When a team collapses, there are always two figures in the crosshairs, the coach and the quarterback. And so it is with the 49ers after their latest debacle.
Coach Mike Nolan is in the more precarious position. He has total authority, acting as his own general manager in addition to coaching. But in his third season, the 49ers seem to be moving backward.
In retrospect, Nolan made serious miscalculations in the offseason, hiring two inexperienced coordinators, JimHostler on offense and Greg Manusky on defense.
Hostler got tremendous criticism for his conservative early game plans, but I believe Nolan was leaning heavily on him — and Nolan is very conservative.
The last two games, Nolan has apparently backed off. The offensive game plans have been much better, though the results have not. Nonetheless, I think Hostler will be fine the rest of the way.
Nolan’s bigger mistake, I think, was hiring Manusky, simply because Manusky knows the 3-4 defense that Nolan loves. Nolan and Scot McCloughan also did their best to give Manusky a better unit, signing cornerback Nate Clements and pass-rushing linebacker defensive lineman Tully Banta-Cain as free agents and drafting linebacker Patrick Willis, a star in the making.
You’d never have known that the 49ers’ defense was improved, though, if you watched New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees dissect it in the Saints’ 31-10 victory on Sunday. Brees completed almost 80 percent of his passes (31-for-39) and the 49ers had no answer for him. They could neither put pressure on Brees nor cover his receivers.
Nolan, who was a defensive coordinator himself, has now hired two duds, first Billy Davis and then Manusky. Nolan was making game- day defensive decisions by the second half of the season in 2006. He may have to do the same this season, which should not be a head coach’s responsibility.
In his third season, quarterback Alex Smith is still a question mark, but though some fans I talked to after the game were critical, I think most are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after he played through pain.
The 49ers have no choice but to stick with Smith, given the dearth of quality quarterbacks in the NFL today. He has the ability to be a good NFL quarterback and he has the respect of his teammates. What he doesn’t have are quality receivers. Darrell Jackson, who was injured and didn’t play Sunday,is the only proven receiver, and he’s more of a possession type. Ashley Lelie has the speed, but he’s bounced around the league because he doesn’t work hard in practice and he doesn’t run good routes, traits that have followed him to San Francisco.
The Niners have also had offensive line problems all season. They finally put third-year man Adam Snyder in at left tackle, replacing the overrated Jonas Jennings. They next need to put in David Baas, another 2005 draftee, at right guard. With rookie Joe Staley at right tackle, that gives them a very young line, but one they could build on for the future, since they have no present.
Nolan? He needs to show he can hold this team together this season and give 49ers fans some hope for the future. If he fails here, after being given carte blanche to build his kind of team, his head-coaching career is over.