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Posted: Tuesday October 13, 2009 11:58AM; Updated: Tuesday October 13, 2009 11:59AM
Ann Killion Ann Killion >
INSIDE THE NFL

Nolan's success in Denver shows some coaches are better assistants

Story Highlights

A year after being fired as head coach of 49ers, Mike Nolan leads 5-0 Denver D

Nolan was over his head as a head coach, but he's a brilliant defensive mind

A year after he hit bottom in San Francisco, Nolan is now a hot topic in the league

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Mike-Nolan.jpg
Mike Nolan is in his comfort zone as Denver's defensive coordinator and is a big reason behind the Broncos' early success.
AP

Funny thing about the way the NFL works. A guy can go from being a complete coaching disaster one October to being the toast of the league 12 months later.

The guy in question is Mike Nolan. A year ago next week he was fired as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, after three and a half seasons of futility.

But this season, Nolan is being lauded as the most valuable assistant in the league. As defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos, Nolan has had a huge role in the league's biggest surprise as the Broncos have jumped out to a 5-0 start.

Nolan is a tale of redemption. But it's also an example of NFL's Peter Principle, one that should be heeded by owners and general managers. With the 49ers, Nolan was in the wrong job, elevated a couple of levels higher than the spot where he had proven he was most effective. In Denver, Nolan is back in his comfort zone.

Nolan has a long, successful record as a defensive coordinator. When the 49ers were looking for a new coach after the 2004 season, owner John York focused exclusively on assistant coaches. Nolan had never been a head coach but he impressed York with his interview skills and attention to detail. The 49ers not only gave Nolan his first head coaching job, they also gave him all the power in the franchise.

It turned out to be a very bad idea. Nolan continued to be an effective mind on defense; he drafted budding superstar linebacker Patrick Willis and brought in most of the defensive players that have been effective for the 49ers this season (or at least prior to Sunday's 45-10 blowout loss to Atlanta). But he was in over his head in other areas. He was a failure dealing with the offense, never getting the team on track and at times seeming to be completely disengaged from the unit. He was out of his league handling the front office. He was focused on useless details, like wearing a suit on the sideline. He was a poor game manager. He wasn't an effective or inspired leader or communicator.

When he was fired and replaced by Mike Singletary, the change in the 49ers was remarkable. Another novice head coach, with far less coaching experience, Singletary immediately connected with his team, simplified things and got everyone on the same page. This season, despite virtually the same personnel as last year, the 49ers (3-2) are a focused and cohesive unit.

In Denver, defensive woes were the undoing of Mike Shanahan, who had run through three defensive coordinators in three seasons. When Shanahan was fired and replaced by Josh McDaniels, McDaniels' first move was to bring in Nolan as defensive coordinator.

What may seem like a demotion on paper is actually a correction. As a defensive coordinator, Nolan is thriving in Denver. He's running a 3-4, the scheme McDaniels was familiar with in New England and one that Nolan tried to implement in San Francisco but never with much consistency or success.

The Denver defense was rebuilt, with eight new starters. The Broncos added safety Brian Dawkins from the Eagles, the most important offseason acquisition, and other new players including Vonnie Holliday. Champ Bailey is healthy. DJ Williams is thriving. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil is tied for the league lead in sacks (8). The Broncos have given up just 43 points, lowest in the league, and are second stingiest in yards allowed.

Denver, with wins over Dallas and New England in the past two weeks, is off to its best start in 11 years. And Nolan is a major reason why.

The league is littered with effective assistant coaches who aren't cut out to be head coaches. In Oakland, Tom Cable, an offensive line coach, is playing out of position. For years, Norv Turner was the poster child for the concept; Turner's Chargers will play Denver on Monday night in San Diego.

A year after he hit bottom, Nolan is now a hot topic in the league. Which means, in a few months, some owner might think about hiring him as a head coach. The lesson of Nolan's tale: not every good coach makes a good head coach.

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