Senior Bowl service set up 49ers for success

Sign up the San Francisco coaching staff to spend a winter week in Alabama for life. Specifically, Senior Bowl week in Mobile at the end of January. Go ahead, Mike Nolan, put your team's name on the dotted line and make a deal with the NFL that you and your subordinates will coach the South squad in the premier college All-Star game every year from here to eternity.

Or, at least, for however long you remain the team's coach.

Nolan says he's not going to do it.

"I hope we never coach it again," Nolan said, citing a perfectly legitimate reason. "Because I hope we're playing (then) instead."

But Nolan's first two teams with the 49ers weren't playing at the end of January, when only the elite NFL teams still are roaming the gaudiest gridirons across America. Those two San Francisco teams weren't even still playing at the start of January, their seasons over before the playoffs began.

But to Nolan's credit, he kept looking for ways to make his downtrodden team better while most other NFL coaching staffs were planning their winter vacations. One of those ways was for his staff to coach at the Senior Bowl, where they could get a firsthand look at the top college talent in the land while rubbing elbows and sharing stories with players on a personal level and daily basis.

That kind of thing helps tremendously when it comes time to make final evaluations of who to select and who not to select come draft weekend.

And just look at the results. Four of San Francisco's nine draft picks in 2006 - linebackers Manny Lawson and Parys Haralson, running back Michael Robinson and cornerback Marcus Hudson - played in the Senior Bowl, and each of them already has shaped up into a player the 49ers want around to grow with the team.

That's no accident. It's because the 49ers knew what they were getting thanks to their Senior Bowl exposure to those players.

But this year's Senior Bowl bounty is almost ridiculous. Six of San Francisco's nine draft picks played in the January game this year - first-rounders Patrick Willis and Joe Staley, third-rounders Jason Hill and Ray McDonald, fourth-rounder Jay Moore and sixth-rounder Thomas Clayton - and that makes it no coincidence the 49ers pounced on these high-talent individuals in the draft last month.

And, when all was said and done, the Niners came out of draft weekend with one of the best collections of college talent in the entire draft. Almost two weeks after the draft, now that there has been plenty of time for the dust to settle, football analysts are universally calling San Francisco's draft one of the best in the NFL, if not the very best.

In 2006, coming of a dismal 4-12 season in Nolan's first year as coach, the 49ers were practically obligated to coach one of the two Senior Bowl squads. That's what the dregs of the NFL do.

But that wasn't the case last year after the team climbed to a 7-9 finish. In fact, it took a bunch of coaching changes among the teams ahead of San Francisco in the NFL draft order for the 49ers to even be considered.

But when Nolan saw some other teams that were ahead of San Francisco in the pecking order failing to take the initiative, he jumped right in and took charge. What better way to give his rising team another advantage come draft weekend?

"Yeah, we were pushing hard from the very beginning," Nolan said. "It's a great opportunity. We want to take advantage of it. We knew long in advance last year that we were going to be one of the top teams (eligible to coach in the Senior Bowl), but this year we called early because with three weeks to go we knew we weren't going to be the top priority, and they still made us wait."

But when the league finally came calling, "We said sure," Nolan said. "I had already given coaches the calendar for time off, but I called a meeting the very next day and told them that calendar's changing, we're going to coach the game."

With just how many NFL teams, exactly, do you think that would have went over well? How many would be so eager - less than a month after completing a grueling, everyday, five-month grind - to spend a week coaching a bunch of college kids who have never played together as a team?

You wouldn't even need all the fingers on one hand to count that answer.

"They're having enough teams saying no for various reasons, and other teams just don't want to do it," Nolan said.

The 49ers are the exception to the rule. And good for them. It might mean a bit of extra work - an obligation of time that could have been spent with well-deserved rest - but that's how you get ahead in the dog-eat-dog world of the NFL.

"If they would designate us as the coaching staff every year - if we weren't playing - that would be fine with me," Nolan said.

So go ahead, sign up that 49ers coaching staff right now for eternal service.

Or don't sign them up. Because, after getting a leg up on the rest of the league with their Senior Bowl commitment, the San Francisco staff might find themselves still coaching their own team in Januarys to come.

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