NFC West: Nolan fired

Why the Singletary move could make sense

October, 21, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

Mike Singletary may or may not become a quality NFL head coach. The 49ers' decision to hire him on an interim basis became logical in one respect because it didn't weaken the most critical positions on the staff.

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky might have been more qualified than Singletary in the traditional sense; Singletary has never been an NFL coordinator. But hiring Martz or Manusky as head coach might have prevented either man from dedicating as much time to his current job.

The situation in St. Louis was different because Jim Haslett had extensive experience as a head coach, making him the most logical choice for the job once Scott Linehan was fired. The Rams could promote Haslett from defensive coordinator to head coach without as much worry because linebackers coach Rick Venturi, since promoted to defensive coordinator, had coordinating experience dating to the 1980s.

Niners general manager Scot McCloughan borrowed his philosophy on coaches from his former boss, Ron Wolf. The thinking goes like this: If your head coach has a defensive background, offensive coordinator becomes the next most important hire. McCloughan, like Wolf, also places high value on the offensive line coach. That explains why the 49ers brought in Chris Foerster to assist George Warhop as line coach this season. The 49ers fired Warhop, a Nolan hire, and promoted Foerster once the team fired Nolan.

Nolan's statement not the only one

October, 21, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

Former 49ers coach Mike Nolan has issued a statement through the team:

"I want to thank the York Family for the opportunity to coach the San Francisco 49ers. It is the responsibility of the head coach to build a foundation and an environment for success. In many area's we were, although it is winning that ultimately determines success.

"I also want to thank our players for their dedication and willingness to work hard. Even during the toughest of times they remained strong and fought through it. It is difficult to put into words my respect for guys that played for the 49ers over the past 3 1/2 seasons. They have my complete respect and admiration. I am forever indebted to them.

The 49ers made a more symbolic statement Tuesday beyond the coaching change. Niners vice president of strategic planning/owner Jed York took the lead role in the news conference, ahead of his father and principal owner, John York.

Jed York and general manager Scot McCloughan were in the room with Nolan when Nolan found out the 49ers were firing him Monday. John York wasn't in the building. McCloughan said he wasn't sure of John York's whereabouts at the time.

Something to keep in mind as the 49ers move forward. John York and Denise DeBartolo York are the owners, but their son's role in the organization is gaining prominence.

Nolan urged Singletary to take job

October, 21, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

An emotional Mike Singletary is addressing reporters after the 49ers have formally introduced him as the interim successor to Mike Nolan. His comments:

"I don't think Mike nor myself realized the task at hand. When I sat down yesterday and basically looked at him and he looked at me, it was just one of those situations where before I could say a word, he said, 'I want you to understand something. I want you to take this job. I don't even want you to blink. I know you have the heart of the players at hand and I know they are important to you. I know you will be fair to the coaching staff and I know you can bring it together. What we have built together has come to and end, but I want you to take it to the next level. If you do not take the job, I will be very disappointed in you as my friend.'

"Needless to say, at that point, it was very clear that I was going to take the job. There was no hesitation, with his blessing. What I think about when I look at this organization, there is a lot of talent, a lot of good coaches. I'm excited about the opportunity. I'm excited about taking it to the next level. I'm excited about the people I work with, [GM] Scot [McCloughan] being one of them, and Jed [York]. I'm excited about that."

It was clearly important to Singletary that Nolan signed off on him taking the job. The emotion in Singletary's voice is what we would expect from him based on how he played the game. Singletary said he won't make a bunch of changes. He said he'll just be himself.

Mailbag: Holmgren and the 49ers

October, 21, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

Ikee from Philadelphia writes: Ok Mike, I asked you a question before asking if Nolan was fired do you think Alex Smith might come back to San Francisco for a pay cut or if he still had a chance to be the No. 1 QB.

 Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
 Could Mike Holmgren make a return to the 49ers?
Well, Nolan is gone earlier than expected.

I would still like to know if Smith may be back next year, but I also would like your thoughts on the future of the franchise. Do you think Mike Singletary will remain the head coach and what about Mike Holmgren? Everyone knows he wants to join the 49ers in some way in the future. Could that be as a head coach or a GM and if so how soon?

Mike Sando: Mike Holmgren told his family he would take the 2009 season off. I expect Holmgren to honor that promise. He'll have other opportunities, perhaps even in San Francisco. But unless his family urges him to dive back in right away, Holmgren will probably sit out next season. I have wondered, however, if his thinking could change based on what happens this season. If the Seahawks finish with a horrible record, would it make Holmgren need the year off even more, or would he be itching to bounce back sooner?

Whatever timeline Holmgren follows, I'm sure he will do his homework about an organization before taking a job, for reasons explained in this 2005 Holmgren profile I wrote from the NFL meetings in Hawaii. In short, Holmgren clashed with then-Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt. As Holmgren put it then:

"I really came to Seattle thinking it was something else. I'm not throwing anybody under the bus, but I thought it was going to be something, and it wasn't that, and then you kind of live with it. Then at some point you say, 'Man, what was I told when I first came here? This is not even close.' But you know what? Having said that, I don't regret my decision at all."

You can count on Holmgren taking precautions to ward off a repeat in his next job. He'll get things in writing to make sure the organization is set up the way he wants it set up.

As for Mike Singletary, I think he'll have to grow into the role in a hurry and win games to keep the job. Nolan was learning how to be a head coach while being a head coach. He wasn't very presidential in his dealings with people. The head coach should be able to handle people more effectively. And by people, I mean people beyond the players. Holmgren does that very well. Singletary must prove he can do that better than Nolan. He has to win games and this is not going to be a consistent team with a first-year starting quarterback.

It's too early to make a call on Alex Smith's future with the 49ers past this season. Having Nolan leave doesn't hurt the odds, that's for sure. But we still do not know who will be coaching the team in 2009. That's the key.

(Read full post)

Posted by's Mike Sando

Notes and perspective on Mike Nolan's firing as 49ers coach, courtesy of ESPN Research and Elias Sports Bureau:

  • Nolan's winning percentage was .327 (18-37). That's the second-worst percentage among 49ers coaches with at least 10 games. Only Dennis Erickson had a lower percentage (.281, 9-23).
  • Since 2005, when Nolan took over, the 49ers have the third-worst winning percentage in the NFL. Only the Raiders (.222) and Lions (.278) have been worse.
  • The 49ers' opponents outscored Nolan's teams by 8.9 points per game on average (25.5 to 16.6). Dave McGinnis is the only other coach in NFL history to last 50 games while getting outscored by more points per game. Opponents outscored McGinnis' Cardinals teams by 10.1 points per game (25.4 to 15.3) over four seasons.
  • Nolan is the third head coach to lose his job this season (Scott Linehan, Lane Kiffin). This marks the second time since 1989 that three or more teams have changed head coaches during a season. The Cardinals, Bengals, Lions and Redskins did it in 2000.
  • This is the first time since 1976 that three teams have changed coaches in the first seven weeks of a season. That was the year Tommy Hudspeth replaced Rick Forzano in Detroit, Pat Peppler replaced Marion Campbell in Atlanta, Jim Ringo replaced Lou Saban in Buffalo and John McVay replaced Bill Arnsbarger as Giants coach.
  • The last seven head coaches to lose their jobs during the regular season: Nolan, Kiffin, Linehan, Steve Mariucci (2005), Dan Reeves (2003), Vince Tobin (2000) and Norv Turner (2000).
  • Mike Singletary becomes the fifth man to become an NFL head coach after being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Otto Graham, Larry Wilson, Raymond Berry and Art Shell were the others. The first Hall of Fame class was enshrined in 1963.
Of all those notes, the one about being outscored by 8.9 points per game resonates most profoundly, in my view. That is an astounding average deficit in a game known for parity, particularly given the state of the NFC West during that time.

Posted by's Mike Sando

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says recently fired 49ers coach Mike Nolan will be remembered in San Francisco for what he could not do. "Nolan will be remembered as a man who couldn't adequately evaluate talent, who could not get the most out of whatever talent he had, who could not effectively manage games, who didn't always know the rules and, worst of all, who could not win."

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat was traveling from the East Coast when the 49ers fired Nolan. Other than that, nothing much happened on the beat while Maiocco was cruising along at 35,000 feet.

Also from Maiocco: Initial thoughts on the coaching move, including the feeling that Mike Martz now becomes a short-timer.

More from Maiocco: 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan says he's confident in Singletary's ability to "turn our season around."

Tom FitzGerald of the San Francisco Chronicle says news reports of Nolan's possible firing influenced the 49ers' decision to make the move sooner instead of later. Nolan presumably wasn't pleased when the reports came out.

Also from FitzGerald: Singletary appears to have the respect of the players.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers should have waited until the bye week to make a coaching change. He says a lousy sense of timing is standard for the organization.

Kevin Lynch of Niner Insider says Nolan's failure to listen, reflected in multiple cases of alleged misunderstandings, dragged him down.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Nolan enjoyed a better reputation nationally than in the Bay Area.

Ailene Voison of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers should have fired Nolan in January.

Dan Brown of the San Jose Mercury News described Nolan's tenure as "an epic failure for a coach who arrived full of confident talk and audacious gestures."

Also from Brown: A look at Singletary's connections to Bill Walsh.

Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News says Nolan's firing begins a long rebuilding process for the organization. He doesn't expect success under Singletary.

Quick thoughts on Nolan's firing

October, 21, 2008

Posted by's Mike Sando

Mike Nolan's firing as 49ers head coach marks the beginning of a transition period marked by more questions than concrete answers. A few thoughts:

  • The worse the 49ers felt about their quarterback situation, the harder time Nolan was going to have keeping his job. The 49ers nearly fired Nolan after the 2007 seasons because Nolan had won only a third of his games in three season while mishandling 2005 first-round draft pick Alex Smith.
  • Rolling the dice on quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan seemed like a good idea early this season, but four consecutive defeats have revealed O'Sullivan as a turnover waiting to happen. Nolan hired offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Martz brought in O'Sullivan and pushed him as the starter. The quarterback situation needed to work. It has not.
  • Nolan had GM powers when the 49ers drafted Smith. Injuries and coordinator changes hurt Smith's chances for success. Those factors were beyond Nolan's control, but reasons don't qualify as excuses in the NFL. Failing to make that pick work was going to haunt Nolan sooner or later.
  • This organization needs direction. Linebackers coach Mike Singletary became the choice to replace Nolan on an interim basis. I had considered defensive coordinator Greg Manusky as a potential frontrunner based on conversations with people in the organization. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz remains the most accomplished coach on staff. Where is this team headed? Will any of these coaches stay beyond this season?
  • Nolan's insistence upon taking himself seriously at all times worked against him when times got tough. Though wearing suits on game days was a tribute to his late father, the practice came to symbolize Nolan's sometimes excruciating efforts to look the part. If Nolan gets another chance as a head coach, he'll be better served lightening up.
  • Nolan won a higher percentage of news conferences than games as 49ers coach. He couldn't hide his disdain for reporters who dared to question his approach. Nolan was regularly condescending and even disdainful. He almost never admitted a mistake.
  • If Nolan ever lost the players, it wasn't obvious. They played hard, but ultimately not well enough.

I learned about the firing after midnight ET following a nearly 5-hour flight from St. Louis. We'll have lots more as the day unfolds.