The case against Mike Nolan has been well-documented by virtually every 49ers writer. "He's coy with reporters. He may have lost the team. He forces people back from injury too soon. He undermined his 23-year-old quarterback in the locker room and to the media."
All of these criticisms are perfectly valid, and may or may not individually or collectively represent reasons to replace him. From my perspective, there are two main reasons he should go.
1st, it's not clear whether Nolan simply cannot objectively assess the value of his players, or whether he plays favorites. For instance, after a mere three games as coach, Nolan traded Jamie Winborn, considered by Erickson to be our best defensive player in 2004, for a 7th round pick. Without question, the slight-of-build Winborn was frequently injured and best used sparingly; but even so, his 2004 numbers are staggering. 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, and 8 passes defensed. To put this in perspective, Derek Smith has 13.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions, and 35 passes defensed in his 11-year career. Winborn's production in a mere one season in these four categories ranged from 23%-40% of Smith's production over an 11-year career. One player was given a nice contract extension. The other was given away for free.
Nolan traded Winborn because Winborn did not practice with a suitable degree of intensity. Fair enough. But isn't the job of the coach to reach out to such players and establish some sort of common ground? By all accounts, Winborn was an incredibly good guy with a bubbly personality. He certainly wasn't the first professional athlete who didn't treat Wednesday mornings like Sunday afternoons.
The issue transcends Winborn. The fact that Nolan's first instinct was to tell one of his best players to clean out his locker three games into the season speaks volumes about the way he views himself and fosters relationships with the people he works with.
Continuing along these lines, if the 49ers organization were the Shakespearian play Othello
, is there any doubt Nolan would be cast as Iago? When he's not telling Jonas Jennings that he can't travel with the team, he's questioning Ahmed Plummer's commitment to the game. When he's not lying to reporters about Alex Smith's injury status, he's holding a twenty-minute press conference about our offensive line depth and failing to mention David Baas' name. When he's not demoting Ashley Lelie, arguably our most impressive receiver this preseason, to 5th string, he's leaving Roderick Green off the active roster, or the team. Does Nolan have a reason for pushing people's buttons, or does he push them just to push them?
This last point bugs me the most. Out of nowhere last year, Roderick Green had 4.5 sacks in a mere nine games, playing as a mere situational pass rusher in those nine games. For his efforts, he did not even make the team this season. On November 7th, the 49ers resigned him. He notched two sacks in four games, again, a better sack per game ratio than any other player on the team. For his efforts, he gets left off the active roster for the Minnesota game. Hard to believe.
Taking it a step further, it's becoming increasingly difficult to believe the information that's coming out of the 49ers organization. One season Denver wants to trade a first round pick for Justin Smiley, the next season, Nolan isn't sure whether Smiley is good enough to start at guard in the NFL. One moment Manny Lawson appears to be a bust, registering 2.5 sacks in 18 career games, the next moment, Nolan is purporting that the loss of Lawson to injury is the reason our defense is among the worst in the league.
Too much smoke. Too many mirrors.
Regrettably, I could probably live with the undermining if Nolan was a great tactician. Unfortunately, it's becoming increasingly clear that he is not. In last night's game, the decision not to kick the field goal with six minutes to go to put us up by 10 poses serious questions of intellect and motive. The kick would have been a 41-yarder. Nedney was a perfect 16/16 from within 50 yards on the year. Furthermore, he was 2/2 on the evening, with neither field goal close to missing. A reasonable person might suggest that Nedney had a 90% chance of making the field goal and making it a two-score game. Furthermore, the 49ers are the worst offensive team in the league, and one of the worst teams in the league at converting 4th downs, with their success rate hovering in the 30th percentile.
Again, what seems like a relatively trivial point is actually quite telling. The question is simply, why would a coach prefer a 30% chance of icing a game to a 90% chance? If he's ignorant of the percentages, he should not be a coach. If he knows the percentages, and still cannot arrive at the correct decision, he also should not be a coach.
The only reason I can think of as to why Nolan would go for it in that situation is because he fancies himelf as a gutsy coach who is not afraid to make difficult decisions. Unlike Bill Walsh, who deliberately squeezed any and all emotion out of his body before games so he could make purely rational decisions, Nolan has shown a propensity to go out of his way to make irrational decisions in order to show the world that he's tough and fearless. In other words, when choosing between what he thinks is good for his image and what's good for the team, his image takes the day. Not what I'm looking for in a coach.
There are plenty of other reasons to replace Nolan. Trading what looks to be a top-five pick for Joe Staley, under the blind optimism that our defensive line would suddenly generate a pass-rush and that Alex Smith would metamorphosize into a top-15 quarterback. Furthermore, due to our draft positioning and improved salary cap situation, the roster is more talented now than it was when Nolan first arrived, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Erickson was plagued with low-round offensive linemen, receivers that could not start anywhere else, a running back that I believe is out of the league, an oft-injured tight end, and a seventh-round quarterback. And yet, his offense looked like the Indianapolos Colts compared to what we've seen from a much more talented group this year. If it was fair to fire Erickson, and it was, it's fair to fire Nolan.
The only question in my mind is whether we could get Schottenheimer. I have no doubts in his ability to turn our 4-12 team into a perennial playoff powerhouse just as he did for Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Diego. The man has had two losing seasons in his 21 seasons as a head coach. If you simply compare their resumes, no owner in the league would prefer Nolan's 15-31 record to Schottenheimer's 200-126. I feel terrible that the Yorks would have to buy out his last two years after already having to buy out Erickson's last three years, but I would tend to think that Marty would pay for himself.
Three years ago, it was Erickson and Donahue who could not coexist. Both did such a poor job that neither of them will ever coach or manage a team in the NFL again. In the present, it is Nolan and Smith who cannot coexist. If York were to cut both of them loose, I cannot help but wonder whether they would ever coach a team or lead an offense again.
Date: December 20, 2007 at 8:15 PM
Comment: I think alot of your points are valid. I would not give up on Nolan just yet though. The offensive has been unsettled with different coordinators the last three years. I think teaching chacter on a football team takes awhile and he has had alot of new players. I'd say if anyone has to go it would be our offensive coordinator. The last thing I would like to say is shame on all the sports writers who go after every sports figure who doesn't give you guys their complete attention and a story.
Date: December 19, 2007 at 11:49 PM
Comment: I, like most 49er fans, have been very dissapointed with this season, but I'm not as reactionary as your blog, most of the media, and half-ass 49er fans. Nolan sucks, Alex is a bust, etc...... First of all, I won't give up on a 23 y/o qb who's had 3 different offensive coordinators and mediocre wr's. I was glad and excited to see how well Hill did, but everybody needs to relax; it was the Bengals. Let's see how he does against the Bucs. As for Nolan, he took over the worst Niner team I've seen in 35 yrs. of following the team. He completely overhauled the organization, attitude, and depth chart. You speak of Winborn, Plummer, etc. Do your research. Winborn just recently got picked up as a back up for Pitt. He was dumped by the Jags after he left us. You find me "One" guy that Nolan has dropped that's doing anything; you won't. Turner leaving in Feb. gave Nolan little time to get a big-time coordinator. He knew what he was doing when he hired McCarthy(Pack), Turner(S.D.). If any of them were here, our offense would be much better and we'd be in the playoff hunt. Look at the bigger picture before you put it all on Nolan; it's a little more complicated than that.....
Date: December 19, 2007 at 11:41 PM
Comment: Hey Guy i dont know what your smokin? Winborn was a cancer much like the other piece of dead weight B Lloyd and Barlow. all 3 of there careers are over.Dorsey,Plummer, Andre Carter, Beasely are all non factors..the one thing i will GIVE Nolan that he CAN evaluate talent. But i agree some of the decisions on the field are suspect but to compare Marty a hall of famer to him is unfair,hello?..Hell lets compare him to Shanahan or Holmgren while were at it..another thing, The team didnt trade a Top 5 pick for Staley, it was well on its way to a #18-22+ pick before this UNPREDICTABLE collapse...you can't blame them, the kid will be there 10 years+ and productive so move off of that complaint. Lelie is weak, D Jax is weak and Battle is what he is a #3. Get a dynamic OC and keep the opened up mentality of the last 3-4 games and GET some WR's who can fricking catch and RAC..Not FAC (fall after catch) like D Jax..use VD properly in the middle of the field. See those white lines are called hash marks and VD should have 7-10 catches a game in the area. Lastly Smith is NOT a bust, he is fully capable, Use him properly and play to his strenths, roll outs, misdirections and RUN 4-6x a game!!
Date: December 19, 2007 at 8:16 AM
Comment: VERY TRUE!!!bottom line is our 49ers are going nowhere under the yorks ownership.but since they dont seem in a hurry to sell anytime soon they need to hire a quality NFL gm like parcell's or holmgrin and pay up then let them retool the coaching staff nolan walked into a mess but i do question his abilty to coach this team and make decisions he did improve the roster i think all we need is a pass rusher,QB and a solid wr maybe a lil younger on the o-line and a coach wed be a damn good team but we do need a new HC and QB watching alex play in seattle was pathetic watching him hang his head everytime he walked under center like he really didnt want to be there nolan lost this team everyone can see that.
Date: December 18, 2007 at 6:04 PM
Comment: I completely agree with your assessment. I feel that Marty Schottenheimer would be a PERFECT FIT for this team! We fit exactly what he was doing in San Diego. Both teams have a power back, (LT and Frank Gore) an explosive, play-making Tight End, (Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis) and a young, mobile QB who can just manage games. (Phillip Rivers and Alex Smith) Our defense is young, but talented. I believe our strength is our LBs! (Manny Lawson, Patrick Willis, and Parys Haralson, Jeff Ulbrich) They make plays! They are all good, young players who can be great if used properly. Obviously, we need to develop a pass rush and in doing so, rebuild our defensive line. Once we do that I feel we can have a dominent defense!!! The current D-line would be lucky to be back-ups with other teams in the league. As for the great "BY", he will probably be retiring at season's end. SO SAD!!! The bottom line, I feel that with a few more pieces we are a playoff team. WE NEED GOOD COACHING to help this team along. Marty Schottenheimer is the right man for the job, but CAN WE GET HIM? Will the Yorks part with Mike Nolan? I'm not so sure??? Only time will tell.
By: Martin Jacobs
Date: December 18, 2007 at 10:34 AM
Comment: I sort of wished you would of mentioned Clayton, a RB on who I felt would of contribed to the team, in your story. He ran well in pre-season breaking tackles. The word from Nolan was that Clayton was 4th on depth chart and Hicks and Robinson were in front of him. Still, shouldn't Clayton be givin a chance?
Date: December 18, 2007 at 6:52 AM
Comment: Preach on. I'd like to see Nolan at least stay on as DC. He improved the overall team talent, so he should be able to contribute after he gets canned. I know its a pipe dream. HC-Schottenheimer OC-Tollner or D.Green DC-Nolan LBC-Manusky(after Singletary leaves for ATL) GM-Holmgren Everybody else can be retained I guess to keep whatever chemistry we got going.
Date: December 17, 2007 at 8:04 PM
Comment: Winborn was a good decision, Ahmed Plummer completely lost his desire to play and retired because of a little bone chip in his foot. Nolan was told by doctors that Alex could go and if you notice in his press conferences Nolan's philosophy is to not make excuses. Nolan was not throwing Alex under the buss but the press grabs onto little tidbits of sentences and reads volumes into it. The only thing that's to me worried with Nolan is his offensive knowlege but you can grab a good offensive coordinator for that. ALL OF THIS SAID, I am one of the few HUGE MARTY FANS! His teams always go to the playoffs and eventually he's going to mess up and win the Superbowl. I'LL TAKE MARTY. BETTER GET HIM FAST.
Date: December 17, 2007 at 1:47 PM
Comment: I think your analysis of the Niners and Mike Nolan is somewhat off-base. First-off, you're disregarding the absolute lack of talent the Niners had when Nolan first started, compared to where they are today. The Niners are without a doubt more talented then they were when Nolan first took over. Second, you're also disregarding the fact that Nolan was forced to replace his OC late in the off-season, with the unexpected departure of Norv Turner. That certainly through a wrench into the works. Third, you referenced the Jaimie Winborn situation. In typical "media" fashion, you reference the "after three games" as if that was Nolan's only exposure to Winborn. The Niners of the Donahue era were lazy and use to being coddled. If that event served as a wake up call to the team, so be it. Fourth, you mentioned Roderick Green and the Vikings game. If I recall correctly, he had a knee injury that week. Last, but not least, I think your longing for Shottenheimer is borderline crazy. He's a defensive-minded coach like Nolan, and has never been able to win the big one. I'm not saying Nolan's been perfect, but barring a dramatic change, I'm inclined to give him (with conditions) one more year...
Date: December 17, 2007 at 11:44 AM
Comment: I get faxes from Africa telling me if i give them a few thousand they will give me millions. I ignore them but they keep sending them out because some people actually respond to them. York and Nolan are like that, they say things that when you analze it or try to sync it with what they do, comes out lacking. They are BS kings, and people are tired of it. There is not one owner in the laegue after 3 years of caveman football, would keep nOlan. York keeps him 1) becasue he's cheap ( anyone decent out there going to be GM/HC for what York pays?) 2)he cant admit he's wrong... He still has owned up to firing the last playoff coach we had in his hissy fit and 3) He doesnt want to learn. AT least his son apparently hired someone so he can learn how to run a franchise. Other than Denise selling a minority share to Steve Young et al, Jed is our only hope. Maybe he can learn from his uncle and bring back some dignity what was the flagship of the NFL. Change is Good!
Date: December 17, 2007 at 9:46 AM
Comment: Yes, I agree with you 110%...I have also seen all the examples you wrote, and I think Nolan is more concerned about how he is viewed as compared to the best interest of the team. Nolan talks too much on camera, and thats a sign of someone who is looking and trying to find answers for what is wrong. If Dilfer wasn't hurt, Nolan would have played him. I believe that this is a prefect example of Nolan being selfish and doing things his way, when a lot of fans wanted Hill to play. It was very obvious that Dilfer was not the answer. I also agree that Marty Schottenheimer should be given a chance with the niners. This is a coach that has a winning record, experience and respect of his players. I am not holding any hopes if Nolan returns..
Date: December 17, 2007 at 7:06 AM
Comment: You lost me at the very start when you started being critical about Nolan cutting ties with Winborn. He's not even in the league anymore?
By: Frank Misaege
Date: December 16, 2007 at 11:10 PM
Comment: Brett, You make some good points...I have mixed feelings. I like some of the things Nolan's brought to the team...character, accountability, unity. I don't agree with the Winborn example...just about every player he's let go has either gone onto nothing or isn't even in the league any more. I do agree about his stubborness to recognize and implement changes when clearly needed. Baas is a good example of that...now, it appears Shaun Hill may be another. Baas and Snyder should've been in the lineup long before now...it shouldn't take injuries of over-the-hill vets for it to happen. His game management isn't what it should be...now in his third season, no excuse for that. I like Schottenheimer, too...but for him to come on board, York's would have to hire a GM who could work w/Marty. By hiring a GM, it may be a signal the York's have tired of Nolan's ways...they have to know he won't want to give up his personnel power...so it should be quite an interesting off-season. Frank
By: Ian The Japsican
Date: December 16, 2007 at 10:39 PM
Comment: I couldn't agree more. Nolan's irrational thought process is just killing me this year. I understood the cutting of Winborn, he needed to make an example of a player in order to establish authority. And for a while (last season) it worked. Now, when times are tough, he's nothing more than an offensively challenged, ex-defensive coordinator. He also seems insincere most of the time.
By: Rick Reulecke
Date: December 16, 2007 at 9:39 PM
Comment: Very well spoken! My sentiment exactly! Nolan seems more about his image, and what people think of him, than the status of the team. We as the fan are tired of excuses period, and it is time that management takes notice of what effects their bottom line...the Fan! We knew Alex was not the man, I admit I thought Nolan was going to be a good coach. Picking of Alex Smith should have clued us all in! Not sure if anyone else noticed this about Shaun Hill, but he has many of the same mechanics as Steve Young. Not saying he is another Steve Young, but he certainly draws many similarities. The way he throws, the way he scans the field and the way he pulls it down and runs with it. Mike Nolan said that Shaun runs the offense this good in practice as well. Ummm...WHAT?!? You have him performing this well in practice and you elect to go with the aging wonderless Dilfer? Dilfer getting knocked out is the best thing that has happened for us this year. But don't get too excited. Shaun is a free agent at the end of this year. With Talent right under his nose...Nolan will more than likely not sign Shaun. Alex Smith should be cut, Trent needs to go, Shaun should start, Nolan fired and Marty Hired.