator left a large void at the quarterbacks coaching position. Mike Nolan, again upon recommendations from friends around the league, interviewed North Carolina State’s offensive coordinator, Frank Cignetti. Cignetti had just joined North Carolina State’s program as its offensive coordinator after serving four years in the same capacity with Fresno State. There he helped guide Fresno State to four consecutive bowl appearances, including a win over No. 18 Virginia in the 2004 MPC Computers Bowl. Fresno State was 3-1 in bowl games under Frank Cignetti’s direction. He was amazingly successful in Fresno State in 2004; Fresno averaged 52.8 points over the last six games and became just the sixth team in NCAA history to score 50 or more points in four consecutive contests. Fresno finished the season 9-3, led the Western Athletic Conference in average yards per carry (5.4) and scored 65 touchdowns. The Fresno State Bulldogs were a menace in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 42-of-53 attempts (.792).
He has had continued success inside the NFL. Before joining Fresno State, he won a division championship and a playoff game with the New Orleans Saints in 2000. He was their quarterbacks coach during the 2000-2001 seasons, guiding quarterback Jeff Blake to a career-high 82.7 rating before he suffered a season-ending injury in 2000. The Saints offense ranked 10th in the NFL during those seasons. The following season, quarterback Aaron Brooks became an alternate to the Pro Bowl. And while in New Orleans, he also coached current Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, current St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and retired Billy Joe Tolliver.
Certainly Cignetti’s credentials will help mentor Alex Smith. By working in conjunction with Jim Hostler, he will help Alex Smith magnify the intensity of his comprehension of the office and come to understand the demand on him in his junior season as the coveted 49ers quarterback.
“Frank came highly recommended from people throughout all levels of college and professional football,” said Nolan. “I am extremely impressed with his work ethic, attention to detail and ability to develop players. He is a perfect fit for the way we operate with the 49ers.”
In all, the coaching changes are certainly the best ones we had at our fingertips in regards to promoting an offensive coordinator from within. I believe Jim Hostler was the best man for the job and Frank will take over with Alex where Jim left off so brilliantly. All in all, our offensive staff as a whole will be successful with the personnel we’ve added via free agency and in the up and coming draft.
As the NFL Combine was running down and free agency was heating up, I have to applaud the team for releasing cornerback Sammy Davis after an embarrassing season where he was victimized repeatedly as he filled in for an injured Shawntae Spencer.
Pro Bowl 49er cornerback Walt Harris had successful surgery on the wrist he injured during the Pro Bowl. By doing that, it helped speed up his recovery and he should be ready to go in the team’s first mini-camp session following this year’s draft.
The San Francisco 49ers started their free agency off-season by tendering contracts to restricted free agent punter Andy Lee and exclusive rights free agent offensive lineman Tony Wragge. One of the most important contracts to be tendered was to running back Maurice Hicks, who has been a special teams super star and show stopper when called upon to perform in any situation. Andy Lee was instrumental in providing us with a playing field that favored our defense this past season and made steady improvements. Versatile Tony Wragge was an instant stopgap for us when we saw sustained injuries to both Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings as the season wore on. The offensive line never skipped a beat when he was inserted at any point and is deserving of the contract tender.
We avoided having to tender fourth-year safety Keith Lewis earlier this year as we had him locked up to a three-year, $2.935 million deal with a $650,000 signing bonus earlier last month.
We did decline to offer fourth-year restricted free agent safety Mike Adams, who now becomes an unrestricted free agent to other ball clubs. He was a promising free safety on the rise but struggled towards the end of the 2006 NFL season, which had him sitting on the sidelines while Keith Lewis took over as the starter. Adams was offered a contract earlier in the season last year but declined it as “mere back-up money,” and now is looking for a job all over again.
As March approached, fellow veteran wide receiver Antonio Bryant was released after a lot of attitude throughout the season by criticizing Alex Smith, showing up late for scheduled meetings and confrontations with Mike Nolan. Then came the time when he was pulled over for speeding and reckless driving that resulted in him resisting arrest and making NFL headlines. The NFL took its own action and suspended him for four regular season games, which further alienated him from his 49ers teammates. The gap that it leaves is tremendous, but in all seriousness, it was for the best. Mike Nolan holds accountability very high. Antonio was like a breath of fresh air in the early stages of our 2006 season but squarely fell apart as his actions and words began to administer concern.
Last but not least, the return of veteran Pro Bowler defensive stalwart Bryant Young for his 14th season as a 49er is simply amazing. It is a blessing and an honor to have him around for one more season after starting for us back in his 1994 rookie season. Young remains the last link to our fifth Super Bowl appearance. He is a man of character and conviction. He is excited about the direction that Mike Nolan is taking this franchise and wants to help be a part of that with Nolan’s kind and gentle blessings. The four-time Pro Bowler, who has 83 career sacks and ranks third in team history, actually contemplated retiring after last season. Mike Nolan was the first person that wanted him back for yet another season both inside and outside the locker room where his vocal difference makes such a dramatic impact on younger players each and everyday.
“I feel like I’m still able to go out there and make plays that are asked of me,” said Young, 35. “In terms of my body, yeah, it feels a little different than it did five years ago. But with experience, you’re able to gain a little wisdom and smarts.”
Regardless he is a welcome sight for these old eyes of mine. I will have more free agency comments coming up in the next few articles. I felt it necessary to comment on the spin of the coaching carousel and the release and signings of our very own as free agency began in its infant stages.
I dedicate this article to my grandmother who is fighting cancer and is confined to her own home away from much of her immediate family. She has been an inspiration and close friend of mine for all the years of my life. Learning to live without her physical presence will be one of the hardest situations I have yet to endeavor.
So many are afflicted with this terrible disease and thousands of families are found struggling to understand why? I pray that God will be merciful to my grandmother and make her a shining light of the testament of faith she really is.
The cancer has caused great discomfort and pain as I write this and she is a God-fearing woman with amazing faith that just simply is “off the scales,” as we know it to be. I pray for her everyday and hope you’ll all join me in that prayer right now with a compelling heart. God Bless and Thank-You so very much for being as supportive as all of you have been throughout my many commentaries.