Monday, October 20, 2008

49ers make the right moves in firing Nolan and promoting Singletary

I just heard that the 49ers reportedly fired coach Mike Nolan and replaced him with defensive coordinator Mike Singletary. So let’s get right to the gut reactions.

This was a good move, a necessary move by the 49ers. They should have fired Nolan after the disastrous 2007 season. Instead, John and Denise DeBartolo York let Nolan talk them into bringing him back. They stripped him of much of his front-office power and let him return as what could only be seen as a lame duck coach. For weeks, Nolan had that dead-man-coaching look. He knew what was coming.

Nolan was 2-5 this season and 18-37 in three-plus years with the 49ers. In the cutthroat NFL, getting 55 games qualifies as more than a fair chance. Granted, he took over one of the worst teams in the league, almost void of talent. So Nolan deserves credit for raising the level of talent on the team. But the results just haven’t followed.

During his tenure, Nolan made far too many strange game-day decisions. His handling of quarterback Alex Smith last season was a football crime. He publicly questioned Smith’s toughness when he was sidelined with an injury to his throwing shoulder. Smith responded by playing when he should have been letting his shoulder heal and wound up getting hurt even worse. Now, Smith’s very career is in jeopardy.

Nolan’s players didn’t quit on him. Just last week, running back Frank Gore said how much he liked Nolan and respected the job he’s done.

Even so, there was just something missing from Nolan, that intangible that great NFL coaches have. The great ones are either tactical wizards or charismatic leaders or, in rare cases, both. Unfortunately for Nolan, he was none of the above with the 49ers. Even the team’s defense – his area of expertise – took a huge and inexplicable step back this year.

Nolan was a solid NFL defensive coordinator who seemed in over his head as a head coach. He got the 49ers job largely because he played up his roots with the team as ex-coach Dick Nolan’s son and convinced the gullible John York he could fix the incredible mess that York had created. He somehow convinced York to give him power over almost all things 49er, on and off the field, even though he had never been a head coach before or held front-office power. As it turned out, Nolan was a better salesman than head coach.

I’ll give the 49ers credit for promoting Singletary, their assistant head coach. A few years ago, just before the Raiders hired Art Shell, I lobbied for them to hire Singletary. He definitely qualifies as a charismatic leader, a coach that players will follow. He has the Hall of Fame pedigree and a Super Bowl ring from his playing days with the Chicago Bears when television cameras loved to zero in on his perpetually wide-open eyes.

Some have questioned Singletary’s Xs and Os and point to the fact that he has never been a defensive coordinator. Get real. He’s a Hall of Fame linebacker now is in his sixth season as an NFL coach. Besides, Singletary has defensive coordinator Greg Manusky and offensive coordinator Mike Martz to call the plays. Singletary’s job is to motivate and lead, to make his players believe in themselves and raise their level of play.

Some will wonder why the 49ers didn’t promote Martz. Well, Martz already showed in St. Louis that he’s better offensive coordinator than head coach. Many of his game-day decisions regarding time outs and challenging calls were baffling. Besides, the 49ers need Martz to concentrate all of his efforts on coordinating their offense and tutoring struggling quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan.

There’s no guarantee that firing Nolan and promoting Singletary will save this from being another lost season for the 49ers. But in this case, changing coaches was far better than standing pat.

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