Probably the biggest mistake John York has made while running the 49ers was gutting the front office of football people. When he fired coach Dennis Erickson and general manager Terry Donahue after the 2004 season, he had no help in selecting replacements.
Everything that has gone wrong since flows from that, starting with York’s decision to hire Mike Nolan, who had never even been a head coach, as a combination coach-GM. The NFL has become too complicated for almost anyone to do both jobs. Nolan has failed at both.
Nolan’s first decision was a bad one. Given the choice between Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith, he chose Smith as the top overall pick in the 2005 draft. Many in NFL circles think Nolan thought he could trade Smith to Tampa Bay for the Bucs’ first-round pick and a later pick and still get Rodgers. If so, that only makes it worse, because that’s the kind of trade you have to set up in advance. However it went down, Nolan was left with Smith, who had only been a quarterback for three years and had played in a spread offense in college, instead of Rodgers, who had shown his mastery of a pro-type offense in a top collegiate program at Cal.
I seem to be one of the very few who still think Smith can be a good NFL quarterback, but Nolan has given him little help. Smith has had three offensive coordinators in three years, only one of them (Norv Turner) good. This year, Nolan totally mishandled the situation when Smith suffered a shoulder separation, leading to a very messy public conflict.
In the 2007 offseason, the emphasis was totally on defense, both in the draft and in free agency. The moves were generally good. First-round pick Patrick Willis had a great rookie season and, barring serious injury, seems to be starting what will be a Hall of Fame career. Cornerback Nate Clements had an excellent year. Overall, the defense was improved, though the Niners still haven’t found a way to consistently pressure the passer.
But the offense got little help. Offensive tackle Joe Staley, selected with a low first-round pick obtained in a draft day trade, is a keeper. First-year receivers Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie were busts. Lelie is not a good route runner and Jackson barely catches more passes than he drops, which is why Seattle was willing to trade him within the division.
The coaching on the offensive side of the ball has been deficient. The only receiver who has improved is Arnaz Battle, and that’s largely because of his own hard work. Tight end Vernon Davis still has the swagger he came in with, but he struggles with the basic concept of catching the ball. The offensive line deteriorated this season, though it should have been improved with Staley replacing Kwame Harris</a>.
That’s what happens when you put a defensive coach in charge of the whole operation. Stupid.
This is decision-making time for the 49ers. Apparently, Scot McCloughan will be promoted to general manager, which would be a good move. Nolan should be fired.
Most of all, York should hire more football people to assist McCloughan. The 49ers have proven that computer analysts can’t run a football operation successfully. Neither can an unproven defensive coach. It’s time to turn the page.