If Mike Nolan has one word to explain his team's offensive stupor, it's this - "inconsistency." Unfortunately for anyone who follows the team and is desperately searching for answers, it's the same word Nolan used during the preseason and after the team's first game against Arizona. It's a catch-all word. It's vague. It doesn't point fingers. It's an easy explanation. The truth is that Nolan doesn't know what's ailing the offense, which is quickly growing into an embarrassment. At various times during a half-hour-long press conference today Nolan said, "I think the execution needs some work" and later "could be scheme" and before that he said, "Our mistakes, our errors thus far, I believe are correctible. But do I have them exactly identified yet? No."
My sense after five games is that the San Francisco 49ers are terrified to make mistakes. This makes them overly cautious. And caution makes them predictable. Nolan is like a fretful nanny who keeps his young charges cooped up in the house all day for fear that they'll scrape their knees. And they're suffering because of it. Over the past two seasons, it was hard to blame the coach for the safe approach. The talent level on both sides of the ball was so poor that the 49ers had to play a ball-control game to have any chance at a victory. That's not an excuse anymore. The 49ers are far better-stocked - on offense and defense - than they've been in years and 49ers fans expected much more this season, especially on offense. They've gotten less. In fact, what they've gotten is more caution. Why? Because the defense is so much better, it enables the 49ers' offense to play even closer to the vest.
The player most stifled by this umbrella of caution is Ashley Lelie. The 49ers have had a dearth of big plays this season and yet they have a receiver who has averaged 17.5 yards a catch sitting on the bench. On the rare occasions that he does play, Lelie is asked to run short and intermediate routes. That is, the same types of gritty, five-, eight-, ten-yard routes that Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson run. That's not what Lelie does best, and if the 49ers signed him to a $4.3 million contract this offseason to run those routes, they made a mistake. Asked today why Lelie hasn't played more, Nolan went from cautious to coy.
"Good question," he said. "We've got a week to work on that.
-- Are you saying he could see more playing time?
"I'm saying, 'Good question. We've got a week to work on that,'" Nolan said. "Good question."
-- Why hasn't he been in before?
"Good question. We're going to work on that this week"
-- Do you think he should have been in before?
"Another good question."
For two years Nolan has enjoyed nearly universal adulation in San Francisco. The only time he truly rankled the Faithful's nerves was last year when, deep inside St. Louis territory, he elected to kick a field goal on fourth and one instead of pushing for a first down and a game-clinching touchdown. The fans screamed that Nolan's caution cost the 49ers a win. This year, it could cost far more than that.
-- Matt Barrows