By Jason Wojciechowski on October 21, 2008 at 2:47 AM
Mike Nolan, long rumored to be on the hot seat, finally got fired today, the day after San Francisco's losing streak stretched to four games. Just as across the Bay, the 49ers promoted a non-coordinator to be the new head coach. Mike Singletary was a linebackers coach, as he has been since 2005, although he had also earned the label "Assistant Head Coach," so this doesn't look like a promotion over the top a la Seattle's succession plan, where the defensive backs coach, former Niners assistant Jim Mora, will be the head coach next year and decide whether to keep his boss, the defensive coordinator, on the staff.
Anyway, Nolan had quite a bit of time to build a winning team, and the pocketbook has been open: Nate Clements and Justin Smith are among the major parts that have been added to the team via free agency. Further, in his first year, he had Alex Smith, the #1 overall pick, to work with. Smith struggled in every year that he wasn't playing for Norv Turner, both with his performance and with injuries. This year was no different: he apparently lost the spring training battle to lifetime third stringer J.T. O'Sullivan, and was soon thereafter placed on IR with a shoulder injury. One has to wonder whether he has an NFL career left at all, much less one in San Francisco. While the offense's struggles were somewhat expected as the team lost its first two offensive coordinators, talented play-callers, to head coaching jobs (Mike McCarthy and Norv Turner), the defense's difficulties, given Nolan's reputation as a defense-minded coach and the amount of money spent on players brought in from outside, were far harder to swallow.
Nolan also apparently had communication difficulties with Smith, the man who was supposed to be at the center of San Francisco's resurgence. The two clashed far more often than you'd hope a quarterback and head coach would clash. The Jeff Garcia-Jon Gruden situation this year is somewhat reminiscent of the Smith-Nolan difficulties. The difference is that Garcia is a proven NFL quarterback and Gruden is one of the very best coaches in the league, and may well go down as one of the best in history (as well as a fan favorite -- everyone loves "Chucky"). Smith and Nolan simply don't have that kind of leeway.
So that's all in the past now. The future is with Mike Singletary. I confess, I'm excited for this. Obviously, no one knows what he will do as a head coach, but he has quickly earned a reputation around the league as a guy who should be a head coach, and a good one. He has had interviews for head coaching jobs in the past (Wikipedia tells me the Cowboys and Chargers have shown interest). For that reason alone, I'm glad San Francisco made this move now, preempting Singletary potentially leaving for greener pastures at the end of this season if the 49ers dithered over whether to keep Nolan or not. One could compare the situation to the way Texas fans feel about defensive coordinator Will Muschamp -- the man is well respected, a great coach at what he does, and potentially a great head coach. And everyone's worried that Mack Brown will stick around so long that they'll lose their shot at getting Muschamp to be their head coach.
I'll admit that part of my love for Singletary goes back to a profile in Boys' Life, the Scouting magazine, I read when I was about nine. He's one of the greatest linebackers in history, a proud part of the Chicago linebacking tradition, and an intense and intelligent competitor who overcame less-than-amazing physical skills to be a dominant force at the position. Now, my irrational love for the man has very little to do with how well he'll do as a head coach. And let's not forget that Nolan himself was a hot head coaching prospect as well. I was ecstatic that he was coming to San Francisco to remake the team after the disastrous Dennis Erickson years. He would be the new Steve Mariucci, a whiz kid, albeit on the defensive side of the ball.
Going forward, I hope Singletary takes a look at the offensive side of the ball. J.T. O'Sullivan and the play-calling continue, in my opinion, to be the issues on this team. O'Sullivan simply isn't a good enough quarterback to be taking seven-step drops and looking downfield as often as he does. He doesn't protect the football, as he's fumbled and thrown interceptions far too often. Mike Martz quarterbacks always take a beating, but they have to be able to protect the ball in the face of that beating.
Singletary has to ask himself, "If I were sitting at middle linebacker, which guy would I not want to see with the ball in his hands?" The answer is obvious: Frank Gore. Gore should be getting 25 runs a game and five more catches: a couple of screens and one or two checkdowns. For one thing, Gore's massive talent is going to waste in the here and now. For another, Gore can't be happy getting the kind of work he's getting, which makes it more likely that he'll leave the team in free agency at some point, something no one wants to see happen.
As for the passing game, Singletary should ask who presents the most matchup nightmares, and the answer is equally obvious: Vernon Davis. San Francisco should be using him like Indianapolis uses Dallas Clark, lining him up in the slot or at the end, getting him downfield, throwing short passes into the flat, seven-yard ins over the middle, etc. In short, variety. I know the story on Davis is, "But he's such a good blocker!" Ok, fine. So let him block for Frank Gore when you're running the ball. But for goodness sake, is there any linebacker in the league who can run with Davis? Is there any safety or corner who can tackle him, or muscle him off his route? When the battle for the title of best receiver is between Isaac Bruce and Josh Morgan, you need to get creative about your offense.
If Mike Martz is such a genius, he should prove it by adapting to the talent at hand. That's what great managers do, in sports, in business, in life. They take the materials they have and maximize the potential of those materials. Martz has not shown an ability to do that this year with San Francisco, and Singletary could do worse than to sit him down and have a talk about who the best players on the team are. Whatever they come up with, the answer is not going to be "J.T. O'Sullivan."