Mike Nolan is a football lifer. He was a ballboy for the 49ers growing up when his father, Dick Nolan, was head coach in San Francisco during the late 60’s and early 70’s. He has been in the NFL coaching ranks for 25 years, and has served as defensive coordinator for seven different teams.
His resume is impressive, minus his four years as head coach of the 49ers. He took over that job in 2005 and was fired seven weeks into the 2008 season, compiling an 18-37 record (.327) in that time. Given his childhood ties to the organization, it had to have been a difficult pill to swallow.
Now 53 and in the midst of a successful stint as DC for the Falcons, Nolan is hoping to get another shot. The Eagles will be interviewing him this week for their head-coach opening along with Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong.
Dan Reeves, who has known Nolan for much of his life and gave him his first coaching job in the NFL, believes that he is as good of a candidate as there is on the market.
“I know that he would love to have the opportunity again,” said Reeves, who was a player with the Cowboys back when Dick Nolan was DC in Dallas. “I don’t think anybody has done a better job than Mike has.”
In discussing Nolan’s struggles as head coach in San Francisco, Reeves pointed to his own experience. He was fired three times as head coach during his quality career, and all three times quarterback was an issue.
In his final season in Denver he lost John Elway for four starts and had to rely on Tommy Maddox (Elway went 8-4; Maddox 0-4). In New York he started with Phil Sims and ended with Dave Brown. In his last year with the Falcons Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner started 12 of the 16 games for an injured Michael Vick.
It is no secret in the NFL that it is hard for your coaching prowess to shine through if you don’t have a quarterback.
The year Nolan took over in San Francisco the team passed on Aaron Rodgers and selected Alex Smith No. 1 overall. Smith made 30 starts over the first three seasons and went a combined 11-24. In 2008, Nolan’s last year, Smith did not play at all because of injury. Nolan had four different offensive coordinators during his time as head coach: Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler and Mike Martz. He never settled on a style, and never found a fit for Smith like Jim Harbaugh did years later. On the other hand, Harbaugh is benefitting from guys like Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Frank Gore – guys who Nolan drafted.
“I think he learned from it,” said Reeves. “Off of every situation you become more prepared. Some mistakes are made and you correct those. Mike has certainly earned the right to be a head coach again. All you have to do is look at his record as an assistant coach. I don’t think you can judge a guy by one performance.”
Nolan’s defense in Atlanta isn’t filled with big names but is fifth in points allowed this season. In his stints as defensive coordinator for the Giants, Redskins, Jets, Ravens, Broncos, Dolphins and now the Falcons, he has built a reputation for being one of the best in the business.
Would it translate to head coaching the second time around?
“He does a good job of preparing the football team week in and week out,” said Reeves. “He is very good with his staff. He is strong in all areas.”