Mike Nolan is following Bill Walsh’s pattern with the 49ers by first improving the offense. Now, he must do as Walsh did next, working on the defense, if the 49ers are ever to get back to playoff contention.
In 1979, Walsh brought in his offensive system, and the 49ers scored points, 308 his first year, 320 the second.
But, oh, that defense!
Even in Walsh’s second year, the 49ers lost consecutive games — 48-26 to the Los Angeles Rams and 59-14 to the Dallas Cowboys. Walsh drafted for defense the following spring, getting defensive backs Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Carlton Williamson and Lynn Thomas. You know the rest of the story.
Nolan has concentrated on the offensive side of the ball with his high draft picks and has done well. He picked a quarterback with the very first pick in 2005 because you have to start with a quarterback in the NFL. Alex Smith was very shaky as a rookie but has generally played well his second season. I think he has a bright future.
In the second and third rounds in 2005, Nolan went for running back Frank Gore and offensive linemen David Baas and Adam Snyder. Gore is a solid No. 1 running back and a good one, though he’s had fumblitis this season. Baas is a backup, as is Snyder, who is in a curious position. He’s the best tackle on the team. But because the health of tackle Jonas Jennings and guard Larry Allen is so tenuous, Nolan wants Snyder available as a reserve at both guard and tackle. That leaves Kwame Harris, an obvious weak spot, at right tackle. Hopefully, by next season, Nolan can find another backup at tackle, either as a free agent or in the draft, so Harris can be replaced and Snyder can be a starter. He should have a long, successful career.
This year, Nolan used his first pick to get tight end Vernon Davis, though he went for defense with his second pick in the first round, choosing Manny Lawson. And he signed free-agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant. Davis is on the injured list for at least another week, and he had a serious case of the dropsies when he played. But so did Jerry Rice in the first part of his rookie season. Having watched Davis in minicamps and training camp, I know he can catch the ball. He’s just had rookie jitters. When he settles down, he should become an Antonio Gates-type tight end.
Meanwhile, the defense has holes everywhere. There’s been no consistent pass rush and the secondary has been porous.
Part of the problem has been the use of the 3-4 defense. Why defensive coordinator Billy Davis ever thought this was a good idea is beyond me.
Bryant Young is the 49ers’ best defensive lineman in a 4-3 but not very effective in a 3-4. Anthony Adams, at 6-0, 300-pounds, is not the wide-body type you need at nose tackle. Going back to the 4-3 should help.
But, it will have to be the draft that is the savior for Nolan, as it was for Walsh. The 49ers could have as many as eight picks in the first four rounds this spring. Nolan and Scot McCloughan must use them wisely.