Mike Nolan is certain he has the right approach. The 49ers’ future, near- and long-term, depends on whether their coach is right.
Last season was a bumpy ride for the first-year coach. It started with crises over which he had no control: The lamentable video that was racially insensitive and the death of offensive lineman Thomas Herrion after an exhibition game.
Nolan created his own problems, though, with his “my way or the highway” approach. He had to trade linebacker Jamie Winborn, whose freelancing style did not fit Nolan’s defensive schemes. There were other internal problems and fullback Fred Beasley, linebacker Julian Peterson, linebacker-defensive end Andre Carter — the first two being former Pro Bowl players — all left as free agents after the season.
In all, only 22 players remain from the 2-14 team he inherited from Dennis Erickson, which doesn’t bother Nolan.
“There may be more that will be forced out this season,” he said in a conversation at the 49ers’ facility. “There are plenty of players in the NFL and there are very few indispensable ones.”
Left unsaid was the obvious: On a 2-14 team, there can’t be many good ones. Nolan uses a family comparison.
“It’s like I’m the stepfather coming in,” he said. “They’re used to doing things one way and they’re not comfortable with the way I do it. It’s not that they’re bad people. I really like Fred Beasley, but he just couldn’t do what I asked him to do. For Fred and others like him, it’s better that they move on.”
Though he insisted at his first press conference that he would have the final word on everything, Nolan has backed off some in practice, if not in speech. He has confidence in Scot McCloughan, the playerpersonnel chief whom he had not met before McCloughan was hired last year. Lal Heneghan was hired earlier this year to give the 49ers an experienced NFL executive.
“I’m still the one who makes the final decision,” Nolan said, “but I listen to Scot and I listen to Lal. It’s good to have different opinions, instead of always hearing just one.”
Nolan’s offseason moves have been solid. He traded wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, another malcontent, to the Washington Redskins for draft choices and then signed free agent Antonio Bryant, a definite upgrade at receiver. He signed veteran guard Larry Allen to solidify the offensive line and provide veteran leadership. He signed Trent Dilfer as a veteran backup at quarterback.
In the draft, the 49ers got tight end Vernon Davis, an electrifying talent who is faster than any receiver on the roster. Using the draft choices from the Redskins, Nolan traded with Denver to add the 22nd pick in the first round, drafting Manny Lawson, who effectively replaces Peterson.
Now, he has to build on the momentum from 2005, when the 49ers won their final two games, and he’s confident he can.
“I don’t think I learned anything last year so much as reinforced what I already knew,” said Nolan, who had 18 seasons as an NFL assistant and whose father, Dick, was once a 49ers coach. “I won’t be changing anything this year.”
Is that confidence — or arrogance? Whatever you call it, I think Nolan and the Niners are on the right track.