When the New Orleans Saints report to the start of organized team activities later this month (May 23-25), they'll have a new defensive assistant with them; and that new assistant will have possibly one of the most scrutinized missions going into his new job than any new assistant coach in recent memory.
That assistant is new linebacker coach Mike Nolan, who actually has a link to the Saints organization that goes back a few decades.
Nolan's last name is one that older Saints fans that grew up following the team in the late 1970's, know very well as the son of former Saints head coach Dick Nolan -- who was the head coach of the Saints from 1978 through 1980.
Dick Nolan was originally himself the Saints linebacker coach in 1977 on the defensive staff under then-head coach Hank Stram; but after Stram was fired by then-team owner John Mecom, Jr. following the 1977 season, Nolan was promoted to head coach.
Mecom hired Dick Nolan because of his past tenure as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers for eight seasons from 1968 through 1975, noted for developing the defense and taking the team to three straight NFC West division titles (1970–72), twice missing the Super Bowl by only one game (1970–71).
Dick Nolan then oversaw one of the most prolific periods in Saints history, as the Saints offense with QB Archie Manning, RB's Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, WR Wes Chandler, and TE Henry Childs led the way for one of the NFL's top offenses of that Era.
He was the first Saints head coach to win seven, and then eight games in a single season; going 7–9 in 1978 and 8–8 (narrowly missing the Playoffs) in 1979.
But then the infamous 1980 season arrived, and unbeknownst to Nolan, nearly half of his entire team had become addicted to crack cocaine when they were introduced to the drug at Training Camp in Vero Beach, FL by Muncie and teammate defensive end Don Reese -- who were cooking up the drug on a hot-plate in their dorm rooms.
In an interview just a few years ago after Muncie's death at the age of 60 back in 2013, Archie Manning revealed that he thought Muncie and Reese had hot-plates in their rooms during that summer to cook "soul food".
As you would expect, a team full of "crack heads" / drug addicts did not perform up to the best of their abilities, and by the time Nolan and then-GM Steve Rosenbloom finally got a handle on the problem and traded Muncie to San Diego following the team's 4th straight loss to open the season, it was already too late.
The team spiraled into a horrific tailspin that saw them lose 8 more consecutive games (0-12); and when the team's fans began wearing paper bags on their heads, it wasn't long after that Nolan was eventually fired following an embarrassing defeat to the L.A. Rams at home on Monday Night Football in Week #12.
The Saints would go on to finish 1-15 and became known nationally as "The Aint's" --- and now 37 years later the derogatory term remains still as the top insult that fans of opposing teams use to ridicule Saints fans of this generation.
Now all of these years later, Mike Nolan is hoping his tenure in New Orleans will end up with much better results than his late father (who passed away in 2007 at the age of 75) had experienced.
Mike Nolan has been in coaching dating all the way back to the 1981 season, and has an ample amount of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator as well as a stint as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2005-08.
Nolan replaces Joe Vitt, who was one of five assistant coaches that the Saints dismissed shortly after the end of last season in early January. Vitt was also the team's assistant head coach under Sean Payton and had been coaching the Saints linebacker corps since 2006.
Nolan didn't coach in 2016, since he had taken a year off and did some broadcasting with NFL Network and Sirius XM Satellite Radio. Prior to that in 2015, he was linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers, and his three previous jobs were as defensive coordinator -- Atlanta Falcons from 2012-14, Miami Dolphins from 2010-11 and Denver Broncos in 2009.
Now, the long-time veteran coach (or 'Dick Nolan's kid' as the older Saints fans are now likely to refer to him as) will have the job of improving the Saints' performance at the linebacker position.
While the injury-riddled defensive secondary and the Saints' recent lack of a consistent pass rush are among a few of the reasons being blamed for the team's notable struggles of the past 3 seasons, the poor play of the Saints linebacker corps certainly has been just as culpable in that failure.
Without question, one of Nolan's top priorities will be to maximize the potential of Stephone Anthony, a 1st-round pick out of Clemson University and an immediate starter in his rookie season of 2015, but who barely played at all last year before eventually being placed on injured reserve near the end of the season.
The Saints drafted Anthony with the #31 overall selection 2 years ago; and although he started all 16 games as a rookie and made 112 tackles after a very promising debut / first season that year, he has had some very notable struggles with adjusting to the mental aspects that go along with playing at the NFL level.
After getting head coach Sean Payton’s blessing, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen moved Anthony to the “Sam” (strongside) linebacker position last summer, although the former 1st-round pick ended up playing just 133 snaps on defense.
Saints head coach Sean Payton has stopped short of calling it a crossroads season for Anthony in 2017, but let's face it: this is a "make or break" year for the former Parade Magazine High School All-American and All-ACC linebacker who’s entering his third year.
There's really no other way that you characterize Anthony's steep dive down the depth chart in Year 2 and his inability to mentally grasp the various responsibilities required to play linebacker within the Saints scheme.
The Saints were basically forced to play with two linebackers last season because of the lack of quality play, as well as attrition due to a multitude of nagging injury issues. Payton has looked to change that, by having GM Mickey Loomis go out in Free Agency and sign players like A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o.
Both Klein and Te’o will likely compete for starting the “Mike” / middle linebacker spot, which in 2015 was manned by Anthony but last year was manned for a majority of the season by the team’s leading tackler and one of the top Free Agent signings of 2016; in veteran Craig Robertson.
Robertson this year will likely slide over to his more natural position of the “Will” / weakside linebacker spot, where he'll share time at that position but could see plenty of action given the notable past injury issues of starting “Will” LB Dannell Ellerbe.
So where does that leave Anthony?
Likely still in “limbo” for the time being, and probably as the back-up at strongside / “Sam” linebacker behind either Nate Stupar or T'eo. Which is exactly why Anthony will need to show some extensive and even great improvement in the upcoming off-season workouts and the upcoming Mini-Camp and Training Camp, or else his time in New Orleans could come to an early and unexpected end.
The recent selection of University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone by the Saints in the 3rd Round of last week's 2017 NFL Draft, will now put even more pressure on Anthony to produce.
Which is exactly where Mike Nolan comes into play with regard to Anthony's future.
Nolan has a noted reputation as a defensive “guru” within the League, and his ability to develop linebackers in particular could be the determining factor in whether or not Anthony remains in New Orleans, or is eventually forced to seek an opportunity to revive his career elsewhere with another team.
The likelihood that Mike Nolan can "save" Anthony and get him headed back in the right direction, seems to be right around a 50/50 proposition at this point.
Several observers and analysts have noted the great influence that Nolan had in San Diego with T'eo (who ironically he will now coach again in New Orleans), who like Anthony at that time was struggling after his first few years in the League, but had an above average season under Nolan's tutelage in 2015 before injuries derailed him last season.
One could easily make the case that Anthony is a much quicker and markedly better athlete than T'eo is, so it's safe to say that Nolan would probably have a little bit more to work with in his likely effort to "coach up" Anthony.
But for Anthony, it's all "between the ears" at this point.
Regardless if Nolan is able to maximize the most of Anthony's abilities enough to translate to success on the field or not, it's what he can teach Anthony off of the field and inside the classroom at the Saints Practice Facility in Metairie, that hopefully will begin to resonate with the 24-year old the most.