Mike Nolan is still defining himself as a head coach, and his firing of defensive coordinator Billy Davis is the latest illustration of that.
When Nolan was hired as coach of the 49ers in the spring of 2005, he knew little beyond the fact that he wanted to be a head coach. For a time, he thought he could fill the combined role of coach and general manager. He finally discarded that idea after talking to Mike Holmgren, who had done both but was a better coach when he concentrated on that job.
I’ve found that the coordinators who successfully move on to be head coaches have made lists for years of assistant coaches they’ve worked with or against whom they’d like to bring to their staffs. Granted that Nolan was behind because he was a late hire, he didn’t seem to have that list. He hired two coordinators, Mike McCarthy on offense and Davis on defense, with whom he had never worked with.
McCarthy, thankfully, went to Green Bay, so Nolan could hire Norv Turner, the single biggest improvement the 49ers made in the last offseason. But,Davis stayed.
In a one-on-one interview in training camp in 2005, Nolan told me he was staying out of the meetings with defensive players because he wanted the players to look to Davis for ideas, not him.
But as Davis showed that he was not yet up to the coordinator’s job, Nolan became more and more involved in the defensive strategy. At the halfway point of the 2006 season, he dropped all pretense. It was Nolan making the lineup changes, calling the game-day defenses from the sideline, huddling with defensive players on the sideline.
That was the right move then. It would not be the right move in the future.
Nolan needs to bring in an experienced defensive coordinator and go back to being the coach of the whole team.
In the recent past, it was common for coaches to act as their own coordinators, on one side of the ball or the other. Bill Walsh was certainly his own offensive coordinator.
But thatday is past and the role of coach has changed.
Successful pro head coaches no longer do hands-on coaching, nor do they devise game plans. Nolan needs to work more on leading the whole team, not just the defense, and making better game-day decisions.
Nolan has done some good things with the 49ers. Whether it’s because they respect him or fear him because they know that it’s his way or the highway, they’ve played hard for him. They’ve closed strongly in both of his seasons, including winning five of their last seven in 2006, a strong testimonial to his style.
Now, the 49ers need to take another step to get into playoff contention in 2007. Specifically, they need to open up the offense more. Take the training wheels off Alex Smith and give him more chances to win games. He proved in the last quarter against Seattle and in the fourth quarter and overtime against Denver that he’s capable of coming through in the clutch.
Turner can devise the plays, but on offense and defense, Nolan needs to step back and let his coordinators do their job. That’s the definition for success for an NFL coach these days.