Glenn Dickey: Learning from guys who do it best 

As Mike Nolan watched the more-talented San Diego Chargers fall to the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoffs, I wonder if he thought that he might someday be the kind of coach who can get his team to the playoffs but then fail.

As Marty Schottenheimer does.

As Nolan’s dad, Dick, also did.

Dick Nolan did a masterly job of getting a 49ers team that had stumbled through most of the ’60s into the postseason for three straight years. But he could never get his team to the Super Bowl, losing three straight years in the playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys.

The one distinguishing factor in coaches who can’t succeed in the postseason is usually conservatism. Winning in the regular season is mostly about consistency, but in the playoffs, it takes boldness and ingenuity. Bill Walsh knew that. Bill Belichick knows that today. But Schottenheimer, who has lost 13 of 18 games in the postseason, doesn’t understand that.

John Madden was a conservative coach in his early years with the Raiders. His refusal to take out an injured Daryle Lamonica in the 1969 AFL Championship Game against Kansas City cost the Raiders that game and, most likely, the chance at their first Super Bowl win. The NFL representative, the Minnesota Vikings, was weaker than both of the two top AFL teams that year. And Kansas City easily beat them in the Super Bowl.

Like Mike Nolan, Madden went for a field goal when his team was a foot from the goal line in a critical game, this one a 1971 game against Kansas City.

That game ended in a tie, and the Chiefs won the rematch in Kansas City, temporarily ending the Raiders’ postseason run.

Ken Stabler cured Madden’s conservatism. At the time, quarterbacks called the plays and there wasn’t a conservative bone in the Snake’s body. His daring play was a big factor as the Raiders won their first Super Bowl after the 1976 season.

Now, it’s the coaches who call the plays, and Nolan has an excellent coordinator in Norv Turner. But Nolan still makes critical calls, such as the one alluded to earlier, when he called for a field goal with a foot to go for a touchdown against St. Louis, a decision that cost the 49ers the game.

Nolan and his assistants do an excellent job of coaching during the week. He has his players united behind him. They play hard and they play with spirit.

Even when they’ve trailed in games, they haven’t given up and have made some excellent comebacks against good teams, such as the win in Seattle over the Seahawks and the upset against the Denver Broncos.

But he needs to step back and give Turner more responsibility for the big calls, which also means giving Alex Smith more of a chance to win games instead of relying on the running game and defense.

Most of all, he needs to follow the example of Walsh, not his dad.

Walsh’s ability to keep the other team off-balance was a huge factor in the 49ers’ postseason successes, especially in their first Super Bowl season in 1981.

Ultimately, a coach is judged by his team’s performance in the big games.

That’s one reason Walsh will always be more highly regarded than Schottenheimer. That’s a lesson Nolan should absorb.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also hosts his own web site, Straight Talk About Sports. E-mail him at

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Glenn Dickey

Glenn Dickey

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