For all the swings and misses former San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Nolan took during his tenure with the team, both in regards to talent and when he walked the sideline, it's becoming apparent that the one bright side to his "legacy" could be the hands he left the team in upon his midseason dismissal last year.
In an almost comical sense of irony, the first time coach that insisted on being the sole face of the franchise when he was hired in 2005 brought not one, but two, of his own successors into the fold—guys that were supposed to be his support and subordinates.
Ultimately, Nolan was replaced by his linebackers coach Mike Singletary, and fired by Scot McCloughan—a man he brought in as a glorified talent scout who was supposed to help Nolan with his General Manager duties but wound up assuming them himself, and then giving the sharp dressed coach his walking papers the following season.
If this past weekend's draft is any indication, Nolan's replacements have this team headed in the right direction.
Nothing is set in stone of course, especially with this 49ers team that could just as easily wind up with another top ten pick in the 2010 draft as it could find itself in the 2010 playoffs.
But the clear cut direction of the current regime is a breath of fresh air compared to the mixed signals and baffling decision making that was common place with Nolan.
Since McCloughan was originally brought on board, it was unclear exactly what role he played and how much power he held.
Even as he was promoted to the GM position prior to the 2008 season (supposedly to ease Nolan's workload), the now former coach still stuck his chest out at the press conference and proclaimed himself to still be "the one voice of the franchise."
For these reasons, it was hard to know who to credit the personnel decisions to, which, to some 49ers followers, appeared to be about the only praise Nolan was worthy of.
We can pat him on the back all we want for Patrick Willis, Frank Gore, and Joe Staley, but how hard is it to draft a Butkus Award winner?
How hard is it to take a third round flyer on an oft injured running back that had started over two quality NFL running backs in college? Trading up to get the best available tackle when your first major offseason signing was an expensively fragile offensive tackle?
The point is, the talent evaluation during Nolan's tenure is as much responsible for his demise as his apparent cluelessness at times on the sideline and the lack of respect he held among his players.
As great as Willis and Gore have been, Nolan saddled the team with the likes of stone hands Vernon Davis, non-factor Kentwan Balmer, and borderline cripple Jonas Jennings. It's hard to even say how big a bust Alex Smith has been considering Nolan rode him like a mule until his shoulder nearly disintegrated, and then outed him as a whiner to his teammates when Smith went public with his injuries.
Moving foward, if this team is to climb out of the lower echelon of NFL mediocrity, it needs to upgrade it's talent and bring in long term solutions—not short term fixes, something McCloughan seems to have a firm grasp on.
Snagging Michael Crabtree at number 10 was obviously a no brainer. Both the head coach and the GM were steadfast in their claim that they were out for the best available players and not simply trying to fill needs.
What McCloughan did later on showed some true moxie.
With pressing needs staring him in the face during the second round, the GM watched as some of the 49ers more coveted players came off their board. Rather than reaching to fill a need, McCloughan set the team up for an even better draft in 2010, finagling Carolina's first round pick next year for the teams second and fourth round picks.
The likes of Everette Brown (who Carolina traded up to get) and Jarron Gilbert were still on the board, potentially nice additions to a 49er squad in need of bolstering its pass rush.
But now, the 49ers are in a position to land two potential starters in the first two hours of next year's draft, and if McCloughan packages those picks to move up and land, say, Heisman trophy winner Sam Bradford or USC's Taylor Mays—possibly the second coming of Ronnie Lott—the pick swap will become pure genius.
Day two was equally productive with the 49ers taking QB Nate Davis in the fifth round; a high value pick given he was once considered a first day prospect. The addition of iron man tight end Bear Pascoe out of Fresno State, safety Curtis Taylor, and former five star recruit Rickey Jean-Francois (both from LSU) gave the team some intriguing prospects to work with.
And if your biggest reach of the draft is taking a bruising senior running back that rushed for over 1300 yards in the third round to spell your Pro Bowl workhorse, then pat yourself on the back.
To use the cliche, the draft "is, what it is..." and therefore, it's not certain that this draft's acquisitions won't flop at the next level.
But since the end of last season, the 49ers brass—especially McCloughan—have maintained, without hesitation, that this team has a defined direction; a clear cut plan to return to its past glory.
By living up to it's pre draft assurances, vague as they were (as with any NFL team), they've already begun putting their bold talk into promising action.