Is Nolan the next Mora?

Squint your eyes a little, and they even look alike. The similarities between Mike Nolan and Jim Mora are astounding. The Niners could have had Mora as their head coach two years ago, but they passed on the opportunity. Just look what Mora's doing now in Atlanta. When Nolan came along as a candidate to replace Dennis Erickson, 49ers owner John York wasn't going to whiff again.

Of course, for those who recall two years ago, York was quite enamored with Mora – then the 49ers' defensive coordinator – when Mora was one of three "finalists" for the job who interviewed with both York and general manager Terry Donahue. After a series of initial interviews, Donahue identified Mora, New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache as "finalists" to have a second interview involving York.

Of course, those three really weren't finalists at all. Though York was most impressed with Mora among that trio, he allowed Donahue to go another direction and find Erickson, ending a meandering, often embarrassing, two-month search to replace the deposed Steve Mariucci.

Donahue was Erickson's choice – one of many poor decisions Donahue would make over the next two years while running the franchise into the ground – but York signed off on the decision, probably agreeing that Mora might be a few years away and Erickson was a better fit to take over a veteran team that team management foolishly felt was a Super Bowl contender.

It's a decision York obviously regrets now.

He seemed to acknowledge his mistake by hiring Nolan – a young, take-charge guy with a defensive background who will instill life and accountability into a team that needs massive jolts of both.

York had that guy in Mora, but he just didn't know it at the time. This time, he took control of the interview process and came out with a guy who already is getting more respect around the league than the team's decision to hire Erickson ever did.

Which isn't quite like the kind of respect Mora is getting right now in Atlanta, but it's a start.

Mora bolted San Francisco's sinking ship after the team's 7-9 finish in Erickson's first season of 2003, leaving the team after five years as the 49ers' defensive coordinator and 20 years as an NFL assistant. All he has done in his debut season as a head coach is transform Atlanta from a 5-11 team into the NFC South champion that will be playing in the NFC Championship game this weekend.

Youthful, vibrant and just 43 years old, Mora already has won more playoff games than his father, also named Jim Mora, ever did in decades as an NFL coach.

Nolan - youthful and vibrant at 45 – also grew up around football with a father who was a head coach in the NFL. Nolan has 18 years as an NFL assistant – 11 as a defensive coordinator.

Those aren't the only similarities between the two.

"I would say, personality-wise, they are both similar," said 49ers linebacker Derek Smith, who played under Nolan when he was defensive coordinator at Washington from 1997-99 and played under Mora when both were with the Niners from 2001-2003. "They are both very driven, very high-energy people. They are going to be the last ones to leave the office and, obviously (Nolan) is going to demand that of his staff. The good thing is that you can only demand of someone what you live up to yourself, and he is someone who demands things of people, but he demands them from himself first."

San Francisco players often spoke glowingly of Mora's infectious enthusiasm and energy when he was with the team, and they played hard for him. That was something lacking throughout the team this year, and having Nolan at the top of the coaching chain can filter that kind intensity and fire down to the rest of the team.

Those who have played for Nolan say he is that kind of coach. Now he will get his chance to prove it as the top guy of an organization. Mora certainly has taken advantage of his opportunity – one he never got, but perhaps should have, with the 49ers.

"Just the fact that he has been around a lot and he understands players and how to get the best out of players, and I think that's the number one thing in coaching," New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who played for Nolan from 1993-96, said when asked what he thought would make Nolan a good coach.

"It's not so much who you have playing for you, it's how you have them playing for you," Strahan continued. "And if a guy really likes you and enjoys you, and he is going to go out and play for you, you are always going to be successful."

The Niners feel they just hired that kind of coach. They let one get away the last time they went through all this, and just look where they are now.

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