Article Title: New agenda is on target.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan two years ago during one of many speeches from the podium promised a new agenda for this franchise and made it vividly clear that he had the complete backing of the owners in Dr. John York and Denise DeBartolo.
His outline was to set the foundation and build-upon that with key personnel that would enhance and form intense competition within the ranks for seasons to come. Sprinkle in some key veteran free agents along with drafting the right kind of football players via the draft and you find yourself looking at what is in existence today at the Santa Clara training complex of the 49ers.
The last two seasons under Mike Nolan have been a roller coaster ride for many. He has made both popular and unpopular decisions based upon what has transpired right before his eyes. He has brought dignity and a sense of accountability back into this franchise that was blatantly nonexistent under the previous management without question.
Again he has faced an array of obstacles that have threatened to derail his promises at the start of almost every off-season. After the 2006 season and finishing out strong with a (7-9) record and defeating the playoff bound Denver Broncos on their own turf, Mike Nolan’s sophomore season turned into something appetizing from a coaching and personnel standpoint to other teams.
Sophomore 49er quarterback Alex Smith had a very successful season while under the biblical handling of experienced and knowledgeable care of offensive coordinator Norv Turner. That dream team was erased following the interviewing of Norv Turner for both the Dallas Cowboy and San Diego Chargers head coaching positions of which the later he was hired for and accepted.
The tremendous void left the 49ers reeling offensively after finally instituting an offense that was friendly from a training aspect to assisting Alex Smith being able to see the whole playing field for the very first time and the playmakers around him. Finding the right offensive coordinator would be critical to helping him advance that continuity and consistency he suddenly had come upon this past season.
The late off-season purge that took Norv Turner away, left Mike Nolan to ponder the inevitable question of who would be the right person for the job and still provide the needed mentorship that was required to keep Alex Smith on the straight and narrow.
After evaluating every aspect and scenario he cast his thoughts and eyes on someone that was always there with him right from the very beginning in quarterback’s coach Jim Hostler who had been an offensive coordinator before back at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.
The most logical choice that was thought to be the next move on Mike Nolan’s staff was wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan who had NFL experience as an offensive coordinator briefly back with the Arizona Cardinals.
Mike’s thoughts on that subject though were that Jerry Sullivan although very capable of being a sound offensive coordinator was probably the best wide receivers coach in the league and with that area a current weakness on the depth chart personnel wise he was reluctant to pull the trigger on that very thought.
Looking at the offensive staff as a whole we have been fortunate to have one of the best teams assembled inside the league today, often validated by opposing coaches from other staffs themselves when asked about the complexities of our offense.
Bishop Harris our running backs coach was eliminated as a candidate based upon his excellent work with up and coming super star Frank Gore and his new battering ram in Moran Norris. Offensive line coach George Warhop is also on a tear in revamping the very line that provided Alex Smith better pass protection and has opened up better opportunities for our running game in its entirety.
Tight ends coach Pete Hoener was also the other leading candidate outside of Jerry Sullivan and Jim Hostler because of his extensive experience in being an offensive coordinator at not one but six major colleges.
But what about the very person that worked more closely than any other coach with Alex Smith himself and was in constant ear and eye shot of both Mike McCarthy back in 2005 and Norv Turner in 2006 all together? After interviewing Jim Hostler Mike Nolan came away with feelings of actually envisioning himself where he first started out as wanting to become the next coordinator.
Jim Hostler enlightened him to such a degree that he saw those same qualities and inner motivation to strive for excellence on exhibit right before his eyes. As a quarterback’s coach it was Hostler’s main responsibility to have a comprehensive understanding of the offense, and what made it tick. He impressed Nolan at the interview by showing him the detailed and even laminated game plans he has formulated on his own last season.
Jim Hostler in fact was the closest thing we had as a right hand to offensive coordinator Norv Turner who in just one short season helped turn around a struggling offense and its own young quarterback to find its own identity. Hostler worked hand in hand with Alex Smith through two offensive coordinators and helped him in processing and understanding the complexities of two entirely different offensive philosophies.
“In interviewing Jim. I was impressed with what he was doing,” Nolan said. “We have an outstanding offensive staff in place. Everybody has to do it for a first time (at the NFL level), but he’s got a great staff to support him. I feel very good about the decision. I believe it makes us better. I feel very confident that with the way it’s worked out, we’re getting better in the long run.”
Jim Hostler came to the San Francisco 49ers while Mike Nolan was assembling his first coaching staff back in 2005. Hostler, 40, says he’ll bring his own fresh perspective to the offense in conjunction with maintaining what Norv Turner has already made successful here.
“Jim has great roots in the offensive system we had in place last year,” Nolan said one afternoon. “Our goal was to keep the same structure and continuity in the offense, and Jim’s a great teacher who was instrumental in putting in the offense last year. Because of the strength of our staff, I thought it was the best decision for us going forward.”
Jim Hostler joined the San Francisco 49ers in 2005 after spending two seasons with the New York Jets as the team’s wide receivers coach (2004) and quarterback’s coach (2003). He joined the Jets after serving as an offensive assistant/quality control coach and assistant wide receivers coach (2001-2002) for the New Orleans Saints. He actually began his career in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs as an offensive assistant/quality control coach (2000).
As far as his credentials go he has had a great eight-year run inside the NFL, he has helped tutor a talented group of playmaker’s which include quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Vinny Testaverde, wide receivers Santana Moss, Wayne Chrebet and Justin McCareins with the Jets. He has also coached 2002 first round draft selection wide receiver Donte Stallworth as a member of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff.
So when you look at what the possibilities were you now come to understand why Mike Nolan chose to go with Hostler. I see further development of Alex Smith happening while at the same time a continuity of what Norv Turner has already set in place here and has made successful. He has the same ties to the Dan Coryell offense as Norv Turner did dating back to when he was working with Jimmy Rae in Kansas City.
Many 49er fans and sports analysts looked for us to go outside the box in acquiring an offensive coordinator, however being that late in the off-season we would’ve had to give-up far too much to sign one probably costing us a key draft pick as compensation to another team.
“The philosophy has been set by coach Nolan in how we’re going to try and win football games,” Hostler said. “I understand the importance of balance in this league, understand what it means to put your best players in a position to make plays. I’m confident in what I’ve learned along the way, and coach Nolan has put together a strong structure and environment to be successful here.”
Mike Nolan believes that Hostler has the most familiarity with Norv Turner’s offense and Alex Smith has the best chances of profiting from his promotion. As far as calling a game he also believes Jim Hostler based upon the descriptions and formulated game plans he has been gathering since day one and even laminating them by sequence is enough to allow him a shot at making the key calls from the sidelines or even up above.
Having a relationship of trust and mutual respect with one another between Hostler and Smith will be critical to his continued development as a quarterback inside this league. It will speak volumes to the success out on the field as the regular season starts full cycle this coming September.
Shortly after Jim Hostler was promoted to offensive coordinator that left the quarterback’s coaching position with a large void to fill. Mike Nolan again upon recommendations from friends around the league interviewed North Carolina State’s offensive coordinator in Frank Cignetti.
Frank Cignetti had just joined North Carolina State’s program as its offensive coordinator after serving four years in the same capacity with Fresno State where he helped guide Fresno State to four consecutive bowl appearances, including a win over No. 18 Virginia in the 2004 MPC Computers Bowl. Fresno State was 3-1 in bowl games under Frank Cignetti’s direction.
He was amazingly successful in Fresno State in 2004; Fresno averaged 52.8 points over the last six games and became just the sixth team in NCAA history to score 50 or more points in four consecutive contests. Fresno finished on the season at (9-3), led the Western Athletic Conference in average yards per carry (5.4) and scored 65 touchdowns. The Fresno State Bulldogs were a menace in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 42-of-53 attempts (.792).
He has had continued success inside the NFL. Before joining Fresno State, he won a division championship and a playoff game with the New Orleans Saints in 2000. He was in fact their quarterback’s coach during the 2000-2001 seasons. The Saints offense ranked 10th in the NFL in both 2000-2001. In 2000, he guided quarterback Jeff Blake to a career-high 82.7 rating before he suffered a season-ending injury.
The following season, quarterback Aaron Brooks became an alternate to the Pro Bowl. And while in New Orleans, he also coached current Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, current St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and retired Billy Joe Tolliver.
Certainly enough credentials to help mentor Alex Smith in conjunction with Jim Hostler and help magnify the intensity of the comprehension he has to articulate and come to understand with both asking and demanding a lot from him in his junior season as the coveted 49ers quarterback.
“Frank came highly recommended from people throughout all levels of college and professional football,” said Nolan. “I am extremely impressed with his work ethic, attention to detail and ability to develop players. He is a perfect fit for the way we operate with the 49ers.”
In all the coaching changes are certainly the best ones we had at our fingertips in regards to promoting an offensive coordinator from within. I believe Jim Hostler was the best man for the job and Frank will take over with Alex where Jim left off so brilliantly. All in all our offensive staff as a whole will be successful with the personnel we’ve added via free agency and in the up and coming draft.
As the NFL Combine was running down and free agency was heating up I have to applaud the team for releasing cornerback Sammy Davis after an embarrassing season where he was victimized repeatedly as he filled in for Shawntae Spencer when he was injured this past season.
Pro Bowl 49er cornerback Walt Harris had successful surgery on his wrist he injured during the Pro Bowl. By doing that it helped speed up his recovery and he should be ready to go in the team’s first mini-camp session following this year’s draft.
The San Francisco 49ers started their free agency off-season by tendering contracts to restricted free agent punter Andy Lee and exclusive rights free agent offensive lineman Tony Wragge. One of the most important contracts to be tendered was to running back Maurice Hicks who has been a special teams super star and show stopper when called upon to perform in any situation or down on the field.
Andy Lee was instrumental in providing us with a playing field that favored our defense this past season as he made steady improvements. Versatile Tony Wragge was an instant stopgap for us when we saw sustained injuries to both Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings as the season wore on. The offensive line never skipped a beat when he was inserted at any point and is deserving of the contract tender.
We avoided having to tender fourth-year safety Keith Lewis earlier this year as we had him locked up to a three-year contract, $2.935 million deal with a $650,000 signing bonus earlier last month.
We did decline to offer fourth-year restricted free agent safety Mike Adams who now becomes an unrestricted free agent to other ball clubs. He was a promising free safety on the rise but struggled towards the end of the 2006 NFL season, which had him sitting on the sidelines while Keith Lewis took over as the starter. Mike Adams was offered a contract offer earlier in the season last year but declined it as “mere back-up money,” and now is looking for a job all over again.
As March approached fellow veteran wide receiver Antonio Bryant was released after a lot of speculation throughout the season of criticizing Alex Smith and showing up for scheduled meetings late and having to confront Mike Nolan. The worse came when he was pulled over for speeding and for reckless driving that resulted in him resisting arrest and making NFL headlines. The NFL took its own action and suspended him for four regular season games, which further alienated him from his teammates as a 49er.
The gap that it leaves is tremendous but in all seriousness was for the best from a character standpoint in which Mike Nolan holds accountability very high. Antonio was like a breath of fresh air in the early stages of our 2006 season but squarely fell apart as his actions and words began to administer concern.
Last but not least the return of veteran Pro Bowler defensive stalwart Bryant Young for a 14th season, as a 49er is simply amazing. It is a blessing and an honor to have him around for one more season after starting for us back in 1994 in his rookie season and the last remaining link to our last Super Bowl appearance.
He is a man of character and conviction. He is excited about the direction that Mike Nolan is taking this franchise and wants to help be a part of that with Nolan’s kind and gentle blessings. The four-time Pro Bowler and who has 83 career sacks and ranks third in team history, actually contemplated retiring after last season.
Mike Nolan was the first person that wanted him back for yet another season both inside and outside the locker room where his vocal difference makes such a dramatic impact on younger players each and everyday.
“I feel like I’m still able to go out there and make plays that are asked of me,” said Young, 35. “In terms of my body, yeah, it feels a little different than it did five years ago. But with experience, you’re able to gain a little wisdom and smarts.”
Regardless he is a welcome sight for these old eyes of mine. I will have more free agency comments coming up in the next few articles. I felt it necessary to comment on the spin of the coaching carousel and the release and signings of our very own as free agency began in its infant stages.
I dedicate this article to my grandmother who is fighting cancer and is confined to her own home away from much of her immediate family. She has been an inspiration and close friend of mine for all the years of my life. Learning to live without her physical presence will be one of the hardest situations I have yet to endeavor.
So many are afflicted with this terrible disease and thousands of families are found struggling to understand why? I pray that God will be merciful to my grandmother and make her a shining light of the testament of faith she really is.
The cancer has caused great discomfort and pain as I write this and she is a God-fearing woman with amazing faith that just simply is “off the scales,” as we know it to be. I pray for her everyday and hope you’ll all join me in that prayer right now with a compelling heart. God Bless and Thank-You so very much for being as supportive as all of you have been throughout my many commentaries.