Is the Nolan Plan working?

These are hard times for Mike Nolan and the 49ers. But the embattled head coach maintains that his team will get through the adversity it's facing this season and eventually come out the other side looking good and stronger for it. That said, Nolan doesn't dance around the fact there are problems in 49erland, and since this team is essentially his creation, he must be part of what's going wrong.

With this season of high expectations circling the drain in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, Nolan makes it clear that the buck stops at his doorstep.

"The state of this football team right now is the responsibility of the head coach," Nolan said. "Our record is my responsibility. I don't want to put this on someone else. I'm the head coach. It starts from me down."

Following a detailed plan based on his strong personal vision gleaned through two decades coaching in the NFL, Nolan has determinedly and methodically rebuilt the 49ers from the rubble of the dysfunctional Terry Donahue/Dennis Erickson era with this year - Year 3 of his program - in mind as the season San Francisco would emerge as a contender again after a half-decade of losing records.

But something isn't working. Perhaps, a lot of things aren't working. With a losing streak that started during the third week of September now stretching deep into November, just about everything regarding the Nolan Plan has come into question, even his job security with two years still remaining on the five-year deal he signed in 2005.

Team owner John York has made a point to remain in the background and let Nolan do his job as the face and voice of the organization, and that has continued even as the 2007 season turns into a weekly disappointment. If Nolan thinks he has something to prove to meet the owner's expectations as the 49ers head into the backside of November five games under .500, he's not letting on.

"I never have and never will be motivated by job security," Nolan said. "This is not a job for someone who's worried about keeping their job. My job is not motivated by fear of failure. My job is motivated by trying to get to success. I'm worried about meeting my own expectations, and those should be well and good enough for the owner."

But the 2007 49ers clearly aren't meeting Nolan's expectations, and here SFI takes a point-by-point look at some of the primary factors involved in the way he's running the team while examining what needs to change for the 49ers to get back on track as the team moves forward.

Operational overlord: Nolan was given complete authority over the football operation when hired by York, and that was one of the reasons he took the job. Both the owner and new coach envisioned an organizational hierarchy such as the one in New England where coach Bill Belichik is the boss with final say. Though Nolan's inexperience in such a demanding, all-encompassing role has been obvious in some situations, the 49ers took major steps following his lead right up to their 2-0 start this season. But now it just all looks like too much. The operational overlord is on overload. Nolan needs to focus right here, right now, on how his team is performing on the field, yet he still carries the burden of dealing with practically everything else that's going on with it outside the white lines. That's to say, this team needs a general manager that knows a little something about what that role entails at the NFL level. This isn't meant as a slam on executive vice president of football operations Lal Heneghan, but what exactly is it that Heneghan does in that position that was created by management two years ago? It doesn't seem like he's taking much of the pressure or load off Nolan. The team needs to consider giving more power to vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan, who may be ready for a GM-type role that would detach Nolan from some of the day-to-day operation of the organization and allow him to focus more on the day-to-day operation of his team on the field.

Offensive structure: If you follow the 49ers, you are well aware of their struggles on offense and how they have brought down the entire team. Nolan, who built his coaching reputation on the defensive side of the ball, made shrewd decisions when he brought in Mike McCarthy as his first offensive coordinator in 2005, then landed Norv Turner the next year after McCarthy bolted to become head coach of the Green Bay Packers. But Nolan may have underestimated how good he had it with those two qualified coaches at the controls of his offense, allowing Nolan to deal with other areas of the team that needed the attention. It's difficult to dump blame on Nolan for promoting Jim Hostler from quarterbacks coach this year to replace Turner, particularly since an unusual set of circumstances saw Turner leave the team on Feb. 19 to become head coach of the San Diego Chargers - long after most NFL teams already had assembled their 2007 coaching staffs. Translation: The good and experienced offensive minds of the NFL already had jobs, which left Nolan scrambling. Nolan - who prides himself on a well-thought-out plan - is not accustomed to scrambling, so he looked in house, which certainly seemed like a reasonable decision at the time, particularly considering Hostler's built-in relationship with quarterback Alex Smith. But the Hostler hire has been a fiasco. It's clear that there are plenty of under-performing players on offense who have let down both Hostler and the 49ers. But that said, Hostler is in over his head and he's losing the coaching chess match against opposing defensive coordinators on a regular basis. Nolan is sticking by Hostler and refuses to throw him under the bus, but a change has to be made there. And before the season ends wouldn't be too soon. There may be a coaching position or two below Hostler on the offensive side that needs some extra scrutiny, too.

Game management/preparation: It has been almost comical this season watching the 49ers get flagged for 12 men on the field and wasting timeouts in the first and third quarters because they don't get a play in on time or confusion reigns in their offensive and defensive huddles. This has happened on practically a weekly basis, sometimes several times in the same game. The 49ers could have used those burned timeouts in a few of their closer games. Because the team hasn't had a lot of those - close games, that is - in the past two months, Nolan's handling of the clock has often become a moot point, but that's another area where he needs to continue to improve. However, it has appeared too many times - and we're talking way too many times, considering this is professional football - that chaos is the state of the San Francisco sideline at key intervals and there is a breakdown in the chain of command on game days. This, again, is not Nolan's fault in a specific sense. But somebody's not doing their job, and since it has happened so many times this year, it's Nolan's job to figure it out and prevent it from continuing to happen.

Conservative approach: Back in the day when the defense looked good enough to carry this team through any rough patch, Nolan seemed content to aim for low-scoring battles that would put the 49ers in position to win at the end while relying on that defense to force turnovers and prey on opponents' mistakes. This worked well enough in the opening weeks of the season, when the 49ers won their first two games without recording more than 194 yards of offense in either of them. But by the time the 49ers realized they needed to open their attack, it was too late - not to mention the stark realization that they were unable to do it anyway. Actually, the team has done better over the past month in mixing things up and looking for the quick strike. But, as has been the case most of the season, players simply fail to execute when plays are there to be made. But as the 49ers move forward, Nolan needs to add a little bit more gamble to his coaching philosophy. The occasional onside kick that catches everybody off guard is just great - but we're talking here in a more general sense on both sides of the ball.

Leadership: There is absolutely no question that Nolan is a leader. And even as the losses mount, he never wavers in that aspect. The team as a whole still believes in him as its guiding light; that much is pretty evident. But this is a tough test for Nolan, because the team is straggling off course without anybody able to pinpoint what exactly can get it back in line. Nolan's strong personality and forceful presence lose some of their oomph when the result on Sunday is constant failure. It is critical that Nolan not lose the locker room, because there are signs that a few individuals are beginning to stray. The past two years, Nolan could just jettison any malcontent or the square pegs that didn't fit into the team's round structure. But that won't work any more. This is one of Nolan's strongest areas, and the trials of this season have not shaken his belief in himself or resolve in his methods. But it is beating him down to a degree, and he has to make sure that the chinks in his façade don't turn into crevasses that his players can see through.

Credibility: Nolan made believers of many last year by lifting a team that clearly overachieved, and it showed that he had a plan that could work and he knew when and how to push the right buttons. It was a bit over the top when Nolan put up that "Win the West" banner outside the locker room upon his arrival in 2005, but that didn't seem so silly or out of place last year when the 49ers swept three-time defending division champion Seattle while beginning their rise as one of the NFL's up-and-coming teams. But now that banner practically mocks the team as it heads out to practice, and while continuing to keep a brave face, Nolan must acknowledge the reality of the situation. Through midseason, he continued to speak in when-we-get-this-thing-turned-around tones. But after San Francisco's losing streak reached seven games with Monday's scoreless wipeout in Seattle, Nolan realized he must take a more immediate outlook, saying Wednesday, "I'm dealing with one game at a time now," and that is very much to his credit. That's where the 49ers are at this point in a trying season: They need to take it one day at a time. And that all starts with Nolan, just like everything else concerning this team does.

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