- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Remember when everyone in the NBA wanted to be like Mike? Now everyone in the NFL wants to be like Bill, or at least hire a replica.

After winning two Super Bowls in three years and having his New England Patriots just two victories away from a third title, coach Bill Belichick’s influence has permeated league-wide hiring.

Where five of the seven coaching vacancies last winter were filled by coaches with backgrounds on offense, all three openings this year are likely to be taken by defensive gurus like Belichick.

Miami’s Nick Saban and Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who’s expected to be hired in Cleveland when New England’s season is done, are Belichick proteges.

San Francisco’s Mike Nolan doesn’t have a Belichick connection, but he has a special pedigree. Nolan and his father, Dick, who guided the 49ers from 1968 to 1975, are the first father and son to coach the same team on a non-interim basis. (Wade Phillips took over in New Orleans for the last four games of 1985 after his father, Bum, resigned.)

Dick Nolan inherited a 49ers franchise that had never made the playoffs during its 18 seasons and by his third year had begun a run of three straight NFC West titles. Unfortunately for Nolan, the 49ers kept running into the Dallas Cowboys and his old boss, Tom Landry, in the playoffs. Dallas beat San Francisco 17-10 and 14-3, respectively, in the 1970 and 1971 NFC Championship games and overcame a 28-13 fourth-quarter deficit to stun the 49ers in the first round in 1972.

The elder Nolan never had another winning season and the 49ers didn’t get back to the playoffs until 1981, when they began their unparalleled era of excellence under Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh. The younger Nolan is the first coach to take over a losing 49ers team since Walsh in 1979. George Seifert (1989), Steve Mariucci (1997) and Dennis Erickson (2003) all assumed command of playoff squads.

Seen as a hot coach when he became Washington’s coordinator eight years ago this month at 37, Mike Nolan’s stock slipped so badly when he was ousted in Washington after the 1999 season and by the New York Jets the next year that he agreed to coach the Ravens’ receivers in 2001 in order to stay in the league. When Marvin Lewis left for the Redskins after that season, Nolan inherited a superb defense and maintained its fine performance despite injuries and attrition.

Former Redskins employees now coach all three California teams. Nolan’s former boss, Norv Turner — who fired him under pressure from Redskins owner Dan Snyder five years ago this month — is in Oakland and Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego. All three victims of Snyder’s ax get a chance for revenge in Washington next season.

Form holds for a change — For all the talk about the NFL’s unpredictability, the top four seeds are in the conference title games for the second time in three years. Most observers expected defending champion New England and last season’s NFC runner-up Philadelphia to still be in the hunt now, and Pittsburgh and Atlanta won playoff games in 2002.

What’s more, the top four seeds got this far just twice from 1992 to 2001, so if anything the playoffs are becoming more predictable — at least until this point. The top seeds haven’t met in the Super Bowl since the salary cap went into effect in 1994.

That’s bad karma for Sunday’s hosts, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which have not performed well in the biggest home tests. Andy Reid’s Eagles lost the past two NFC title games at home, and Bill Cowher’s Steelers are 1-3 in AFC title games at home.

Motown madness — In a test run for next February’s Super Bowl XL, Detroit is holding the Motown Winter Blast downtown this weekend. The event, filled with music, food and such winter sports as ice skating and dog sledding, will be repeated next year and is designed to counteract the city’s crime-ridden image and the belief that it’s a frozen wasteland during the winter.

Detroit will be the first northern city to play host to a Super Bowl since Minneapolis 14 years earlier.

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