Training camp at the Santa Clara headquarters complex has been a like a book of revelation to the veteran players courtesy of Mike Singletary and a house of pain for the rookies. Certainly when one sits back and analyzes the intricacies of camp under Mike you'll know that he is one for execution and a stickler for details. No one can ever dispute the intensity that Mike brings to the forefront of every practice session.
His body language via the forehead, eyes and hand gestures speak volumes about the inner drive he has to raise the bar starting with this training camp and the four pre-season games he must make some really tough decisions. The tempo in the classroom and out on the practice field is extraordinary to say the least. Mike can be seen strutting out on to the field barking suggestions and re-directing a broken play. He is seen huddled with both the offensive and defensive units enticing them to raise their individual performances. His oratorical comments almost can be condensed into a biblical realization that provides one hope and inspiration.
This is Mike Singletary former All-Pro linebacker extraordinaire and now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, an organization he played against and was in respect of. He became close friends with legendary 49er icon Bill Walsh and his wish is to mold the team within the likes of his image all over again and return the 49ers to their justified glory days. No one other than Mike in my opinion has the inner fortitude to execute this plan other than him.
Mike has brought back old school tactics in implementing the "Nutcracker," drill in which two players square off head-to-head and try to drive their opponent backwards. The idea is to gain confidence and stamina over your opponent over the long duration you may be out there on the field. It is also different from the drill Singletary conducted while under then head coach Mike Ditka in that a lineman would engage their opponent and then try and shed them to the side in order to make a play. With Singletary's version he believes in brute raw power prevailing by going right through the opponent to achieve one's goal.
Certainly this has been a topic of discussion not only amongst his coaches and players but with 49er die-hard fans themselves. Is this too physical? Will it lead to unnecessary injuries that it claimed in linebacker Patrick Willis spraining an ankle and left guard David Baas straining his left foot? When someone asked Mike about this he was undeterred claiming that injuries happen and that the purpose of the drill was to instill toughness.
The smell of training camp is a distinguished smell of raw strength, intensity and crisp athleticism in that every player is trying to be noticed as an; "individual and as a team player all at the same time in winning a final roster position come the final cut date of training camp." The position battles on both the defense and offense have been very competitive and the margin of error has been narrowed significantly under Mike Singletary's watch.
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky walks with a new purpose in his step having complete control finally of a defense he wanted to be a true 3-4 scheme but was continually overruled by then head coach Mike Nolan to run a hybrid scheme that shifted back and forth from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The results have been purely positive in that Manusky has players excelling at their positions because there is simplification now in the schemes and consistency as well.
Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye has a lot more eyes on him from an upper management and fan-base standpoint to finally turn an offense around that has been languishing through six consecutive losing seasons and is known as a pure malcontent within the league itself. Looking a lot like the old Norv Turner offense that revitalized the often scoffed at quarterback Alex Smith, Jimmy's offensive scheme is one that utilizes all facets of the offense to achieve a common end.
In stark contrast to the Mike Martz high-flying aerial attack that often ignored the running game, Jimmy's plan of execution starts with the establishment of the running attack and breaks off into supplementing that with a great passing attack, much more relevant to the West Coast style of offense under Bill Walsh, George Seifert and Steve Mariucci. With competition at right tackle, quarterback and fullback positions Jimmy is enjoying the depth he has at his disposal.
Mike Singletary also issued ultimatums at training camp about leadership roles. Challenging individual players to come out and define themselves as future verbal leaders of the team. Forcefully instilling the, "team centered philosophy," to every individual he wants certain players to start taking ownership of the team and to help steer the team into the realm of acquiring a championship sense of mentality.
He referred specifically to the quarterback and wide receiver positions, in that someone must come out and establish a central figure of leadership. He also made note of the offensive line in that it was a line maturing and executing better especially following the contract extension of left tackle Joe Staley who is already making noise about being accountable.
Identifying greatness yet to be unleashed he made references to tight end Vernon Davis and his capabilities as an athlete that is still yet to be ignited. On several practices with Vernon Davis running routes and attempting to catch passes thrown to him by either Shaun Hill or Alex Smith, the ball seems to have had a mind of its own in escaping his buttery hands and falling to the ground. "Run the play again," Mike would bellow from the sidelines to force Vernon to take a step back and realize his execution is not at all acceptable.
Lots of outside situations have happened in that attention on training camp has often been tainted by a media frenzy to know why our number one draft pick in Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree will not sign yet. I'm proud to have Mike Singletary's take on that situation in that his absence will not deter what the team's ultimate goal is and always will be. He made reference to having enough depth at the receiving position as being an opportunity for someone else to rise to the occasion.
Even the shoulder fracture newly acquired wide receiver Brandon Jones suffered while in camp and is out for an estimated eight weeks is of little consequence to Mike's attitude that he has enough talent in the receiving pool to be worried. He expressed and oozes with self-confidence that the team will come together and be just fine. This is a coach fans can be relieved to know that he'll find a way to overcome a business situation gone bad or an unexpected injury that forces you to do some realigning.
From training camp to our first pre-season game against the Denver Broncos whom we defeated 17-16, I want to add my two-cents worth on what I believe were strong showings both on defense and offense. Shaun Hill right out of the gate was "impressive," to me. Although he played very little he emitted confidence while out on the field and looked better than he did in 2008.
Alex Smith continues to struggle when his first read for a pass is not there; instead he pulls the ball down, waits with the ball too long and is seen being taken down for the sack. If there is anything one can point out the intriguing difference between the two quarterbacks it is this as an example. Hill deserves the starting position unless he suddenly has a psychotic breakdown while on the field within the next two pre-season contests.
Tight end Vernon Davis being utilized efficiently by Jimmy Raye in that he was an intended target in receiving two passes correctly executed for 41 total yards. He looked utterly dangerous to any opposing defense taking their eyes off of him. San Francisco 49er left cornerback Nate Clements is really trying to earn his big paycheck now. He had four solo tackles on Denver's first offensive drive and baited Bronco quarterback Kyle Orton into a pass into the end zone where he stepped in front of tight end Daniel Graham and took the completion away from him for an interception that kept Denver off the scoreboard.
Second-year cornerback now safety Reggie Smith was extraordinary in his two recorded interceptions one ending Denver's third possession that set-up a 49er touchdown and the other killing a final drive by Denver with 1:52 left to play in intercepting a Chris Sims pass in the end zone, ending an attempt by them to conduct a two-point conversion attempt to win the game.
Third-round draft pick Alabama's running back Glen Coffee exuded confidence in producing 14 carries for 67 total tough yards with a 4.8 yards average per carry. He was seen running with power and with shoulders level to deliver one punishing run right after another. He also showed a nice burst to the outside on a 15-yard romper that looked impressive. I am excited to have him in the fold next to Frank Gore.
The heartbreaker in this game was watching Kansas State running back Thomas Clayton go down to a devastating knee injury and was carted off the field with hand held high in recognition of the applause. The 2007 sixth-round draft pick has spent the last two years working hard to prove himself within the 49er practice squad. His career as a 49er and as a player seems to be over as he suffered serious ligament damage to his ACL and more.
Fullback Zak Keasey was lost due to a broken arm within the game as well but entering late into the first quarter was newcomer at fullback Brit Miller who was an original linebacker out of Illinois, his blocking was well executed and he caught both touchdown passes within the game one from Smith and Huard.
Overall I was extremely excited as a 49er die-hard in realizing what this training camp is trying to convey via Mike Singletary a new road to glory; and a new beginning after the Dennis Erickson and Mike Nolan eras. Six straight losing seasons that have been one migraine after another in suffering from inexcusable managerial mistakes. I am pleasantly cautious with Jed York at the helm now, yet still not convinced he is the man of the hour.
Mike Singletary was his pick and labeling him head coach from interim head coach is his first crowning achievement. General Manager Scot McCloughan although a genius as a former scout and a scientific mind for the draft is still a Mike Nolan protégée. I have yet to see an offensive line dominating in the trenches and this should have been a constant by now.
Still the freshness of the season is upon us. Let's embrace it and continue to watch the position battles unfold before us. We have the personnel to get the division done the right way as long as injuries remains in the back seat while driving; with the new old school of mind in charge anything is possible now.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.