Well then. THAT'll teach us.

We should've known, of course. We went through this LAST year, remember? Alex Smith was unstoppable in that shotgun spread, yet Mike Singletary wouldn't buy it. No matter how quickly the losses mounted, this was HIS team, dammit, and it would run HIS offense. His stupid, pointless, run-first offense.

Okay, so Troy Smith was phenomenal in that aggressive, vertical-passing O. So great, in fact, he awakened a long-dead sense of excitement in fans and players alike. Even Jed emerged to note the "life" that Smith had injected, and he sensed we'd started to "turn a corner." And he credited Singletary, for "weathering the storm and keeping our team together."

Once again, Singletary's team had a reason to hope.

What made you think he'd buy it THIS time?

Sure, Mike Johnson thought that he had the green light. "The one thing I want to do is encourage [Smith's] daring," he said, speaking of Smith's explosive proclivities. "I want to encourage the stuff he has inside and allow that to come out without stifling it." But Singletary's take was slightly different: "It's just a matter of continuing to work with Troy right now and [to] try to weed out all the bad habits we can."

It didn't take a psychologist to see it. Johnson said "daring," and Singletary said "bad habits." But they were discussing the very same thing. Johnson wanted to encourage it. And though it was our last and only flickering light, Singletary wanted to stifle it.

And now, after Sunday, it's dead.

The change was apparent immediately. Our first play last week was a pass for 32 yards. This week? Frank Gore up the gut, for nothing. This week, our second drive was a three-and-out that sent Gore up the gut on second-and-12. Our third drive ended with run, run, pass, punt, and our fourth drive went and did it again. Our fifth drive went with Gore up the middle on third-and-four, and that was it for the opening half. A half where we gained only 64 yards. Twice what we gained on last week's opening play.

We passed more in the second half, but each pass was so short--so Alex-like--it was hard to notice. By the time that Troy threw his first pass deep, it was fourth-and-three in the FOURTH QUARTER, and Vernon Davis never saw it. Finally, on our next drive, Ronde Barber baited Troy into his first pick, and it was over.

The Bucs had allowed six rushers to top a hundred, but Gore could muster just 23. The Bucs had collected eight sacks all year, but they picked up six and hit Smith on six more occasions besides. Smith, who'd been a model of explosive efficiency--or efficient explosiveness--was 16 of 31 for 118 net yards and a rating of 52. (Needless to say, our abysmal offensive line, with two firsts and two seconds, was complicit in all the above.)

And after all of that pregame excitement: for the first time in 33 years--for the first time since before Walsh arrived--we were shut out at home, the gun echoing off thousands and thousands of empty seats.

No doubt, Smith wasn't good. In stark contrast to last week's boldness, now he looked simply confused, and he admitted as much, crediting the Bucs for not standing still like an X on a blackboard. But like everything else, this was Singletary's fault. He'd gotten to Johnson, who promptly dumbed the O back down. And, clearly, he'd gotten to Smith. No longer "daring," no longer showing "the stuff he has inside," Troy was just a copy of Alex, desperately scared to make a mistake.

Naturally, some players were frustrated, stunned at their coach's stubborn refusal to stick with what works. "I don't think we attacked them the way we should have," Davis said, for roughly the millionth time in the last two years. "I think we should have thrown more balls downfield." Others were simply in shock. "I can't believe it," said Delanie Walker. "With the playmakers that we have and the talent that we have, I can't believe that we didn't even get close." And again, with feeling: "I just can't believe it."

Asked to explain, Johnson was faced with a choice. The smart option, of course, was to tell the truth, to say he did what Singletary wanted. After all, Singletary's certainly on his way out; why would Johnson take a bullet for HIM? But in a move that'll haunt him, Johnson went the OTHER direction, defending the plan and blaming the players. Sure, last week he threw the ball deep from the start, but now he preached the run-first gospel: "I would've liked to have seen us run the ball better," he said. "That sets up more vertical opportunities." So the plan was great; it was up to the players to execute. "At the end of the day, you still have to run-block, you still have to catch, you still have to throw." And for some reason, the players didn't do those things. Johnson wasn't dodging responsibility, though. The players failed, but that "falls on me." (It shouldn't, of course, but that's just the way it goes.)

Bad move, Mike. You seemed like a smart, creative guy. You seemed like you might have a future with us. But now you've tied your fate to your boss, and now you can follow him straight down the drain.

Which brings us, at last, to the boss himself.

After looking like an idiot in yet another postgame presser--seriously, why not just leave the writers a note: "I won't have a clue 'til I look at the film"--he finally admitted the obvious. His players might not have executed, but they weren't prepared. (They WERE led and motivated, he said--cough, cough--but they weren't prepared.) And yes, that's HIS fault, as is this entire disaster. We're three-and-seven, and he "wouldn't even dare to say" he's doing a competent job. "Because it all ultimately comes back to me."

With that rare display of honesty, he was sending a message to Jed. A message in three parts. He was acknowledging his failure. He was accepting responsibility. And he was begging, to stay in his job.

It's only polite to send a reply. And Jed's reply should only be this: it's over, now.

Despite lauding Singletary for turning that corner (and running straight into a wall, it turned out), Jed issued a subtle but crucial warning. If his expectations weren't met--and rest assured, they were higher than three-and-seven--"you're certainly gonna see changes being made." He was loath, though, to make changes midseason. After all, as Singletary said, in the race for the least-deserved playoff spot ever, "we're still in it."

But Singletary now has forced Jed's hand. It's not just the losses, as historically awful as they've become. It's not just Singletary's admission that he's taking millions and isn't even doing his job.

It's worse than that, more basic than that. And it can't be allowed to continue, not even for another day.

EVERY TIME this team shows some life. EVERY TIME this team shows a spark. EVERY TIME this team shows some fire, Mike Singletary does the strangest, most destructive, most demoralizing thing.

He simply puts it out.