Good Nolan -or- Bad Nolan

Mike Nolan hasn't exactly eased into his first year as 49ers coach. He has grabbed the role by the throat and shaken up the entire team since the season began. Through it all, he has remained a forceful presence who stays true to an unflappable belief that every move he makes is in the franchise's ultimate best interest as he steers the Niners forward. But, as S.F.'s football CEO, Nolan has made several controversial – and perhaps questionable – decisions and choices while running the operation.

As the 49ers head down the backstretch of their tumultuous 2005 season, SFI gives a five-point breakdown on both sides of what Nolan so far has brought to the team:

GOOD NOLAN

1. Leadership: The 49ers still are desperately searching for an identity, but there's no doubt who is standing at the front of the line. Nolan has a special ability to inspire, and he hasn't lost his players or his team despite rocking the boat with personnel decisions and various cryptic comments to the media. If a shepherd shall guide this wayward flock out of the NFL wilderness, the Niners certainly have their man in Nolan.

2. Structure: Along with personnel and chemistry, Nolan identified this as one of the essentials to success when he took the job in January. The 49ers still are working on collecting the personnel and developing the chemistry they need to be winners, but there is no doubt Nolan has a solid structural foundation in place. Meticulous and detail-oriented, Nolan has virtually every aspect of the team's daily operation covered and itemized, and that has changed several things for the better. In essence, he has trimmed the fat and runs a lean machine, and that's the kind of framework that was nowhere to be seen during the truncated Dennis Erickson era.

3. Confident optimism: According to their coach, the 49ers are always moving forward and making progress. It doesn't matter if San Francisco loses by five touchdowns, the quarterback goes down to injury, his replacement plays horribly, a defensive starter is lost for the season or the team sinks to the bottom of the NFL rankings in both offense and defense. Going through this adversity now, Nolan repeatedly says, will only make the 49ers better later, because it gives them experience to learn from. And he truly means it. And, somehow, Nolan can lay out practical explanations to make it all seem sensible – and possible.

4. The vision: Nolan has a plan, and he's sticking to it. He has steadfastly adhered to his emphasis on long-term solutions rather than quick-fix measures while still giving the real impression he's not sacrificing the present for future prosperity. That's a tough juggling act, but Nolan has handled it adroitly. To be sure, not everybody can see what he is seeing. But it remains clear as day to Nolan, and he has no problem expressing that to others, which leads to the belief it will indeed come into view sooner or later.

5. Holding it together: Nobody ever said it was going to be easy, but Nolan's debut season has turned into a downright treacherous chore filled with pitfalls, obstacles and adversity. He guided the 49ers through the Thomas Herrion tragedy without blinking a sad eye, and he has continued to motivate a team that has a hard-working mentality and is united in its purpose despite the adversity, changes and significant injuries that have sabotaged San Francisco's season.

BAD NOLAN

1. Credibility: Nolan set unrealistic goals for his team, and instead of revising them subtly and pragmatically as the season progressed, he continued to preach about hitting the "target" of winning a NFC West championship, even as the 49ers sank to the bottom of both the division and conference standings. It's nice to have confidence and strive for reaching lofty standards and all, but NFL players – not to mention fans, media and just about everyone else involved with the game – also want to believe that their new, young, first-year coach isn't just spewing a bunch of foolish malarkey. Nolan set up everybody for a huge letdown.

2. Jumping the gun: Nolan overreacted after the 49ers gave away a victory against Dallas in Week 3, unleashing an indicting traitors-in-the-house speech to the media after the game. Three days later, Nolan pointed the finger at popular linebacker Jamie Winborn, sending him home and announcing he was on the trading block and would never play again for the 49ers, virtually destroying Winborn's trade value in the process. Though most players said otherwise – for obvious reasons (keeping their jobs, for instance) – Nolan undermined the faith a lot of players had placed in him by making a public spectacle of a situation that should have been handled in a much more in-house fashion.

3. Dumping veterans: The axe was sure to come down on some holdovers that just didn't fit within the Nolan Plan, but the coach didn't display much foresight by hastily getting rid of key veterans such as Winborn and quarterback Tim Rattay while the season still was young. Considering the team is so thin in talent and veteran depth, it stands to reason the 49ers should have kept those two guys around just to get through this season. And sure enough, linebackers Jeff Ulbrich and Saleem Rasheed went down after Winborn was traded, and by midseason, the 49ers already had tried four different starters at quarterback. Those two players would have filled glaring holes, and the 49ers might be a better team right now.

4. Game management: The 49ers have had several instances where they've bungled their handling of the clock, personnel substitutions and play-calling during a game. This is Nolan's first rodeo as headmaster, so he relies on his assistants – particularly on the offensive side – for help in making heat-of-battle decisions. But that, ultimately, is what being a head coach is all about. Nolan has to do a better job of making sure the 49ers get the right players on the field and the right plays in the huddle, and he has to better realize how crucial time management is at the end of each half.

5. Identifying and handling personnel: Curiously, considering their dearth of talent, the 49ers haven't pushed many of their 2005 draft picks onto the field to see what they've got and give them the experience they need to develop. Did the new regime misfire on its crucial first draft, one that may define the Nolan era? With the team struggling, there's no reason to wait any longer to find out. And by now, you've just got to wonder if Nolan checked Jonas Jennings' injury history before he handed the offensive tackle a $36 million contract. Maybe Nolan should get himself a general manager, because it can be hell trying to do it all by yourself.


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