Nolan's right: McCarthy deserves patience

"As has always been the case, they aren't handing out the 14-2 jobs. They're handing out the 2-14 jobs, and Mike got one of those," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. Packers fans would be wise to listen,'s Steve Lawrence says.

For a lot of Packers fans and more than a few writers, the jury has rendered its verdict in a mere 12 games. Mike McCarthy is guilty of being a terrible coach.

McCarthy took a lot of criticism here and elsewhere for last week's disaster against the New York Jets, and for good reason. But to say he's going to be a failure after a mere three-fourths of a season is like predicting the Apollo program would have been a failure after one catastrophic and deadly explosion.

McCarthy started his Green Bay tenure with one strike against him. He was offensive coordinator in San Francisco last season, and that group was about the worst thing to hit the NFL since the Oakland Raiders' 2006 offense.

His boss last season, 49ers coach Mike Nolan, gave a thoughtful take on the subject of McCarthy's acumen for the job during a news conference with San Francisco media this week.

"Honestly, I was probably a little surprised (the Packers hired McCarthy) because as it goes, it's usually the hot candidate, the pretty girl that gets the date. Whether they're deserving or not, everybody associates the deservingness of what your record was when you're part of a winning team. Everybody wants to steal from a winner. Nobody typically wants to steal from someone who hasn't won a game.

"For those who hire, if they're looking for qualifications that go above and beyond just who's pretty but who can actually do the job, I was not surprised at all that they hired Mike, because Mike's an extremely hard worker and a very good football guy.

"He commands respect in front of the players very well. He has got good leadership ability. He's organized, very thorough. I believe he has a lot of the qualities that you need to be a head coach and be a good one.

"The guys I've worked for – some of them have been very successful – and as I compare Mike's abilities to those guys, I think he has every right to be a very successful head coach."

Nolan continued, and these words should be remembered by fans as the Packers struggle toward the end of the season.

"As has always been the case, they aren't handing out the 14-2 jobs. They're handing out the 2-14 jobs, and Mike got one of those. It's a building process for him, but he is very qualified to do that."

Nolan would know. He took over a dreadful 49ers franchise last season, and he's slowly bringing them back toward respectability. His 49ers are 5-7 and on the fringes of the NFC playoff chase entering today's game in San Francisco .

McCarthy had a difficult challenge last season. The 49ers were breaking in a rookie quarterback, Alex Smith. While Smith is immensely talented and was the No. 1 overall pick, he also played in a funky system at Utah in which Smith ran an option running game while directing a big-play passing game. Passing from the pocket, a staple of NFL offenses, was a foreign concept to Smith.

Before he could learn how to complete passes against NFL defenses, he needed to learn the basics of quarterbacking – footwork and technique – before he could even bother learning the playbook and then learning how to read a defense.

"Our record last year isn't, in my mind, an indication of his capabilities, at all," Nolan said. "As a matter of fact, in the long run, being here last year can only help him because of what he learned in some of the things we had to go through last year."

Throw in a bad offensive line and perhaps the worst receiving corps in the NFL, and Smith – and, therefore, McCarthy – faced an almost impossible task.

"I think it's safe to say that I didn't get the job based on what we were ranked in offense last year," McCarthy told San Francisco reporters. "It's more about what you have done throughout your career. Having the opportunity to be around a staff going into your first year, particularly when we went into San Francisco last year, is something that I am very thankful for."

When judging McCarthy, it's wise to look at the big picture. Yes, he's made some horrible mistakes this season. Yes, Mr. "Pittsburgh Macho" hasn't leaned on his running game, as he promised. The hiring of Bob Sanders as defensive coordinator, while wise at the time for the sake of continuity, has been a disaster. The hiring of Kurt Schottenheimer as a defensive backs coach makes you wonder if there's some blackmail going on.

At the same time, you can't look at Smith's development this season without considering the impact of McCarthy's tutelage last season.

"Coming into this season and coming into last season, I was in two totally different places as far as knowledge, development, knowing the game, knowing defenses, the speed of the game," Smith said. "So many different things go into that. I think he really helped me growing in Year One, to help me understand those things.

"I came from such a unique system in college, there was a lot for me to learn and he helped that, really helped me progress as a quarterback. A lot of things I was able to do this year is because of what I did last year with him."

Before his one-year stint in San Francisco , he was offensive coordinator of the Saints. Sure, their history is generally lousy, but they put up unprecedented numbers with McCarthy calling the plays. No coach before or since has been able to get into the thick skull of Aaron Brooks and turn the talented athlete into a productive quarterback.

As has been – and always will be – the case, nine times out of 10, the players make the coaches, not the other way around.

Let this young offensive line develop to the point where McCarthy can actually use his entire playbook instead of playing it safe so Brett Favre doesn't get killed. Let Greg Jennings develop and get Koren Robinson back on the field. Give him another weapon beyond that, so he has an actual NFL-caliber group of playmakers at his disposal. Then let's see what he can do.

Until then, we are going to have to suffer through a lot of growing pains.  

Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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