It's ironic, you know. He'll tell you he's all about running and defense. But in practical fact, Mike Singletary's brief and catastrophic tenure as coach of the Niners will have begun and ended with the same, strange thing.

A backup quarterback.

Ah, Shaun Hill. Now THERE was a backup. With his clearly limited physical skills, he certainly wasn't a long-term starter. But as a backup, he was nearly perfect. He managed the game, protected the ball. And somehow, he won.

Indeed, he won, perhaps too much. Singletary's speeches and slogans were great. But he's here for one reason, one reason alone.

Singletary's here because Shaun Hill won.

It thus appeared that backup quarterback WASN'T among the Niners' needs. But Scot McCloughan had other ideas. He gave Hill away to Detroit, and boy was he giddy to sign David Carr. "We are very happy to add David to our roster," he said. "We added a player at a position of need and of huge importance to us. David provides depth at the quarterback position and helps make us stronger. He's a great young man."

Great young man or no, Singletary's meal-ticket was gone. By sheer coincidence, just days later, McCloughan was gone too. Carr, though, was here to stay.

By preseason's end, Singletary had a serious problem. After bombing in Houston, Carr had been a solid backup for two years in New York, and he'd looked okay in our preseason games, but Singletary couldn't get "comfortable" with him. Nate Davis had more than a year in the system, to go with his drool-worthy physical skills, but his work-ethic was so bad--at least according to Singletary--that he was cut and stashed on the practice squad. So the week before the season opener, Singletary went out and added Troy Smith. Smith had won the '06 Heisman, but his height, arm strength, and accuracy were deemed so middling, he'd ended up a fifth-round pick. Since then, he'd barely played, and when the Ravens waived him, no one saw fit to venture a claim. Nothing THERE to warrant trust.

And so it was that Singletary's backup plan for Alex Smith was for Alex Smith to not get hurt.

With a "plan" like that, you're BEGGING for trouble, and trouble struck in Carolina. Smith went down, and Carr was awful. On arrival in England, Smith discovered no miracle cure--damn you, European health-care--and Singletary was stuck with a crisis. Another crisis, in a season that so far had seen nothing else.

The viable options, it seemed, were two. The safer, though less inspiring, was Carr. Though it's never easy to come off the bench, he should've been more prepared for the Panthers. Still, with his experience and practice reps, he was eager to prove all the things he could do with a solid week of preparing to start. On the other hand, the sensible gamble was Davis. No reps since the preseason, but again, more than a year of work with the playbook, and easily our most talented passer.

So which would it be? Veteran experience or jaw-dropping talent?

The answer, of course, would be neither.

After all, why would THOSE things matter? Singletary hadn't had either one, yet he'd landed an NFL head-coaching gig. HE knew what it took to succeed, and it had nothing to do with experience or talent. It was all about "leadership," the "ability to get everybody on the same page." And THAT was what Troy Smith had to least, that's what Singletary had HEARD, you know, by asking around.

Mike Johnson couldn't hide his bemusement. "I get three days to kind of see what [Smith] does well," he said, almost with disbelief. Then he would "scale back" the game-plan (meaning what, punting on THIRD down?), and in a short week--in a foreign land, no less--Smith would take the very first reps of his seven-week Niners career, and "hopefully we can come out of there with a win."

Singletary, naturally, was much less reserved, his hollow pep-talk reaching new heights of absurdity. "I talked to the team," he said, "and one of the things that I told them, and that I will tell you, is this is our finest hour as a team, and as a staff."

His confidence, as usual, was ridiculous. He was one-and-six, and now he was taking a complete leap of faith. With no reason at all to believe it'd work, in essence he merely was counting on luck.

And somehow, it worked.

Of course, the best way to minimize the risk was to make Smith irrelevant, and such was the goal of our "scaled back" game-plan. Through three quarters, we ran up the gut--again and again--passing only rarely and short. (Come to think of it, this "scaled back" plan looked a lot like our REGULAR plan, didn't it?) Going into the fourth, Smith was just 7 of 13 for 86 yards, and naturally, we trailed, having scored only three.

For crissakes, Coach. You're one-and-six. I know that Smith is new and everything. But will you EVER get out of your run-first rut? I mean, what are you afraid of? Losing?!

At last, in the fourth, it all fell into place. All season, a single score was a major achievement. But in less than eight minutes: three drives, on three short fields, and three touchdowns. Incredible.

First, set up by a long kickoff return, we finally open it up. Smith completes a nice pass for 27. Then, he scrambles right and lofts a deep wobbler, off his back foot and into double coverage. The throw is preposterous, an easy pick, yet somehow Delanie Walker brings it down at the one. Second, set up by a ridiculous punt, Smith scrambles again and throws a beautiful pass to Michael Crabtree for the score. And third, set up by a fumble at the Broncos' 18, five runs up the middle are barely enough.

Just like that, it's 24-10. Incredible.

Of course, for THIS team, even with less than four minutes to go, a two-touchdown lead isn't anything safe. Once again, Greg Manusky's defense--or is it Singletary's?--goes soft, and Denver goes 78 yards in a minute and a half. Then, trying simply to run out the clock, we replace Frank Gore, our "bell cow," with the "fresh legs" of rookie Anthony Dixon. (?!) We run Dixon three times up the gut, and we punt, having taken all of 43 seconds. Visions of Minnesota dance in our heads--my God, Coach, have you learned NOTHING?--but our luck today is just too much. The punt-return touchdown is nullified by a penalty, and despite having thrown for nearly 400 yards, Kyle Orton's last pass is awful, and picked.

If any fanbase knows better than to put too much stock in a backup's performance, it's us. Still, under these ludicrous circumstances, Smith was amazing. Though he came close, he didn't turn the ball over, even when he himself was turned loose. And with his mobility, he not only avoided sacks but also managed to make plays out of nothing. On the whole, when there was every reason to expect sheer disaster, Smith delivered the best performance we've seen this year. Again, incredible.

Obviously, that says awful things about the OTHER Smith, and Singletary knew better than to reject this good fortune. "We're going to continue to go forward with Troy Smith right now," he said, implying that Alex Smith's health is irrelevant. As of course it should be. If Troy Smith was better after a week of practice than Alex Smith has been all year, well, THAT'S the end of Alex Smith. (Or IS it...?)

It's ironic, you know. Singletary was nuts to go all-in with Alex Smith, and going with Troy Smith was nuttier still. But lucky for him, Troy Smith could deliver, at least for THIS week. And Singletary finds himself back where he started, praying to be saved by the same, strange thing.

A backup quarterback.