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Nolan Makes Right Moves, Wrong Time - By Bryan Hersh Oct 8 2005

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Head coach Mike Nolan has really shown himself to be a rookie head coach this season. Coming to the 49ers this off-season, most fans were exstatic to have someone, anyone, other than Dennis Erickson. Most fans are still thrilled that Erickson was given the boot, but Mike Nolan is certainly showing his youth this off-season.

Nolan has made a number of moves that just do not appear to jive with the direction of a succesful franchise. In my opinion these mistakes are the result of being a rookie head coach. They are to a coach what not turning a head around to watch the ball is to a rookie cornerback. These are mistakes that I hope Nolan can get over, and grow out of. And to a certain degree I am willing to forgive these rookie mistakes. But at some point, Nolan has to stop acting out of desperation and start acting with the cool head of success. Only then do the 49ers stand a chance of improving - and unfortunately it may be too little, too late for this season.

The mistakes as I see them:
-Starting Tim Rattay. Rattay was never going to be the future quarterback of this team. He simply does not have all the skills to be a starter in this league. Alex Smith was not ready to start, but he was not going to learn anything on the bench behind Rattay. Nolan could have played this in 2 correct ways, but instead chose the 'seat of the pants desperation' strategy which is what we are all observing now. The first correct move would have been to trade Rattay this off-season, when the team might have been able to land a 5th rounder for him. Bring in a legitimate veteran that Smith could have actually learned something, and who would not mind mentoring Smith. Start this veteran as long as they are healthy to do so this season, and re-evaluate next season. Option two, start Smith right away and let him learn on the field. Do not pull him as a starter for any game. Trading Rattay would be optional at this point, but highly recomended to avoid the temptation of putting him in the game. Now Rattay is on the trading block, and Smith is starting, but there is little that can be done at this point, and to make matters worse Smith could still be pulled if he does not perform. This is a move out of desperation, and not the right one for the team. Nolan is trying to right the ship, than at the very least say outright that Smith is the starter for the rest of the season, no matter what, and stick to it.

-No suitable back up at left tackle. Mike Nolan erred big time by not having a suitable back up to protect his starting cornerbacks blind side. When Jonas Jennings went down this season, Nolan was forced to play Patrick Estes a rookie converted tight end. The results of course was severe quarterback pounding. Nolan tried to rectify this situation signing Anthony Clement to the squad, Clement though proved to be even worse. It is too late in the season to try and find a competent back up tackle, and so the 49ers quarterback will be pounded until either the line is shuffled, or Jennings returns. Of course, the run game will also suffer as a consequence.

-Jamie Winborn being traded. Jamie Winborn being traded to the Jaguars for an undisclosed draft pick essentially means the 49ers got no value for a good chemistry guy, and a guy who made plays. Winborn might not have been thrilled to take on a backup position, but he did not complain, Nolan simply assumed it to be so. One could argue whether promoting Andre Carter ahead of Winborn was the right move to begin with, but trading him in the manner that the 49ers did simply did not make sense. Nolan hinted at the fact Winborn did not want to be a backup on this team, which may or may not have been the case. There were also rumors as to whether Winborn was uncooperative. Finally, Nolan said Winborn would be better off in a 4-3 defense. However, all signs point to Winborn being a playmaker when on the field, and the 49ers defense desperately needs playmakers right now. Further, Winborn was surprised by the move, which leads me to question whether or not he was that unhappy with his status, and that unwilling to cooperate. The rest of the team was similarly blind sided. Finally, the 49ers out of desperation have been playing about 60% of their defensive snaps in a 4-3 defense instead of the 3-4.

-Dropping the 3-4 defense. Mike Nolan spent the off-season preaching the importance of the 3-4 defense. He claimed anyone who knew what they were doing could get a team to play the defense successfully. Yet the 49ers have, apparently out of desperation, shifted back to a more conventional 4-3 defense as their primary defense. This act of desperation does not make much sense given what Nolan has said all off-season, and also does not favour the linebackers of this squad who are the strength of the team. Nolan should be leaning more heavily on the 3-4 defense for the remainder of this season.

-Fred Beasley sitting on the bench. Beasley is the best fullback the 49ers have, and with left tackle Jonas Jennings injured the 49ers need all the blocking power they can get. Nolan is clearly frustrated that Beasley assumed a starting spot this off-season and focussed on some personal issues. But sitting Beasley, even if he is not what he was in his prime, is the wrong move. Nolan is constantly saying he wants the players that give the team the best chance to win on the field. Beasley is one such player and it is evident every time he takes the field. Nolan needs to put his differences aside, and play Beasley who has been nothing but professional through all of this.

-Defensive backfield in trouble. Nolan clearly has his work cut out for him with a defensive backfield that is as injury plagued as the 49ers roster currently is. But a bigger question is why did the defensive backfield struggle even when healthy? For starters, Nolan had Mike Rumph is the wrong position, as was evident in Nolan desperately trying to move him back to cornerback (with little practice this off-season in that position). It is also evident by the lack of a legitimate safety to play next to Tony Parrish. Now the team is left struggling desperately for bodies in the defensive backfield. Had Nolan evaluated talent correctly from the get go, this may not have been an issue.

-No legitimate back up tight end. Running the West Coast Offense means that the team needs a tight end who can catch the short passes, and be an outlet for his quarterback. At the same time, the tight end needs to be able to block. Eric Johnson is injury prone, and is once again injured, and the 49ers have no one who can step up to the plate and help out. Nolan cut backup Aaron Walker in the off-season, and for some reason has not even given Trent Smith the opportunity to make a few plays – despite rumblings from the team that he could be a really solid addition to the team. Nolan’s judgement here was once again seriously flawed.

Ultimately it all comes down to Nolan making rookie mistakes and at times acting of desperation. This is not what anyone wants or expects in leading the 49ers. He has to grow up quick and right the ship. He needs to be more calculated in his decision makings and he has to see the repercussions of his actions in advance. No one is throwing the book in on Nolan yet. He has proved to be too talented as a coordinator and too passionate as a figure head for that, but Nolan has to step up to the plate and hit a few home runs to help even out his reputation on the field. Areas he has to improve on are: evaluating talent, making decisions based on calculated thought not desperation, understanding the messages he sends to his team and the rest of the league with each move he makes, and not being overconfident in himself or his players. There should always be a well established contingency plan, one that helps this team improve incrementally at every opportunity.

 
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