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The 49ers are struggling as a franchise. At 2-3 they sit with the same record as last year, albeit with different questions. The stadium is still a pipe dream. Quite simply, the 49ers are no longer relevant in the NFL. Very plainly, as long as Mike Nolan is coach the 49ers will struggle to be a relevant part of the NFL.
Mike Nolan is a good coach. The problem is, he is just...good. He is not well equipped with enough offensive knowledge to effectively run a franchise. Thus far he has relied completely on his offensive coordinator to run half of the team. Nolan's philosophy is as detailed as one can get with jumbo crayons. Run. Smash. Run. Pass (but only if you have to). In an NFL where forward thinkers reign supreme Nolan is content to go with a proven formula that may bring some success, but will never be a source of supremacy. I call it the Baltimore effect. The team is always good and is a threat to make the playoffs but rarely do they dominate during the post season.
Not having enough offensive knowledge handicapped the franchise and reduced any potential stability. Mike McCarthy ran a West Coast system with completely different terminology than Turner's digit system. Hostler tried to combine the two with little success. In instances where a coach brings a system and an identity a team can keep some continuity even when they change coordinators. Nolan, though, was at the whims of his coordinators.
Nolan's conservatism and predisposition towards the sure thing crippled the coaching staff. McCarthy, Turner and eventually Martz were all established, they proven, and thus more likely to leave for head coaching gigs. To Nolan, though, they were safe because they were known quantities. Rather than take a calculated risk, like hiring someone in the mold of Jason Garrett, he looked for coordinators with a strong history of success. While on face that doesn't sound bad, it limits the time a coordinator has with a team if he is so established that a promotion is on the horizon.
Nolan's conservative nature extends to players as well. Thus far he prefers veterans to younger players even though the younger players may be at the same level. Nolan has a long history of waiting too long to mix things up. Two years ago the defense struggled for eight weeks. The entire time Nolan had a couple of young players in Brandon Moore and Keith Lewis. When he finally played them against Minnesota the defense surged and improved over the final half of the season.
Nolan loves to bring in veteran players but often times this comes at the expense of the younger players. Dashon Goldson could develop into a wonderful safety, but he is sitting behind Mark Roman. Nolan loves to talk about how Roman is like another coach on the field but when it comes down to it, the 49ers need players on the field. If Roman wants to coach he can do so from the sidelines.
A coach has to have an eye for talent both on the field and in the coaches booth. Nolan's drafts have been anything but stellar. Scott McCloughan deserves some of the blame here as well, but until this season Nolan was the final decision maker on matters of personnel. Matt Maiocco wrote a wonderful article detailing the 49ers lackluster drafts. He notes that of the 8 players selected in the first or second round, only Patrick Willis is a Pro Bowl player.
Ultimately we are left with one question: what makes a great coach? Much like the head of a company, a great coach needs to be a visionary, have an eye for talent, and develop talent. For football that means having a clear offensive and defensive vision (what kind of defense do the 49ers run again?), hiring and developing coaches to maintain consistency, and selecting the right players and putting them in successful situations.
Mike Nolan does some of these things well, but he does not do them exceptionally. It is no surprise, then, that the 49ers have sometimes been good, but rarely ever exceptional.