Part II: Now comes the hard part

PART II: Mike Nolan has handled the disconcerting dance of a first-year coach/organizational chief well while expertly juggling the manifold responsibilities and demands of his position. Now, Nolan must put his primary focus on the burden of managing a game on Sundays while continuing to institute his approach and philosophy. But don't tell Nolan it can't be done – that the 49ers can't make the leap back to respectability in 2005 – because he has been part of massive rebuilding projects before.

So far, Nolan has handled the disconcerting dance well while expertly juggling the manifold responsibilities and demands of his position.

As operational chief of the football side of the franchise, he is constantly being pulled in different directions by the many departments within his own organization. That's not to mention the tugging he must deal with daily from media and regularly from the local business and political community as well.

But now, as the season finally draws near, Nolan can concentrate on his most important football relationships of all: Those he continues to develop with players and has been nurturing for months.

"Everything that I do from the guys I hire, to the practice structure, I try to be friendly to the player," Nolan said. "What I mean by that is, what's going to make them better. Just killing them all the time and banging them does not make them tougher. I'd rather have a guy that's real fresh and shows me his toughness than a guy who's beat up. I'm comfortable that the things I'm doing are making us better.

"I may have a target that's different than how they feel about it. I think I'm hitting the target, but I do want to communicate with them."

Nolan has wielded his encompassing power with an easy hand, but there have been virtually no challenges to his authority as he attempts to institute his scheme, approach and philosophy on the game and how the team should be run.

"I think everybody's buying into it. Definitely," veteran 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "Everything is done thorough, first class. He seems like a guy that doesn't leave a stone unturned. I think we've kind of seen him enough on the practice field to know he's going to be the same guy on game day."

That's the big rub now as the real games are set to begin: How will Nolan – with the weight of a tormented franchise and its restless fans weighing down on him – be able to manage a game? He already has shown – in impressive and almost inspiring fashion – that he can manage the team and the multiple burdens that entails.

But now he has a quarterback situation that must be handled delicately throughout the season. Now he must balance trust with decision making as he develops heat-of-battle Sunday rapport with his coordinators, Mike McCarthy on offense and Billy Davis on defense. Now he must squeeze maximum performance out of a roster that still appears lacking in abundance of talent.

But don't tell him that it can't be done, that the 49ers can't make that leap back to respectability in 2005, and perhaps build upon it as they get there during the season.

Nolan has been part of massive rebuilding projects before. In his first season as Baltimore defensive coordinator in 2002, the Ravens had purged their roster of much of the veteran talent that had led the team to a Super Bowl victory two seasons before.

"It's kind of crazy," Nolan said. "We let all those guys go, and Brian (Ravens head coach Brian Billick) said to me before the opening game in the locker room, ‘Mike, I just hope I'm not the first guy to go 0-16.'"

Instead – with "the youngest team ever in the NFL. Not just in that year, but ever," according to Nolan – the Ravens started 7-7 and were in position for a playoff berth before losing their final two games by a combined total of four points. They were AFC North champions the next season.

"That's what makes me confident," Nolan said. "Good players, good people and good coaching combined give you a chance. You can't ask for much more. That's where we are. The set of circumstances will be different, as they are in every case. It takes a lot of people to go 2-14, just like it takes a lot of people to go 14-2. We're headed in the right direction, but we've got work to do."

And nobody has more of it to do than Nolan, despite everything he already has done since joining the 49ers.


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