Nolan is Niners' man
"They picked a great coach and they're lucky to get him," said Giants Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan, who played for Nolan when he was defensive coordinator in New York from 1993-96. That was Nolan's first trial as a NFL coordinator, and he immediately produced a defense that allowed the fewest points in the league in first year on the job (205 in 1993). From that moment forward, Reeves felt it was Nolan's destiny to someday follow in the footsteps of his father, Dick, and become a NFL head coach. And he followed those footsteps right into the 49ers' top job. Dick Nolan coached the 49ers from 1968-75, winning three consecutive NFC West championships from 1970-72. "Really and truly," Reeves said, "from the time I made him a defensive coordinator, I thought this might be a stepping stone for making him a head coach." Reeves cited Nolan's background of coaching in all phases of the NFL game as one of the reasons he is more than prepared to be an NFL head coach and will be successful in his new opportunity with the 49ers. Nolan has been a defensive coordinator with four teams (the Giants, Ravens, New York Jets (2000) and Washington Redskins (1997-1999), and also spent one season on the offensive side of the ball (as wide receivers coach with the Ravens in 2001 before being promoted to defensive coordinator) and two seasons as special teams coach in Denver after Reeves hired him in 1987. "He has a lot of experience coaching all aspects and realizes how important that is," Reeves said. "He works extremely well with other coaches in coordinating things and is very loyal. He's had a lot of experience with personnel and will do a good job of evaluating talent. He was very much involved with that in the years he was with me. This is his opportunity to see if he can run the whole show. I think he can." Nolan, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area while his father was coaching the 49ers before becoming a standout free safety at the University of Oregon, has had success everywhere he has been as defensive coordinator. Strahan, for one, was surprised he isn't already a head coach in the league. "I thought this would happen when he still was in his 30s," Strahan said. "He's been around a lot, been around a lot of players and understands how to get the best out of them. You were allowed to be creative and aggressive playing for him. It's his attitude and demeanor. He can sell a program. I think he'll be able to do that out in San Francisco." When Reeves moved on to Atlanta after the 1996 season, he wanted to take Nolan with him. But – after spending 10 years as an assistant under Reeves – Nolan wanted to strike out on his own. The next year, in Nolan's first season as Washington's defensive coordinator, the Redskins finished third in the NFL in pass defense and allowed the eighth-fewest points in the league. In his last season in Washington, his defense helped lead the Redskins to the NFC East title and the second round of the playoffs. The Redskins haven't been back to the playoffs since Nolan left the team. After Nolan moved over to the Jets in 2000, the New York defense climbed 11 spots in the NFL's defensive rankings from the year before. He then went to the Ravens where – even though he was hired as wide receivers coach – he actually was hired as the team's defensive coordinator in waiting during Marvin Lewis' final year with the team in that position. Lewis became head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals the next year. Since taking over as defensive coordinator in 2002, Nolan has kept Baltimore's unit at the top of the league, even though his first season in that role was a year of transition that saw the Ravens' defense have more newcomers than holdover veterans on their starting defense. The team finished the year with eight rookies on its defensive roster. Still, the Ravens remained near the top of the NFL defensive rankings, where Baltimore finished third in total defense in 2003 (and in the top four in 10 defensive categories), when Nolan was named NFL assistant coach of the year by Football Digest. The Ravens were sixth in the NFL's defensive rankings this past season, ranking in the top 10 in 13 defensive categories. "I think this signals to the players and fans that John York is making a very strong effort to do what he needs to do to make this team better," said 49ers linebacker Derek Smith, who played for Nolan the three years he was in Washington.
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