Redskins

49ers to face former coach in NFC title game

49ers to face former coach in NFC title game

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Mike Nolan's 3 1/2-year tenure as coach for the San Francisco 49ers offered few highlights on the field.

An 18-37 record before a mid-season firing in 2008. No playoff berths for a franchise used to winning championships. A parade of offensive coordinators unable to develop Alex Smith at quarterback.

Yet to call Nolan's run in San Francisco a complete failure would clearly miss the point. He took over a franchise decimated under the leadership of former general manager Terry Donahue and coach Dennis Erickson and began acquiring the pieces that Jim Harbaugh later used to make back-to-back runs to the NFC championship game.

Nolan, now the defensive coordinator in Atlanta, gets the chance to see the results of some of his work when the Falcons (14-3) host the 49ers (12-4-1) on Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

``There's a lot of players still playing there that we added, that I'll see. I look forward to seeing them before the game. I'm glad they've done well. Not only for those players, but for the organization,'' Nolan said. ``I put a lot of time and effort into that. So, in a strange way, it's a little rewarding that some of those guys are going so well.''

San Francisco owner Jed York said he gives Nolan ``a lot of credit for helping set the foundation for this current 49ers team.

``It's never easy to let somebody go that you have so much respect for, and you wish things had worked out differently for Mike. ... He is a very classy man and he's a heck of a football coach,'' York said. ``He's not the person that I want to see with the 49ers looking across the field knowing he is coordinating the defense of our opponent. That's not a good thing for me to see because he is very, very good.''

Ten of the current 49ers were acquired during Nolan's regime, including first-team All-Pros linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Dashon Goldson, second-teamers defensive tackle Justin Smith and left tackle Joe Staley and key contributors like running back Frank Gore, tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, defensive lineman Ray McDonald and cornerback Tarell Brown.

That helped transform the organization from a laughingstock that went 2-14 in 2004 in the final season under Erickson into a respectable one that still fell short of the playoffs.

``He turned us around,'' said punter Andy Lee, one of 13 players left from when Nolan coached. ``When he first got here we were the worst team in the NFL. Then we slowly started this climb from being the worst team in the NFL to a mediocre, possible playoff team. He did a good job. I really don't have anything negative to say about him. He definitely was part of the turnover part of this organization.''

But the talent Nolan acquired and the work ethic he instilled in the locker room failed to lead to success on the field. The Niners went 4-12, 7-9 and 5-11 in his three full seasons at the helm. He was fired with a 2-5 record midway through the 2008 season and has spent the past few years as a successful defensive coordinator.

After 2 1/2 more years of mediocrity under Mike Singletary, the Niners have turned into a winner the past two seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. San Francisco has won back-to-back NFC West titles and is in the NFC title game for the second straight season where the 49ers will face Nolan and the Falcons on Sunday.

``Nolan did some good things when he was here, definitely,'' said Goldson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2007. ``But it's just a different feeling around here lately. It's kind of hard to go back to where we were because we've been dealing with a lot of success lately. It's just different.''

Nolan's run was not without its personnel missteps, most notably the first major decision he made. With the top pick in the 2005 draft, Nolan selected Alex Smith instead of local favorite Aaron Rodgers, a decision that set the franchise back.

With a different offensive coordinator each season, Smith struggled to become a consistent NFL quarterback. Then there was a notable feud with Nolan when he tried to come back from a shoulder injury in his third season.

Smith lacked arm strength and later needed two operations, but Nolan at the time said there was nothing wrong with Smith's shoulder and the issue was confidence. The two have long since moved past that episode and have respect for each other years later.

``I felt like I grew up and learned a lot from that entire situation,'' Smith said. ``We got along really well after that. I saw my fault in it. We definitely moved on. No hard feelings for sure at this point at all. I look back at that as what could I have done differently as a young player in this league. You learn from it. No resentment at all.''

Smith finally emerged last year in his first season under Harbaugh, helping lead the Niners to the NFC title game, where they lost 20-17 in overtime to the New York Giants.

Smith lost his job midway through this season to Colin Kaepernick, who has transformed the San Francisco offense with a running threat out of the pistol formation.

It provides a stiff test for Nolan's new defense, but one the Niners are sure he will be up to.

``Absolutely,'' York said. ``He's one of the brightest defensive minds in the league and I know what he brings to the table. He knows our team fairly well. It's definitely going to give them an advantage.''

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AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report

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Report: Dan Snyder petitions state of Maryland for gambling license for new stadium

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USA Today Sports

Report: Dan Snyder petitions state of Maryland for gambling license for new stadium

As a return to the old RFK Stadium site for the Redskins seems less likely, Washington owner Dan Snyder appears to be moving forward with a new plan: Staying in Maryland but adding a gambling license. 

Snyder met with a number of Maryland lawmakers to discuss sports betting and acquiring a license for a new Redskins stadium, according to The Washington Post. The report contends Snyder wants to use "sports betting as part of an overall plan to build a domed stadium that could include hotels, offices and training facilities."

The story also suggests Snyder could build the stadium with his own money. 

The Redskins currently play their games in Maryland at FedEx Field and their lease runs through 2027. The stadium is dated and Snyder has openly talked about wanting a new facility for his team to play.

For years, publicly, Snyder has opined that his team belongs back in D.C. at the RFK site. At various times in the last two years that seemed plausible, but political red tape from the federal government continues to hold things up. The stadium sits on federal land, and while the city has tried to regain control of that site, it hasn't happened. Until the city takes control, which is far from happening, it seems unlikely the Redskins get back to the site. 

So if it's time to move forward with Maryland, it requires a bit of a fresh start. The Redskins and the state were holding talks about a land swap to build a new stadium near the MGM National Harbor along the Potomac River, but those talks stalled when it became obvious the team preferred a return to D.C.

Legalized sports betting in Maryland seems likely to hit the ballot this fall, and considering the state already has fully operational casinos, there's little reason to think the vote wouldn't pass.

That's the first step for the Redskins to get a sports betting license for their new stadium. The idea isn't novel; Ted Leonsis has been quite open about adding a sports book to Capital One Arena and already has an agreement with William Hill bookmakers to run the gambling operation. Similar deals are expected at Audi Field and Nationals Park. 

It remains a bit of a surprise that Virginia politicians seem willing to sit out the courtship of a new Redskins stadium. Former Governor Terry McAullife actively flirted with the idea of building a new Redskins stadium in the Commonwealth, but current Governor Ralph Northam almost seems disinterested in the idea. 

The Redskins practice facility is in Loudon County and the team holds training camp each summer in Richmond. The training camp deal is soon to expire and some believe if and when a new stadium facility gets built, that could also house training camp and practices. Currently, no professional sports teams play in Virginia, and the Commonwealth does not appear as near legalized sports gambling as Maryland or the District. 

Like anything with a gigantic project in a region with three different local governing bodies and the omnipresent specter of the federal government looming, a new Redskins stadium will require significant legislative hurdles and deal-making. Stay tuned. 

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Do the Caps have the goaltending to win the Stanley Cup?

Do the Caps have the goaltending to win the Stanley Cup?

The bye week and the all-star break are upon us meaning we will have to wait until Jan. 27 for the Capitals to take the ice again for a game. With the season over halfway done and the Feb. 24 trade deadline rapidly approaching, the focus of the season now shifts towards the playoffs.

Washington has certainly done enough at this point to show they are a playoff team, but just how good are they? Are they a true contender or are they destined for an early exit?

Over the next few days, I will examine the team to answer if it is good enough on offense, defense and in net to win a Cup and, if not, what they must do to improve by April.

See Monday's breakdown of the team's offense here.
See Tuesday's breakdown of the team's defense here.

Today’s question: Do the Caps have the defense to win the Stanley Cup?

Team stat
.916 team save percentage (20th in the NHL)

Player stats
Braden Holtby 18-9-4 (18 wins tied for 8th), .897 save percentage (48th among goalies with 15 or more games played), 3.09 GAA (40th)
Ilya Samsonov 15-2-1 (15 wins tied for 18th), .927 save percentage (5th among goalies with at least 15 GP), 2.06 GAA (1st)

It's been a tough year for Holtby. After a difficult start to the season, he seemed to reset and rebound in November. Then December rolled around and he struggled again. His save percentage has now dipped below .900 for the season. He still has gotten a majority of the starts and has put together a decent record on the season, but this does not look like vintage Holtby.

There is no one aspect of his game that you can point to and say, there it is, that's why he is struggling. The fact is that he is playing in front of a defense that has been shaky in terms of turnovers and he has not been able to bail them out with big saves like he has in years past. Deflections and screens seem to be affecting him more than they once did. Whether this is evidence of decline for the 30-year-old netminder of if this is just a bad year is a discussion for another day, but right now his play has not been up to par and he would be the first to admit that.

With Holtby in a contract year, Samsonov was likely brought up a year earlier than perhaps the team would have wanted him to be. The move, however, has paid off as Samsonov has been absolutely brilliant. There are flashes of inexperience to his game, particularly overcommitment when he slides from side to side, but already he has already improved from the start of the season to now and he seems to be every bit as good as advertised when Washington selected him in the first round back in 2015.

When it comes to the playoffs, however, Samsonov is an unknown commodity. We would like to assume his regular-season game will simply translate into great postseason play, but it does not always work that way. Just ask Jose Theodore. The fact is that he is a rookie goalie with zero NHL playoff experience. You also have to consider that the most games he has played in a professional season is 37 which he did last year in Hershey.

With Holtby struggling and Samsonov excelling, there are many who would love Samsonov to take over as the No. 1. But when you have a young goalie who has never in his professional career taken on a full-time starting role, is in his rookie season in the NHL and has no playoff experience, it is easy to see how this can all get very overwhelming very quickly.

There is no question that the play of both Holtby and Samsonov dictates that Samsonov should be playing more, but that probably will not translate into as many starts as you may think after the all-star break as Todd Reirden tries to manage the minutes of the rookie netminder. So long as the team remains atop the standings, there is no pressure to force more games than you need from Samsonov. Having said that, I doubt very much that Holtby will get every start in the upcoming four games the team has against the second-place Pittsburgh Penguins. I would be surprised if Samsonov did not get at least two of those games and one at home.

The verdict: Yes, the goaltending should be good enough to win the Cup

I know, you just read an entire analytical article with the ultimate conclusion of "I think so," but goaltending is the hardest thing to predict in hockey. Sometimes goalies get hot and sometimes they don't.

If the playoffs were to start today, Samsonov would have to be the starter. There is no debate. The problem is we have no idea what kind of a playoff goalie he will be. That's what makes Holtby's role so important.

Holtby ranks 5th all-time in playoff save percentage with a .928 and it's not a small sample size (89 games). OK, but won't his poor season translate to a poor performance in the playoffs? Ask 2018 Holtby who was in the exact same situation, supplanted by Philipp Gtubauer as the starter. He came on in relief of Grubauer in just the second game and never looked back with a .922 save percentage and 16-7 record all the way to the Stanley Cup.

Holtby is a goalie who likes to play as often as possible. The playoffs are ideal for him because you play every other night. It suits his game well. What happened in 2018 is no guarantee of success in 2020, but I don't know why anyone would think the Caps are better off getting a different back up than going with the guy who is statistically one of the best playoff goalies ever and who has won a Stanley Cup going into the postseason as a No. 2.

If Samsonov is anything close to what he has been in the regular season, the Caps are in good shape in net. If not, there is every reason to be confident in Holtby as the backup. Samsonov/Holtby as a tandem is about as good a tandem as there will be in the playoffs and there's no reason to change it.

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