San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Will new coach get ‘the trigger’ over new GM?

New San Francisco 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan, center, smiles with new head coach Mike Nolan, left, and 49ers owner John York, right, during a news conference in Burlingame, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005.
New San Francisco 49ers vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan, center, smiles with new head coach Mike Nolan, left, and 49ers owner John York, right, during a news conference in Burlingame, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005. AP

“The trigger” is something you’re likely to come across in the coming weeks. Mike Nolan coined the term when he was the 49ers’ coach a decade ago, and it refers to who has the final say on a team’s 53-man roster – the coach or the general manager?

“The first three years or four years at the 49ers, I had the trigger,” Nolan said this month during an interview on KNBR radio. “As you guys will recall probably, and I made the final say on everything. And Scot (McCloughan) was more of the personnel director, and (he) didn’t really have the final say. But I just wanted to make sure because – when you take a job – I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a guy put on me to be the GM, that I felt wasn’t competent at picking players. So I wanted to secure myself the ability to at least be able to trump him.”

The trigger is like the thermostat in a home. When a coach and/or general manager is hired, the two vow to work together on acquiring and evaluating talent the same way a bride and groom vow to support one another during their wedding ceremony. It’s a partnership, they’ll lean on each other, they’re in this together, yada, yada, yada.

But it usually doesn’t take long before the coach and general manager are wrestling over a couple of players on the roster the way newlyweds fight over a couple of degrees in their living room. The trigger always seems to be a source of agitation.

Nolan had the trigger for three seasons in San Francisco. Then it was given to McCloughan when he was elevated from vice president of player personnel to general manager.

“Scot and I worked together really well for the first three years,” Nolan recalled. “The last year it became a little bit … it was different. It wasn’t the same as the first three.”

Which brings us to today. It’s unknown who will have control over the 49ers’ 53-man roster when the team finally has its coach and general manager in place. But the search certainly is not following the traditional NFL pattern in which the general manager picks the coach.

Furthermore, the 49ers have just one head-coaching candidate, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, a far bigger fish than their prospects for general manager. Do a Google search for photos of Minnesota Vikings assistant general manager George Paton – pronounced PAY-ton – and you’ll find one, his head shot on the Vikings’ website. Search “Kyle Shanahan” and you’ll get hundreds of hits. (Search “George Patton” and you’ll get thousands.)

Which is to say, if Shanahan really wants the trigger, it’s a safe bet he’ll get the trigger.

That’s the exception in the NFL. Most teams favor the strong general manager approach. But it’s not always the case.

When the Miami Dolphins hired Adam Gase as their coach last year, they gave him roster control. At the time, Gase was the same age as Shanahan – 37. Two years ago, Dan Quinn became a first-time head coach. The Falcons gave him the trigger upon his hire.

Both teams made the playoffs this season. So did the Seattle Seahawks, whose general manager, John Schneider, has received heavy praise over the past few years for the talent in Seattle, but whose coach, Pete Carroll, has final say on the 53-man roster.

That appears to be the type of relationship the 49ers are seeking: one in which the general manager finds the talent, the coach hones it and it’s hard to determine at first blush who has full control.

Schneider and Carroll had not worked together before joining Seattle in 2010 and they are 20 years apart in age. But when it comes to the roster, they are finely tuned to one another, and there has not been a “trigger” dispute between them, at least none big enough to have become public. In Seattle, it’s described as the “buddy system” arrangement for football operations.

The 49ers seek the same sort of cohesion and will hold joint interviews with Shanahan and the two general manager hopefuls, Paton and the Arizona Cardinals’ Terry McDonough, on Friday and Saturday in Atlanta. Can they re-create the Schneider-Carroll magic in Seattle, the spark Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio have with the New England Patriots and the growing chemistry between Quinn and Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta?

Find the right match and they’ll pull the trigger.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at

Final say

NFL coaches in control of 53-man roster

Bruce Arians: Arizona Cardinals

Bill Belichick: New England Patriots

Pete Carroll: Seattle Seahawks

Adam Gase: Miami Dolphins

Sean Payton: New Orleans Saints

Dan Quinn: Atlanta Falcons