Mike Nolan’s worst nightmare is looming. Though the 49ers-Green Bay Packers game at Candlestick is only an exhibition, if Aaron Rodgers has a good game, it will remind people how Nolan blew his first and most important decision with the 49ers.
To review: In early 2005, though he had never been an NFL head coach, Nolan was named coach and general manager by 49ers owner John York. The Niners had the first pick in the draft and chose Alex Smith over Rodgers.
NFL insiders think Nolan thought he could trade Smith to Tampa Bay for an extra draft choice and pick up Rodgers, a former Cal star, with the Buccaneers’ pick, No. 5 in the first round. That fits with everything I’ve observed about Nolan. He’s so arrogant, he always thinks he knows more than anybody else, though there is no evidence to support that conclusion.
His drafting of Smith wasn’t as big a mistake as his handling of him. Smith’s first season was a disaster. He was trying to adjust to a pro-style offense after operating out of a spread offense for his only two seasons of major college ball, he had below-average receivers and no pass protection.
In his second year, Norv Turner was the offensive coordinator and Smith made big strides, but then last year, when Turner left, Jim Hostler took over and the offensive game plans were terrible (I suspect Nolan was more involved than he should have been). Smith was injured early, but instead of protecting his quarterback, Nolan insisted his shoulder injury wasn’t affecting his play. Smith tried to play until he finally told the media that he could no longer play and needed surgery, which ended his season.
Why is Nolan still the coach? Possibly because York didn’t want to pay off the final two years of his contract, but I think a more likely explanation is that York, having been so thoroughly flummoxed by Nolan in his interview, didn’t want to face another coaching search.
One positive came out of the rubble, though: York elevated Scot McCloughan to general manager. It is now McCloughan who’s in charge and he won’t hesitate to fire Nolan if the 49ers don’t show a marked improvement this fall. McCloughan would conduct the coaching interviews, and he won’t be so easily fooled.
Though the assumption is that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who has been a head coach, would be elevated, that’s not a certainty. McCloughan has many contacts in the league because of his background — his father, Kent, played for the Raiders and is now their scouting director, and his older brother, David, is working in the 49ers’ scouting department. He might have another choice.
Martz has said that Smith has the best physical skills of his three quarterbacks, but Smith’s confidence has taken a big hit because of the way Nolan has handled him, and he took another hit when Nolan announced there would be open competition for the starting job this summer.
The only way Nolan can come out of this mess looking good is if Smith wins the starting competition and has an outstanding year.
At the moment, though, it appears J.T. O’Sullivan has the inside track to start. If he wins the job and Rodgers has a good game Saturday night, it won’t be long before Nolan’s job title is preceded by ex.