Posted at 1:19 a.m., Monday, December 31, 2007
NFL: 49ers coach Nolan must know he's gone
By Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News
Of course, it didn't matter so much what exactly the team did on the field Sunday. In terms of Coach Mike Nolan's future, it mattered more what the thoughts were upstairs in the visiting owners' booth, as the 49ers rolled out another staggeringly bland day of losing football.
Sitting in that booth was every member of the extended John and Denise York family, plus their close friends. Most of them live in Youngstown, only a 75-mile drive from Cleveland Browns Stadium. The party must have been quite glum. After the 20-7 loss, John and son Jed visited the 49ers' locker room before striding deliberately through a cavernous tunnel toward the exit.
They were not eager to answer questions. However, John York said he intended to fly back to Santa Clara and set up a conversation with Nolan today.
And when might there be a statement about Nolan's status for next season?
"It depends on how long we talk," York said. But surely there will be some announcement by the end of this week, one way or another? "I would think so," York said.
If the family was on the fence about Nolan's future, nothing that took place Sunday worked in his favor. The 49ers were not going to beat the Browns, not with fourth-string quarterback Chris Weinke on the field. To no one's shock, Weinke did a credible to mediocre job and produced only seven points. But the fate of Nolan will not and should not be decided by one game. It will be decided by the entirety of this miserable 5-11 season and the two miserable losing seasons that preceded it.
Is Nolan gone? He has to be. No coach in 49ers history has had three consecutive losing seasons and sur vived to coach a fourth. That includes Nolan's father, Dick, who after several playoff appearances had three consecutive losing teams in 1973-75 and was cut loose. Eerie fact: During those three seasons, Dick Nolan won the same number of games 16 as Mike Nolan has won the past three seasons.
In other words, when the dismissal happens, Mike Nolan's family history prepares him to not be stunned. His remarks after Sunday's game sounded almost like a valedictory.
"We thought we would be a better team, record-wise, at this point," Nolan said. "That is the biggest disappointment. The focus is obviously on winning games. There are other things you try and achieve along the way. But wins and losses matter the most."
Does he expect to return next season?
"Right now," Nolan said, "my expectations are to meet with the Yorks this week."
He knows. He has to know.
Three years ago, right about the time Nolan was hired to coach the 49ers, Romeo Crennel was hired to coach the Browns. Both franchises were in similarly dismal shape. In Crennel's third season, he produced a 10-victory team. In Nolan's third season, his team won half that many games.
This does not have to be a nasty parting of ways. Nolan worked hard, had a few shining moments, made too many mistakes and failed. That's how it goes sometimes. Nolan knows.
Players quietly showered and dressed in the 49ers locker room for the last time in 2007, some of them still trying to figure out how a season with alleged playoff potential turned into such a bummer.
"It's been emotionally exhausting," kicker Joe Nedney said, candidly. "To have such high expectations and then week after week... As I walked off the field today, it was disappointment mixed with relief....I don't think this team ever had one heartbeat this season. The defense did at times, the special teams did at times, and even the offense once or twice. But not all at the same time."
Defensive end Marques Douglas stood up for Nolan, at least a little bit.
"I would never say it's the coaches' fault," Douglas said. "They don't cross the white line. We cross that white line. They work some long hours to give us the best chance to win. We just haven't come up with the plays to win games when it counted."
Maybe so. But that doesn't bode well for Nolan, either. He picked these players. Put yourself in the Yorks' heads as they watched Sunday's game from their booth in yet another modern NFL stadium that taunts the family's desire to build one for itself.
What were the Yorks thinking when the 49ers looked so flat and lifeless in front of the entire Youngstown contingent? What were the Yorks thinking when Cleveland receiver Braylon Edwards caught a 45-yard touchdown pass after making a perfect post cut in front of cornerback Nate Clements a free-agent signing last off-season to whom the 49ers have committed $80 million over eight years and leaving Clements far behind?
What were the Yorks thinking, realizing that Edwards is the receiver the Nolan regime passed up as a potential No.1 draft pick in 2005 in favor of quarterback Alex Smith? On Sunday, Edwards set the Cleveland single-season record with 1,289 receiving yards. No receiver on the 49ers' roster had more than 600 yards.
Right at that moment, as Edwards hit the end zone, the thought was inescapable: This sums up all that has gone wrong under Nolan after the Yorks gave him pretty much absolute power and control. Passing up Edwards to select Smith was Nolan's first big decision. Now, here was Edwards putting on a show in what was almost certainly Nolan's final game.
Funny how it all comes around. Or rather, not so funny. No matter where you were sitting Sunday.