San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan addresses the New England media during his conference call on Wednesday, October 1, 2008.
Q: Do you see much difference in the Patriots offense with Matt Cassel running it as opposed to Tom Brady?
MN: It's just been two and a half short weeks that he's played and that doesn't even include the bye week. But I think structurally they do the same things. He's obviously been in the system; he knows it. They may have done a few less things than what their entire offense entails—as far as the couple games he played in—but he looks like a very confident player. As a lot of backups do, they resemble, I don't want to say they're the same, but they do resemble the guys they play behind from a technical standpoint and things like that. It's difficult sometimes to play a quarterback when you don't know all that much about him because he hasn't started that much. But as you'll all reflect, I'm sure, Tom Brady, when he got the job, there wasn't a whole lot known about him either.
Q: Could you comment on what Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz has brought to the team this year?
MN: He's brought credibility as well as stability to the offense. Mike is an outstanding football coach. He has a great mind and he has a good command presence in front of the offense, which is very important when you're trying to get guys to play well. Credibility is real important and Mike has that naturally with his accomplishments at St. Louis, both as a head coach and offensive coordinator. Outside of that, the addition of some players we added and the maturity of the ones we already had along with Mike Martz has been a real plus, not only for our offense but for our football team.
Q: So that credibility is a positive factor with the players? They know what he's done in the past and they know they can follow his lead?
MN: Sure. Players want to be good. They want to get the ball. They want to shine. They want everyone to talk about them and that's natural—in a positive way. And Mike—I know that the players, if they feel that the coach can give them something to get noticed, I guess you can say, typically they're going to listen to exactly what that guy has to say. In Mike's case, like I said, he's had several players play for him—obviously he had three NFL offensive players of the year in Marshall Faulk and twice Kurt Warner. Or maybe it was twice Marshall and once Kurt, I'm not sure. Anyhow, that credibility goes along way with players, so it's a big help.
Q: Was he instrumental in getting wide receiver Isaac Bruce on the roster?
MN: I think so. At the time, I don't know what was on Isaac's mind as far as playing or not, but as soon as he was let go we showed immediate interest in him and Mike was on the staff, so I'd have to say it certainly had to—it couldn't hurt us. I think it helped us a lot because Isaac knew he was going to be familiar with the offense and he knew the success and he certainly remembered the success he had when he was with Mike. Outside of that there's not much that I know about their relationship.
Q: You're among the leaders this year in big plays—20 plus yards. Is that a reflection of your philosophy or has it been more opportunistic?
MN: I think it's more just been the case of opportunistic, more than anything else. Our offensive players, in particular our quarterback and a couple of wide receivers, obviously have not played together in the past, so when you put the whole picture together on offense we're working for continuity and we've had it this far in the season. Knock on wood, hopefully that continues and as we play more games hopefully we just get better and better. But the explosive plays, the plays over 20 yards that you speak of, I think are just a result of guys doing their job.
Q: After watching the Miami game, might you put a few more gadget plays in your offense this week?
MN: I'm not going to reveal any game plan, obviously, but I just know I'd probably look at it more in the case that I know New England will be well prepared, as they are in most games. I'm sure Coach Belichick was disappointed in the performance and he certainly has the attention of his players. It will be a different game at our place. As we all know, every game is, so we'll see how the game goes.
Q: What do you have to do to cut down on the giveaways?
MN: Just be more disciplined at securing the ball, whether that be throwing it or protecting it when you're carrying it.
Q: This year you've been successful in some third and long situations, which are usually tough to convert. Is there a confidence level there that no matter what the situation, you can pick up the yards you need?
MN: Well, I hadn't thought of it in that context. Obviously, it's only been four games into the season and obviously New England has only played three weeks, so it's too early to tell exactly what it is. I think, as I mentioned earlier, everybody is trying to come together chemistry-wise and accountability-wise on every squad. So whatever you're doing at this point it's too early to say exactly who anyone is. Obviously, on third down you want to convert whatever the distance may be. It's typically harder on third and long, but we certainly don't strive for third and long, I'll say that.
Q: Obviously in Baltimore you had a lot of stars on defense. What's your philosophy on dealing with high profile guys? Are you of the camp that everybody should be treated the same or do you think different guys should be treated in different manners depending on their standing on the team?
MN: I believe that everybody should be treated fairly, but that doesn't mean treating everybody the same.
Q: What do you mean?
MN: Certain players get more attention than other players, that's just the way it is. Certain players are more important. Now if somebody breaks a rule, we're talking about something different, but as far as coaching players, everybody's a little different. Some respond to hard coaching, some respond to—they just need to be told one time and they get it. Every young man is different and some of them obviously have played ten years, some have played two. There's a lot of learning about one another that you get. Player's respond when they know what you're giving them is going to make them better. Players want to be good and if they have confidence that what you're telling them is making them better, they typically will listen to just about anything you have to say. But if you don't have that confidence in what you're giving them or they don't have confidence in it—you can have the greatest knowledge in the world, but if they don't believe in it it's not going to work. I've taught some things in the past that I would never teach again, but our guys tried to do it and we won a lot of games doing it. But I now know it's not the best thing. Players will make something out of—If they believe it, they'll make it work.
Q: With the Ravens, you obviously had a lot of big name guys: Chris McAllister, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Was that a challenge to fit a lot of stars into one group?
MN: The only thing I remember about that is that we had a number of playmakers; Adalius Thomas was also with us at that time. When we first started, we were trying to find out where he [Adalius] would fit. But the important thing at that time for us was to come up with a scheme that we felt would allow—would give opportunities to a lot of guys, because we had about a half a dozen playmakers. We had [Terrell] Suggs as well. We had a lot of guys who were playmakers and because of that we tried to devise a scheme that would give everybody a turn, whether they were blitzing from the corner, safety spot or linebacker. The 3-4 gave us the best chance to do that. So if anything came out in the personalities of our players, we had a lot of guys that we new wanted to be involved in the scheme and not just one-dimensional players. So if there's anything you do with good players that can make a lot of plays, it's that you try to play to their strengths and give them the opportunities to do what they're good at and not just say, "look, I won a lot of games playing Cover Three back in the '60s and '70s so we're going to do Cover Three." I think that's a poor choice as a coach. You've got to give them something that allows them to make plays. And when you do that I think you inspire people to play better.
Q: So there's no such thing as having too many big timers?
MN: I don't think so. If that's a problem then it's a better problem to have than the opposite.
Q: You mentioned Adalius Thomas. What are your memories of him when he was in Baltimore and what are you impressions of him from seeing him on film here in New England?
MN: I remember he was not a very good defensive end. [Laughs] He'll take offense to that maybe. But as we did two years ago, we tried very hard to get Adalius to come to San Francisco so that itself says what we think about him and what I think about him. I think he's a great person; he's a very intelligent guy. I used to kid with him and tell him that if he were a little dumber he'd be a little better football player. I've got very fond memories of him. He became an outstanding player for us. He's got a tremendous amount of ability. He likes to play the game. He's played around good players. He knows the importance of the game and he's not intimidated. He's a good player, as well as, a good person.
Q: Has linebacker Patrick Willis's development surprised you at all?
MN: Surprise is a difficult question to answer. But I'll say this: the expectation of Patrick when we drafted him was that he'd be a good player. How good, you really never know when you draft somebody. We did coach him in the Senior Bowl so we were confident he was the kind of guy we wanted to bring onto the roster. But he has exceeded some expectations in his ability to play. He's an outstanding player. It's hard to say much else, but he's only in his second year. He's extremely professional and that's very important to him. The players recognize him as a very good player; they respect him. Patrick has not lost humility because of his ability to be a good player. He's the same person he's always been. He gets hard coaches just like all of them. He's very receptive, a very coachable player. I don't know a coach in the league that wouldn't want him on their roster, to be honest with you, or a teammate for that matter.
Q: Linebacker is a tough position for a rookie to come in and play well, but he did it last year. How does he compare with rookies at other spots and how much do they have to learn?
MN: All of them [positions] are tough to play as a rookie, they really are. The hardest ones are things like quarterback and stuff, but everything is fairly difficult to play. I've been lucky enough to coach the Rookie of the Year three times, maybe four—I can't remember if Champ Bailey got it or not. All of them—Mike Cole, Terrell Suggs and obviously Patrick Willis—those three that I can recall were all linebackers. It's really just—I think linebacker is a position that if you are a good football player, you can play early. If you're just a good athlete it's a really tough position to play because it's much like a running back: you've got to have instinctiveness; you've got to know where the hole is. As a matter of fact, I'd say the best linebackers I know, at one point or another did play running back because you've got to run to daylight. If you run up the rear end of everybody, you're not going to get anywhere.
Q: Was it difficult not to start quarterback Alex Smith this year, just because of the investment that you have made in him?
MN: No. We play the best players we've got. Obviously Alex is somebody we drafted high and had high expectations for, but injuries have somewhat hindered that. That's just the way it is. But at no time do you make a decision based on financial commitment, I don't think, if you want to win games.