A buddy of mine, who happens to be a Dallas Cowboys fan, is in the Bay Area for work this week. He is a good guy who does not talk a whole lot of smack and respects the 49ers from their glory days while remembering the epic matchups between the two storied franchises. I received the following in an email from him yesterday.
I was driving from Oakland to Santa Clara and listened to a lot of Niners sports radio. I'm not sure if Mike Nolan is the right guy. I was listening to his press conference and a reporter asked him, "With all of the great expectations coming into the season, what has been the problem of meeting those expectations? Coaching? Lack of talent? Poor execution by the player?"
Mike Nolan said that it is not appropriate time to answer this. What?! If you know the answer, you should address it and make people accountable if you are the head coach. If you don't know what the problem is, that's scary.
My buddy admits that he does not know the team and its issues as well as I do. Well, guess what friend...you are pretty right on. Even an outsider briefly looking in, who has very little knowledge of everything going on with this franchise, can see that Nolan's responses are very puzzling. Nolan has finally mentioned that he has a better grasp on what is wrong with this team and what remedies are needed to fix things.
"I think I have a much better visual of a lot of things," Nolan said. "But there are certain things that I don't have a visual on."
However, instead of elaborating on what these "things" are, Nolan went on to say, "There will be a time and place to go into that...but there's more clarity in my mind about several things than there were two months ago, no question."
For the majority of the season, it seemed as though Nolan had no clue what the problem was. The problem with Nolan seems to be his stubbornness and he has only recently begun to admit when he is wrong. That is something that does not seem to happen often. Someone has to be wrong considering the amount of talent on this team. The team should be winning more matchups than they are. Unfortunately, the offense seems totally unprepared on Sundays. I am sure that it is very reassuring to fans that the team looks very prepared during practice. Note the sarcasm there. After all, that is what we hear almost every week from the coaches and players.
The majority of the issues seem to be coaching, but Nolan refuses to throw any of his staff under the bus. Could this all mean that, in his eyes, the problem does indeed lie within his staff? Because there are three games remaining, meaning three more losses, he may not be willing to throw a guy like offensive coordinator Jim Hostler under the bus. The team already proved that Hostler is not ready to do this on his own when they brought in Ted Tollner as a much needed consultant to assist in planning out the offensive schemes from week to week. In fact, over the course of the season, Nolan has had nothing but good things to say about Hostler. Apparently, he feels that Hostler is doing a good job. So good a job that Tollner was needed to come in and share in his glory.
While he will not say a word about his staff, perhaps Nolan does not have a problem throwing his players under the bus. In a statement to MediaNews, Alex Smith stated that Nolan made it clear to teammates that the quarterback was using his injuries as an excuse for his performance on the field. Smith feels that the comments have severely hurt his reputation among teammates. He referred to Nolan's repeated comments regarding the injury as "the spin" and felt that Nolan was questioning his toughness. Who is telling the truth here? It is probably Smith. While he has been so good at avoiding public outbursts over the course of his career, this latest issue may have pushed him over the edge forcing him to say something in his own defense.
"He came out and said some things to the team," said Smith. "It was like he was telling his side of it and I didn't want to get into it. ... That was my biggest concern when he did that: I felt it was trying to undermine me with my teammates."
Now, one has to wonder how much trust there is between Nolan and his quarterback of the future.
A fan noted that it is amazing how quickly one guy can turn from savior to target. Even toward the beginning of the season, fans were in love with Nolan and had no doubt that he would right this struggling franchise. On paper, the 49ers looked much improved under his watch and they seemed to be a contender in the NFC West. Twelve weeks later, Nolan is being targeted as the source of this team's woes. He certainly is not helping his case by avoiding the tough questions when they are asked.
All of this makes you wonder how much of last year's solid production was because of Norv Turner and not Mike Nolan. Should Nolan remain in San Francisco, which could still happen, he needs a solid offensive coordinator to throw around ideas with. He is not a good enough coach to call the shots on his own. With Turner, the offense over-performed despite having much less talent. Turner's untimely departure left the 49ers in a very bad predicament, one that resulted in the promotion of a guy that had little to no experience calling offensive plays.
A case can be made that the defense is good, but they are on the field too often due to the ineffectiveness of the offense. At this point in the season, the defense has played more time than any other NFL team. No defense should be cursed with such a bad offense. They are tired and unable to keep up with teams that are much more rested. Because of the offensive's lack of production, this may be the worst 49ers team ever. If it isn't, it certainly has to be one of the most boring teams to watch. I certainly can't remember a 49ers team that was this uninteresting.
Returning to Nolan's stubbornness, why did it take an injury to Trent Dilfer to give fans an opportunity to get a good look at quarterback Shaun Hill? Nolan stated that Hill would likely have played in the second half even if Dilfer had not gotten hurt. That may have been the case considering he was seen warming up on the sideline prior to the injury. Coaches and fans have had a chance to watch Dilfer for five games prior to Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Vikings. During those five games, he performed like an NFL quarterback during one matchup, the team's win against the Arizona Cardinals in November. With Dilfer performing at such a low level and with the season pretty much over, why not give another guy a shot? If you are looking for your best chance to win football games, sometimes it is better to go with the unknown x-factor rather than someone you know to be playing at a horrible level. Even if it does not pan out, what have you lost? You were likely going to lose the game with Dilfer anyways.
If Shaun Hill is not your guy, elevate former UCLA quarterback Drew Olson and give him a shot. While his career with the Bruins was anything but extraordinary, you never know where you will find a spark on offense.
Dilfer is a "Nolan guy" though. Guys like him, wide receiver Darrell Jackson and linebacker Derek Smith will always have a place on this team if you embrace Nolan's philosophy and vision. These are guys that practice well but always seem to consistently make mistakes on Sundays. You can always count on Dilfer to throw some interceptions, Jackson to drop some passes and Smith to be in the right place at the right time, but fail to make the tackle. These are all guys that probably would not see much playing time on many NFL teams, yet they are 49ers starters.
On the flip side, potential guys like receivers Ashley Lelie and Jason Hill sit on the sidelines for the majority of the season. Ok, Hill has been hurt, but he was probable for Sunday's game. Even if these guys do not perform well, would anyone really notice in this offense? If they fail, then just change the lineup next week. With three games left in a pretty pathetic season, this is not the time to be stubborn and refuse to mix things up a bit when there is a chance it could help.
You have to feel bad for guys like Nate Clements and Patrick Willis. While it is tough to feel too bad for any guy that is making more money in one year than most people will see in a lifetime, Clements probably believed all of the Nolan hype and figured he was coming to a playoff team. After all, he was one of the few missing pieces to the puzzle, right? As for Willis, he probably heard what the fans, media, and even the staff was saying about the 2007 season. Things were golden in San Francisco and there was a lot to look forward to. Willis has performed at an exceptional level on a team that underachieves as a whole. In fact, Willis deserves to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. As Nolan said on Monday, he may not only be the best defensive rookie, he probably would compete in that category against veterans. I must admit, Nolan has brought in some good talent. He simply has not been able to do anything with it. Unfortunately for Willis, while his stats are fantastic, he plays on a very unwatchable team and you have to start to wonder if this will impact his chances to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.
I envy guys like Matt Maiocco and Matthew Barrows. They get to be very objective in their duties covering the 49ers while fans like us have to live with the frustration of watching the current staff take this team from potentially good to undoubtedly clueless. While our expectations might have been higher than they should have been, no one could have foreseen this mess.