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Article Title: A Great Harry Houdini Act.
Article Date: January 4th, 2008
By Sydney


Traveling back from Cleveland Ohio this past Sunday in the grand finale of the regular season had to be the greatest lump in the throat for each member of the San Francisco 49ers albeit coach and or player. Forced to go with their fourth quarterback of the season in Chris Weinke a renegade back-up quarterback at best the 49ers incurred their 11th loss on the season by being defeated by the Cleveland Browns 20-7.

Cries and outright screaming by the San Francisco 49er faithful fans have filled message boards and personal correspondence to the tune that change is in the mandatory stages must be taken to stop the arterial bleeding we have endured since the change in ownership from Eddie DeBartolo to his sister Denise DeBartolo and her less than ideal husband Dr. John York.

The San Francisco 49ers have not been to a playoff game since 2002 under then head coach Steve Mariucci and elite quarterback Jeff Garcia. Both were unceremoniously dumped due to power brokerage issues with the head coach and ownership and salary cap bleeding that reached out and seeped into the one person we should’ve extended despite the limited resources in Jeff Garcia.

Then General Manager Terry Donahue ran the franchise literally into the grave both prior and after the hiring and firing of then head coach Dennis Erickson. Everything the new owners did in Denise DeBartolo and husband Dr. John York was adding up to be one disaster after another. I can distinctly remember back then the outpouring of dissatisfaction of 49er fans at the clownish acts of improvement these owners believed to be the right course for this franchise.

One calamity followed another. Dennis Erickson was fired and so was Terry Donahue in a new revelation that the owners believed that the solution to the problem had to begin with admitting fault with themselves. Instead of granting Steve Mariucci more say back in the past the owners now believed that they had to make that change in granting that to newly hired head coach Mike Nolan.

Mike Nolan became the face and the voice of the San Francisco 49ers almost overnight. To heck with a head coach that had already proven himself in Steve Mariucci and had successfully made the playoffs more so than just once? Mike Nolan came in and later tapped close friend and confidant in Scot McCloughan to be the Vice President of Personnel. They came together and blended well and reinvented and reinvigorated the overall roster and inner staffing of the entire franchise.

They wanted to duplicate the well-known successes that the New England Patriots had manufactured from their front office all the way down to the equipment manager inside the locker room. Everything needed to be reevaluated and reinvented in some way or another and collective decisions made together on a routine basis. And that is what they became together in a buddy relationship that took root and has grown into an incredible bond of comradely, generosity and loyalty to the tune that neither one does anything without the other’s say so.

Well at this year’s season ending news conference and two lengthy days of in house behind closed doors discussions with owner Dr. John York and his son who is also an in-house executive the powers that be granted Mike Nolan an extension to remain as head coach along with promoting Scot McCloughan to the ceremonious title of General Manager of the San Francisco 49ers which in all about terms allows him a raise and an extension of his contract. The fans and the media have been relentless in pointing out the disappointing season that befell this team under Mike Nolan going (5-11) after a (7-9) season where we saw marked improvement and then major money spent on free agency and a draft full of great talent.

Fire Mike Nolan! This was the new rant all season long with my sentiments exactly the same as the majority. Everything that could’ve gone wrong did right before our very eyes from one game to the next in identifying that the No.#1 draft pick in quarterback Alex Smith the heir to the preverbal quarterback throne is no better than a Giovanni Carmazzi or a Jim Druckenmiller of the past. Although there are still some fans that believe he received one raw deal after another my take is that he is and will never be the true West Coast fit we need to move forward into the future.

Trent Dilfer a Super Bowl Champion quarterback of the past because of the efforts of his rich-talented Baltimore Ravens defense fell on his ageless and want-to-make a comeback face with extreme deficiencies and inaccuracies that translated into his early retirement being more than just wanted but utterly expected.

Shaun Hill the unknown man standing behind so many for six long years was unleashed after the fall of Trent Dilfer and played like the Jeff Garcia of old in the form of the old West Coast Offense we had under offensive coordinator and now head coach of the playoff rich Green Bay Packers in Mike McCarthy. He took command and orchestrated confidence from even the most veteran of players on the roster on an offense that up to this very day rank dead last in every conceivable offensive category in the league.

Then there is offensive coordinator Jim Hostler the fall guy and scapegoat of a season gone wrong. Norv Turner followed Mike McCarthy and elevated our hopes in 2006 for Alex Smith but then left in such a flurry of activity in becoming the head coach of the San Diego Chargers it left us with putting a Hostler bandage over a wound too large to absorb following his departure.

Mike Nolan believed that promoting from within was the right course to take in naming Jim Hostler, Alex Smith’s quarterback coach and side-kick to Norv Turner during that year as the new offensive coordinator. His inexperience and limited knowledge bled through as the season progressed to such and extent that old and reliable Ted Tollner was called upon to help as an offensive consultant to Jim. This mistake was made and admitted to unwillingly at this news conference by Mike Nolan.

Dr. John York stood and vindicated Mike Nolan of the season and indicated that some cosmetic changes were taking place with Scot McCloughan becoming the General Manager and reporting to him alongside Mike Nolan. So if Mike Nolan can still report directly to Mr. York why have a General Manager in Scot McCloughan? There seemed to be and still is some confusion as to who is really who within the hierarchy of this franchise.

Scot McCloughan reiterated at the podium that he would not be where he is without Mike Nolan and that he believes in Mike and that he has the best plan still at making this franchise a winner again. He confirmed that he is the “trigger man,” as Mike Nolan repeatedly referred him to be. He will make the final decision but not before Mike Nolan’s say so and analogy on almost everything.

So there it seems to be a great Harry Houdini act in the making here as to who really is who? Mike Nolan is perceived to have given up some personnel type powers but can still report to the head guy (the owners) anytime he feels fit to do so and has such a personal bond with the newly appointed general manager that it would seem he could get away with just about anything of his choosing?

Mike Nolan went on to say that he is “the face and voice of this team and intends to keep it that way.” I think it was an attempt to validate his emotions and sense of accountability to the owners and himself. It still lends one to wonder as to why is a general manager needed if he is allowed to say the things he just said?

Scot McCloughan without a doubt is a genius at evaluating and picking ability and talent via the draft and free agency as he was being the Vice President of Personnel. Now he gets to do that in a new position that has a lot more bite and substance to it. The only thing I am concerned with is the incredible bond and friendship he shares with Mike that could be conceived as a real bias in his decision making as an executive down the road.

Is this really holding Mike Nolan more accountable? The evidence doesn’t seem to suggest that when you look at the big picture and leaves a magical masquerade to the likes of the great Harry Houdini a definite image of what is perceived by 49er fans as just the same old status quo. Three straight losing seasons is usually more than enough reason to consider moving on to a new head coach and staff, yet Mike Nolan yielded enough charisma and influence to convince Dr. John York and his son Jed to stay on for what could be the remainder of his five-year contract they are reluctant to buy him out of.

So far Mike Nolan did admit that everything starts with the head coach as far as accountability is concerned. He admitted to making some season mistakes he wish he could take back and do over again. He also went on to say that he approved of the power sharing between Scot and himself and anticipated that to happen anyways once Scot was fully entrenched inside the building.

The pats and gestures from both men as they stroked one another’s egos was quite evident as reporters tried to ask them the tough questions but both seemed like they had rehearsed exactly as to what to say and how to say it like they were both in front of a sophisticated high-powered lawyer asking them pin-pointed detailed questioning.

Outside of this cosmetic type change the only real accountable change has been the firing of offensive coordinator Jim Hostler. He was clearly not ready to handle the daunting task that lied ahead of him when the 2007 NFL season unfurled itself to the San Francisco 49ers. The more the offense faltered and fell apart the more pressure and scrutiny of sports broadcasters and analysts made the obvious even more obvious. Jim Hostler was not the right man for this job even though Mike Nolan staunchly defended him throughout this tormenting season.

Alex Smith’s season-ending injury made worse by feeling forced to play with it was made even more dramatic when he blamed it on Mike Nolan being insensitive and non-communicative with him as he felt Nolan was blaming the woes of the offense on him even inside the locker room. Again Mike Nolan made an error in judgment in sticking with veteran Trent Dilfer at quarterback with a season already lost and not trying Shaun Hill earlier to ignite some kind of spark.

The list can go on and on in regards to a season gone so wrong. Dr. John York and his son and wife claim they feel this is still the right course? What happens in free agency and the draft where we gave our first round draft pick to the New England Patriots is yet to be determined. Season-Ticket holders at Monster Park are having a yard sale on their tickets like never before. The sadness and disappointment of the season sit in all our stomachs like a hidden virus ready to flare up all over again.

Accusations have been made that the owners didn’t want to make the real bold move of cleaning out the house again like they did with Donahue and Erickson. Instead simple cosmetic and plastic surgery have been prescribed for the season and to die-hard 49er fans waiting for their time in the limelight. The off-season is always one that holds anticipation and hope for a new year and as fans malnourished as long as we can remember the 2008 season can’t get here soon enough.


Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.