Mike Nolan, the new LB coach for the New Orleans Saints, may end up being a great hire.
The New Orleans Saints brought Mike Nolan in to replace longtime LB coach Joe Vitt. And while Vitt didn’t exactly leave big shoes to fill, fans will be eager for fast returns. Stephone Anthony is staring down the barrel of a label gun reading “bust,” and 2017 will be a make or break year for the former first-round pick. Nolan’s success will, rightly or wrongly, be judged heavily on how Anthony fares in his third season.
Nolan has a checkered past as a coach. He’s had a long career, and has been fired from more than a few jobs. He’s also got a serious case of wanderlust. But looking closely, there’s every reason to believe he can have great success in New Orleans.
Nolan’s first job as a DC was with the NY Giants in 1993.
In his first year, the Giants defense allowed a league-best 205 points through 16 games. The defense allowed 305 and 340 points in the next two seasons, a still respectable number. He was never fired, but when the Giants fired HC Dan Reeves in 1996 and his future became cloudy, he left for greener pastures. He was promptly hired by the Redskins at the same position.
Nolan struggled in two years as the Redskins DC.
Head Coach Norv Turner reportedly wanted to keep Nolan on after those years, despite their defense finishing near the bottom of the league. But owner Dan Snyder made the final call. Nolan was working with a young unit, and some attribute his struggles to youth. But either way you look at it, this is a blemish on Nolan’s record.
Following his release from the Redskins, Nolan landed with the Jets.
They must have liked what they saw from his time in Washington, because they brought him in right away as a DC. Nolan had a solid season in New York, and the team gave up only 20 points a game. They finished with the eleventh ranked unit in the league. But Head Coach Al Groh was fired after the season, and Nolan left with him.
From there, Nolan got a job with the Ravens.
Oddly enough, HC Brian Billick hired to coach receivers. Billick thought he could be an asset in the receiver room. And he must have done something right, because the Ravens promoted him to DC after one year. As DC, Nolan took charge of what would become the dominant defense of the Ray Lewis, Ed Reed years in Baltimore. He coached Reed through the first three years of his career, and built a defense that would strike fear across the league for years.
His success in Baltimore led to his hire in San Francisco, as a Head Coach. These would become the defining years of Nolan’s career.
Unfortunately, Nolan’s legacy was defined most by his failures with the 49ers offense. He famously drafted Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers, and never quite lived the decision down. He controversially dismissed the severity of a shoulder injury Smith sustained, and forced him to play through it. And he refused to acknowledge that Smith’s poor play might be due to the injury. This did a lot to damage his reputation.
But Nolan managed much with the defense. He arguably did a great job with that unit. He developed Pro-Bowl LB Patrick Willis and a number of other starting-caliber defenders. In the process, he earned a reputation as a great individual player developer. But the unit was ravaged by injuries during Nolan’s tenure, and never quite lived up to its hype. Fans criticized him for poor game-management, and many claimed that in time he lost the locker room. Owner Jed York loved him, and apparently cried when he had to fire Nolan in 2008. But fire him he did.
From there, Nolan went to Denver.
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As their DC under Josh McDaniels, Nolan turned a 29th ranked unit into the 7th in one year. He turned a struggling unit into one of the best in the league, and seemed destined to return to a HC position eventually. But I’m 2009, just a year into his contract, he left for Miami.
The details of this move are very much unclear. What is clear is that McDaniels didn’t fire him. Nolan wasn’t happy in Denver. Many suspect he left for Miami to coach under Bill Parcells, and I think that’s a credible explanation.
In two years with Miami, Nolan turned their defense around.
They’d been the 25th ranked scoring defense, and in one year rose to the 14th. The following year they finished 6th. But – again for reasons unknown – Nolan left after two years to take the same job in… Atlanta. The Dolphins had just fired HC Tony Sporano but most figured they’d keep on Nolan. He likely didn’t want to wait to see who they hired to replace Sporano, and got a jump on the market with the move to Atlanta.
Under Mike Smith, Nolan had one very successful year with Atlanta.
But his following two seasons were disappointing, and Smith eventually let Nolan go. Fans complained that he failed to make the most out of a young and talented group of defensive lineman, and that he played too cautiously. In hindsight, it’s clear that he was working with subpar talent on the defensive roster.
His reputation damaged by his stint in Atlanta, Nolan could only land a job as a LB coach. He stuck on for a year in San Diego, but left again of his own volition to join the analytics team at Sirius Radio.
The consensus on Nolan seems to be that he’s a great player developer and a sound defensive mind who struggles with game management and has no penchant for the offensive side of the game.
He struggled putting together a roster in San Francisco, and by most accounts didn’t keep the locker room together. But his defensive talents landed him jobs across the league, and he consistently made improvements to struggling units. He won’t be asked to manage the game in New Orleans, and will have every opportunity to develop the freakishly athletic Stephone Anthony. He can help the Saints make a decision on where to plug Craig Robertson – as the MLB or as a backup WLB – and on whether or not the team needs to pursue a starter in free agency.
All in all, this has the makings of a great hire. We’ll see how things pan out, of course, but I’ve got high hopes.