When Coach Mike Nolan was hired in 2005, it was supposed to signal an end to the Donahue era and its losing ways. The hiring of Nolan also marked the second time in three years that the 49ers were tasked with rebuilding. The Nolan era was dotted with many turbulent highs and lows. Nolan used the #1 overall pick in 2005 on Utah QB Alex Smith. From Nolan’s perspective, Smith was to be the franchise QB of which to build the team around. Smith’s ride through his first four years in the NFL has been bumpy as well. Saddled with four offensive coordinators in four years mixed in with some injuries, Smith never developed into the franchise QB that the team and its fans projected him to be. But the 2005 draft did bring some good fortune. Frank Gore was plucked in the third round of what may be considered the best steal of the 2005 draft.
Throughout the years, Nolan mixed his erratic drafts with his erratic free agent signings. Some free agent signings were more exciting than others. In 2005, Nolan threw a hefty contract at LT Jonas Jennings to protect Smith’s blind side. Jennings proved to be ineffective in that role as injuries kept him off the field for much of the past four years. 2006 brought CB Walt Harris to the team. Harris is aging, but continues to play at a high level as proven by the only Pro Bowl appearance in his career (2006). In the case of the above, Jennings was the signing that brought more excitement over Harris, but Harris proved to be more productive over the past three years.
So what was the result of Nolan’s efforts the past 3 1/2 years?
2005 – 4-12; first year of rebuilding.
2006 – 7-9; progress with Norv Turner as offensive coordinator.
2007 – 5-11; regressed with the loss of Turner.
2008 – 2-5; fired after week 7.
We now head into the Scot McCloughan/Mike Singletary era. So one might ask “Wasn’t McCloughan the GM for Nolan as well?” The answer is “yes” and “no”. McCloughan was acting GM but he never had the authority of a traditional GM. Nolan had final say on all personnel matters. Did McCloughan have input? Sure. But McCloughan had to fight really hard to convince Nolan that a certain player should be had. The most popular example is LB Patrick Willis. McCloughan really had to sell Willis to Nolan. Had it not been for the persistence of McCloughan, Willis may not have been a 49er today. But give Nolan some credit. The current regime of McCloughan and Singletary were brought together by Nolan.
The combo of McCloughan and Singletary ushers in a new era. But this one does not require a roster overhaul from top to bottom. The biggest news for the 49ers this offseason was signing new Head Coach Mike Singletary to a 4 year extension. Let’s back up for a minute. Almost halfway through the 2008 season, Nolan was fired and Singletary assumed status of Interim Head Coach. After the season, Jed York (son of John and Denise), was promoted to President, therefore overseeing entire football operations. There are good things happening here. First off, we must be careful not to lump young Jed into the same category as his father. John spent many years growing up while enjoying the presence of his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo. Jed shares a passion for football in the same way that DeBartolo does, unlike father John. Some question that Singletary is responsible for the 49ers turnaround. Well, let’s view it this way, the 49ers started 2-5 under Nolan and finished 5-4 under Singletary. Singletary’s first loss should be credited to a Nolan-esque gameplan, which remained in place when Nolan was fired mid-week. So the personnel remains unchanged and Singletary prepares the gameplans for the last 8 games where his record is really 5-3 in those games. Nolan’s defense ranked #23. It was an improvement of 9 spots over the course of 3 ½ years. Singletary raised it 10 spots to #13 in only nine games. Singletary brought discipline back to the team. I would strongly suggest that “yes”, coaching had a lot to do with the turnaround.
This offseason is the first offseason that GM Scot McCloughan gets to place his personal stamp on the team. There is no Nolan to look over his shoulder. McCloughan now fits the mold of a more traditional GM and not a lame-duck puppet under a head coach with full authority. McCloughan’s general message for 2009 was to keep the core of a roster that won 4 out of the last 5 games intact. McCloughan did mention that he would make upgrades as long as he didn’t have to overspend or reach on a player. This makes sense since the team is not in full rebuild mode. Now let’s not confuse this for being cheap as McCloughan has stated that the Yorks have been very generous with their pocketbook. If the right player came along, I’m confident that McCloughan would spend the money.
The 49ers spent the early part of free agency, and the time leading up to it, re-signing their own players. After the team re-signed ILB Takeo Spikes, and KR Allen Rossum, there were only a few glaring needs. Singletary had stated from the beginning that he wanted “more sacks”. That was open for interpretation. The other “sore” spots from last season were RT and FS. Also for a team looking to take the next step, they needed to bolster depth.
Free Agent Losses – Of the more notable names, DB Keith Lewis, LB Tully Banta-Cain, TE Billy Bajema, DT Ronald Fields, RB DeShaun Foster, OT Jonas Jennings, WR Bryant Johnson, QB J.T. O’Sullivan and CB Donald Strickland were either released or not asked to return. Most were picked up by other teams. Jennings was the biggest cut, but it was expected due to injuries and lack of contribution. Singletary expressed his pleasure with Strickland and Bajema was a fan favorite as a dedicated blocker. But both were made better offers from other teams. Out of the above, Johnson and Fields are the only players to land a starting job somewhere else. Ironically enough for Fields, it is with Denver, where Nolan is now running the defense. Many of the above players were mainly role players for the team. Jennings was oft-injured and Johnson never challenged for a starting spot. I penalized the 49ers for not making a stronger effort to re-sign Field, Strickland or Bajema. For the losses, I give the 49ers a B+.
Free Agent Additions – The most notable free agent additions were DE Demetric Evans, QB Damon Huard, WR Brandon Jones, FB Moran Norris and OT Marvel Smith. McCloughan had set the expectation that there wasn’t going to be a free agent “splash” signing with the 49ers. That changed with the last minute signing of Smith only one week before the NFL draft. Smith will assume the RT job. His health will determine his success at the position. But for years, Smith was a dominating OT for the Steelers. Norris will assume the starting FB gig. It’s a much needed homecoming for him and the team. The rest of the additions will play valuable roles but are not expected to start. Jones was brought in to add a vertical threat to the passing game. Evans was one of the better free agent defensive linemen in free agency. He will rotate in as 3-4 DE and as a DT against multiple receiver sets. Huard is not a threat to either Alex Smith or Shaun Hill. Marvel and Norris are upgrades at their respective positions. I penalized the 49ers for signing an injury risk in Smith. I give the 49ers a B- for the additions.
Returning Players – WR Isaac Bruce, QB Alex Smith, ILB Takeo Spikes, OLB Parys Haralson and KR Allen Rossum are the most notable names. Smith was in danger of being cut but restructured to stay with the team. The fans are tired of hearing it, but Smith may still be our QB of the future. If he doesn’t make something out of this year, then it will be his last. Haralson developed into the team’s top pass rusher. Spikes re-signed for two more years and will hold down the Ted LB spot next to Willis. Rossum gave the 49ers their most electrifying runner in years. All three re-signings were good for the team. Bruce contemplated retirement but eventually decided to return. His solid play and veteran leadership (along with Spikes) is an unquantifiable value-add. I penalized the 49ers for not re-signing the players in the losses section. I give the 49ers a B here.
2009 NFL Draft – With the above changes made, the 49ers entered the draft with no immediate needs. The draft would be used for long-term assets. The strategy that McCloughan implied was to take the best player available and not reach for a position of need. Since there were no immediate needs, this strategy would be easy to accomplish. The 49ers stuck true to their word and took the best players available. Texas Tech WR Michael Crabtree, Pittsburgh LB Scott McKillop, Ball State QB Nate Davis and LSU DT Ricky Jean-Francois were steals where they were drafted. Fresno State TE Bear Pascoe and LSU FS Curtis Taylor were taken with good value. The only questionable pick is RB Glen Coffee because he was projected to be a third or fourth round selection. The 49ers took Coffee with their third pick after trading away their second and fourth picks the day before. In exchange, the 49ers will receive the Panthers’ 2010 first round pick. Coffee has quite a college resume and fits the 49ers style of running, so ultimately, this was a good pick for the team. The move to acquire an additional first round pick next year is a good one since this year’s draft is not as strong. I penalized the 49ers for Coffee. There were other comparable backs here. I give the 49ers a B+.
Rookie Free Agent Signings – The most notable signings here were Ohio State OT Alex Boone and Purdue RB Kory Sheets. Both Boone and Sheets come with good potential. But they also come with high character concerns. Rookie free agents are low-risk and aren’t expected to make the team. But Boone and Sheets were considered mid-round picks. They are solid developmental players that have the upside to become starters. I penalized the 49ers for taking player with high character risks here. It was a good move for the team and I give them a B here.
Overall, the 2009 offseason brings a sigh of relief from the tense moments of the Nolan era. Free agency and the draft were played wisely by McCloughan. The foundation is solid on both lines. There are no glaring weaknesses. Crabtree elevates the WR position. Coffee will spell Gore and the running game should be more effective. The defense remains virtually intact from last year and should benefit from the stability it enjoyed in the last half of the season. If the 49ers win 10 or more games this year, than McCloughan will have done more than save his job. He will be regarded as solid talent evaluator and gain some respect as a GM. However, if the team takes another step back, McCloughan will be under fire.