Falcons' Nolan prepares to face former team
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — When Mike Nolan served as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, the organization drafted Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Alex Smith, the quarterback who led them to last season's NFC Championship Game but is now the backup.
Prior to Nolan's final season in 2008, the 49ers added Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith through free agency.
In short, numerous key pieces of the team that will play in its second consecutive conference championship game on Sunday were coached by Nolan and added under his watch, which included the role of general manager for his first three seasons starting in 2005.
Now, as the defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, Nolan will be going against his former team, the one that fired him midway through the 2008 campaign.
"This is my third stop since then, so a lot of water under the bridge from that standpoint," Nolan said. "I've got a lot of great memories. Obviously, getting fired's not a good thing. But nonetheless, there's a lot of players still playing there that we added that I'll see.
"I look forward to seeing them before the game. I'm glad they've done well. Not only for those players, but for the organization. Put a lot of time and effort into that and so it's, in a strange way, it's a little rewarding as well that some of those guys are doing as well."
Make no mistake, if Nolan bears some responsibility for helping the 49ers to get where they are, he also does plenty for getting the Falcons there, too. This is his first season as defensive coordinator in Atlanta and, perhaps not coincidentally, it's the first time in coach Mike Smith's four tries that the Falcons won a postseason game.
In a 30-28 win over Seattle in the divisional round, Nolan said he thought his run defense did an "outstanding job" in stopping the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch, the league's No. 3 rusher in the regular season. Still, the Falcons, abetted in part by Matt Ryan's second interception, allowed Seattle to rally from a 20-point deficit in the second half to grab a 28-27 lead in the final minute.
In the second half, Nolan was without the benefit of his top pass rusher, defensive end John Abraham, who re-injured an ankle that he hurt in the regular-season finale. Nolan said he thought that not having Abraham made an impact on the game. Abraham has said he will play on Sunday but he might not be at 100 percent.
So it will fall to Nolan to come up with more schemes and figure out a way to compensate, and stop — or slow down — San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It's the kind of thing that is Nolan's forte and that he's been doing for years.
Football is in his blood and he's learned from some of the best. His father Dick Nolan served as the 49ers head coach for nine seasons, leading them to back-to-back NFC Championship Games in 1971 and '72 — both losses to Dallas.
At 35, Nolan became the youngest defensive coordinator in league history when Dan Reeves, his mentor, hired him in 1993 with the New York Giants. Nolan began answering a question on Tuesday about Reeves, who still lives in Atlanta, by proclaiming that Reeves should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In January, Reeves proved prescient about the job that Nolan would do.
"I think he'll gain the respect of the players and demand their respect, too, and they'll give him that respect," Reeves told FOXSportsSouth.com shortly after Nolan was hired. "Coach (Tom) Landry told me when I got my first job (that) people pick up on a phony quicker than anything. He's (Nolan is) not a screamer. He's more of a teacher."
Among those who have benefitted are the Falcons' two young safeties, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. DeCoud finished with a team-high six interceptions, fifth most in the league, and Moore, who only played 12 games because of injury, had four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
In training camp, DeCoud marveled at the change between Nolan and the defensive coordinator for his first four seasons, Brian VanGorder, whose background was mostly in college.
"At first, it was night and day because you know Brian," DeCoud told FOXSportsSouth.com. "He was a boisterous guy, a loud guy and he'll get after you. Mike, he'll get it corrected in the film room. He'll let you mess up. He won't chew you out and it was kind of weird that first week. Me and (Moore) were like, 'Uh, where's all the yelling?' But then we got acclimated to it and it's a really good environment for us.
"We love playing under Mike."
The question looms as to how long Nolan will be with the Falcons. He already has interviewed for the vacant Philadelphia head job. Nolan told FOX's Jay Glazer that he would not leave for just any coaching job, but last week Nolan lavished praise on the Eagles' organization.
"They have a tremendous owner (Jeffrey Lurie), much like we do here," Nolan said. "Whoever ends up with that job is going to do a good job and I also appreciate the fact that it is a great organization. They don't change coaches very often. It's been 14 years since they changed the last time and that's a credit to the entire organization, not just (outgoing coach Andy Reid), who I think is a hell of a coach.
"It's a real credit to them. So all I really say is for someone, it's going to be a great opportunity to be with a great organization, a great owner and all those good things."
On Tuesday, he re-iterated how much he likes his job and that he would not leave for just any head coaching job. He likened a head coach's job to that of a parent and to a coordinator's of big brother, who, nonetheless, has to play the role of general with his position coaches. He said coordinators can do more coaching because they have fewer outside responsibilities like dealing with the media and ownership.
"I do like my job," Nolan said. "I'll say this: Just the fact that something's a head coaching job doesn't make it a better job."
At 53, Nolan seems like the type who would benefit from a second chance as a head coach. He was 18-37 as coach of the 49ers and said he learned a "ton" from that experience.
"More important than what I learned from it is the memory," he said. "The memory, it's a good one, a positive one, even though it had an ending like it did."
On Tuesday, he spoke as someone who felt as if he had some unfinished business in his time with the 49ers. How ironic it would be if he helped to thwart them.
"I just wish it would have worked out a little bit better at the end because there was a lot of work to be done and they're reaping the benefits now, which is great," Nolan said. "That's why I say I enjoy watching them."