Singletary’s Defeat is the Season’s Greatest Victory

Dec 1, 2009 at 6:05 AM

This was it. A must-win. Win now, or it's all over.

The odds were against us. Our opponent seemed relentless, unwilling to yield until our hopes were destroyed. We'd been beaten, bloodied, and driven into despair. Then, somehow, when all seemed lost, we rose up, fought back, and got the win that barely kept our fading hopes alive.

Somehow, we did it.

Somehow, we defeated our coach.

You didn't think I was talking about the Jaguars, did you? Heavens, no. Sure, to avoid (at least temporarily) another long and meaningless winter, we had to beat the Jags. But if we couldn't beat our coach, if we couldn't relieve ourselves of either him or his run-first philosophy, it really didn't matter what we did against the Jags.

No. To have even a flicker of life "going forward," this was the opponent we needed to beat.

Mike Singletary. Our own worst enemy.

Like I said, it didn't look good. Last week, after Singletary's run-first scheme had scuttled yet another game, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree had finally had enough. For God's sake, they said in essence. Enough of this, dammit. But Singletary was defiant. No matter how great we'd been in the shotgun spread, no matter how it exploited our offensive weapons, no thanks. Making it our primary offense, Singletary said, would be "one of the worst things that we could do."

But then, during the next week, Singletary came to a stunning realization. He'd been so confident, so certain, and yeah, so stubborn, you'd never thought he'd ever admit he'd also been so wrong. Still, the point was unmistakable. He'd called it one of the worst things we could do, and then he turned around and did it anyway.

Quite literally, our coach admitted that he didn't know what was good for us. More importantly, he admitted defeat, and he finally allowed us to win.

Working almost exclusively out of the gun, Alex Smith played his first entire game of sound decisions and accurate throws. You know the numbers. He passed on our first three plays and on five of our first six. In the first half, he threw an unheard-of 29 times, completing 18 for 169 yards and two scores. For the game, he was 27 of 41 (including several drops) for 232, with no picks, no sacks, and a rating of 96.8. Although the running game was still disturbingly dismal (ex-"bell cow" Frank Gore averaged only 2.1), our pass-first scheme allowed us to control the ball by repeatedly setting up manageable third-downs; for the game, we were an astonishing 8 for 16, not including a gorgeous 30-yard pass on fourth and one.

And I'm not even gonna mention how much that second touchdown resembled a certain play from our glorious past. Let's not go there yet, okay?

Notice, of course, that the 232 passing yards weren't much, nor of course were the 20 points. Indeed, without an inspired defensive performance (six sacks, two turnovers, and an amazing sequence of stops on second and one, third and one, and fourth and two), who knows if our offensive output would've held. But we weren't clamoring for the spread because we thought we'd instantly turn into the Saints. All we wanted was to use our talent in the scheme that best suits it. To give ourselves the best chance to win.

Which, of course, is the job of the coach. The job that our coach, all of a sudden, seems comfortably willing to do.

Singletary explained. "The absolute best thing that happened this week was I saw leadership on the offensive side of the ball in terms of, 'Coach, this is what I think would work. This is what I think we need. ... Can we do more spread?' To me, that's leadership. That conversation could go to the parking lot. ... But it came to us. It came to me."

And then, in as close as you'll get to an outright admission of guilt: "Being stubborn can be a good thing, but I think most of the time it's a foolish thing."

Hear hear, Coach. Hear hear.

I've given Singletary a ton of flak in recent weeks, but I've gotta say, I respect him a lot for this. Don't get me wrong; in terms of this offense, he's made one mistake after another. With his lack of an offensive background, he never should've meddled in the offense at all. He never should've imposed his conservative philosophy, and he never should've stuck with it so long, especially when it was clear that it didn't fit the skills of his players or even the modern game in general. And the fact that he needed his players—including a rookie—to tell him what was so screamingly obvious is more than a bit disconcerting. I still maintain, if we don't make the playoffs, Singletary will have been the biggest culprit.

But Singletary's proven he's learning, growing into the coach he's gonna be. Some coaches are de facto coordinators, moving the Xs and Os. Some instead are motivators, producers of unity, focus, desire. No one's ever doubted Singletary's abilities as a motivator. What he had to learn, and what he seems to be learning, is that that's all he is.

That's no insult, of course. It's no shame to admit that you can't do it all. There's nothing wrong with hiring good people and then getting out of their way. Some might argue that that's in fact what a good leader does.

And now that Singletary's admitted defeat, maybe he's ready to lead us to victory.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • ShaneO
    Hey Jeff. i def agree that the spread is the way to go for us as a base offense. i really think ur gonna see some of the second tier weapons start to take off. how about Walker last week? i think we'll see some more J Hill. i know we spoke of this a few weeks ago. i felt Bruce was done and starting to hurt the team. well you got your wish for the spread, looks like i got mine. PLAY THOSE YOUNG GUYS! our return game still SUCKS. jones is obviously not the answer, he looks terrible but i have just eaten it this yr. here is my fear, bcuz this has come up. do you think this will stick? do you think that coach did learn something here or was it the lack of pass rush the Jags have and a swiss cheese secondary that drove Sing to spread it out? moreover, maybe we see it again in Sea, but does he go back to 3 and out in what should basically be a playoff showdown on monday night? (you know what i'm saying) We still have our share of probs this is true, but fixing this one is a major move in the right direction. maybe all those losses were good for the long term you know? we still get the playoffs maybe? AND now we get a real look at Smith and an offensive identity. PS GO FAVRE (god that sucks!)
    Dec 2, 2009 at 9:36 PM
    Response: Gotta give you props, Shane--way back when, you called it on Hill, Bruce, and the return game. Nice call. As for the spread, I might be just setting myself up here, but I really get the feeling that Singletary's learned his lesson. After making all this fuss about how he deferred to his offensive players' "leadership," I don't see how he can then turn around and retreat. What a gift it would be if we find ourselves in a "division championship game" against the Cards; as stubborn as he's been, I can't imagine Singletary blowing that chance by going back to his old ways. And if we DO sneak into the playoffs with a modern offensive identity, then yeah, maybe all that suffering will have been worth it after all.
  • joe
    if you listen to his pressers he always talks about not having alex do something that he is not comfortable doing. not just the spread but the whole offense, plus the timing with his receivers. it is widely known about how he has to be comfortable with knowing an offense before he becomes aggressive. i hope that time is now. so i don't think it was about sing just wanting to run and being stubborn about it. he just wants to win, whatever it takes. which he has said time and time again. it is just that not as many bad things happen when you run. one more point. what is the difference between this year and 2006 when gore had a great year? the types of plays he runs? just curious.
    Dec 2, 2009 at 9:05 AM
    Response: As to your first point, Joe, I don't buy that we didn't go pass-first earlier only because Smith wasn't yet comfortable. Smith looked comfortable in the spread as soon as he hit the field in Houston; after all, that's the offense with which he was so comfortable in college, comfortable enough that we made him the #1 pick. Nope, I'll never budge in my belief that Singletary was simply obstinate. As for Gore, he's really in a bind. He's built to run out of a conventional offense, as he did in '06, but the rest of this offense is built for the spread. As they say, something's gotta give, and it looks like that something is gonna be Gore.
  • 9er fan in Maui
    Personally, I think much of this is both Raye and Sing have to better familiarize themselves with the personnel (capabilities, strengths and weaknesses), and learning/adaptation to a new system/OC. I think Sing and others overestimated the talent they have on the OL. It's obvious to all of us now, this line cannot dominate and impose their will, with 8+ in the box. I also think Sing had to take his time, in adapting. As we've heard from Smith, who essentially says we're seeing the offense grow, as the players become more familiar with the system and how to use it. Even if Sing succumbed to pressure and abandoned the 'run first and always mentality,' it's inevitable, the growth and maturity in yet another offensive system was going to take time, possibly too much time to achieve their 2009 goals. As Gannon said, it takes two years to implement a new system. Although the digit system is familiar, it is a different playbook, and a different OC.
    Dec 1, 2009 at 8:06 PM
  • The Dude in Brooklyn
    C'mon Jeff, were you born yesterday? What you're calling a mutiny is actually a bluff. Singletary made his coy comments knowing full well that he was misleading the press and, more importantly, the opponent. Raye/Smith/Davis/Crabtree didn't overrule the head coach. He agreed with the game plan. Why didn't we see it against Green Bay as you seem to think was the obvious option? There's a lot of good reasons. First off the Packer defense has been among the best at taking the ball away, had two solid veteran cornerbacks, and one pass rusher (Kampman) to worry about. The line had shown no ability to protect and the still recent additions of Smith and Crabtree and the subtractions of Staley, Pashos and, in that game, Baas were major causes for concern. Also, I'd point out that the defense was by far the bigger problem in that game. Sing/Raye have been handicapped by circumstance not their own imaginations. They have had instability at 9 of 11 starting positions and the consistent ones (FB/2nd TE, C) may be the least important. They have no reliable quarterback and lost their star RB for three games. And so on. This team was an enigma. Sing is getting there.
    Dec 1, 2009 at 5:50 PM
  • Dan
    The 49ers defense still won the game for us. I liked the throw to Gore in the end zone, he looked like a wide receiver planting his feet like that. It had to be tough to get him the ball there as short as he is. No offense to Frank. I hope Alex Smith can keep this up with teams blitzing him for the next 5 weeks. He has to keep from losing any of the rest of our games. It does help that we know how to run against the rest of those teams. Don't worry, the run game has not left San Francisco.
    Dec 1, 2009 at 1:53 PM
  • Nick S.
    Regarding AJ's comment, I think Singletary did cave a bit. Evidence of his stubbornness was clear in the first half of the Green Bay game. It's only when he had almost nothing to lose that Singletary let Raye run the offense mostly out of the gun.
    Dec 1, 2009 at 12:08 PM
  • AJ Bolino
    Did Singletary cave? Or did an OC and a QB that didn't have an entire offseason to become acquainted get a little more comfortable with each other? Honestly...this is less about Sing caving, and more about Raye and Sing learning to trust Smith in the clutch.
    Dec 1, 2009 at 11:00 AM
    Response: I really enjoyed your article to that effect, AJ. But in my humble opinion, Smith's pass-first offense was more trustworthy than Singletary's run-first scheme--and obviously so--four losses ago. (Though in fairness, one of those losses was the Titans loss, in which the spread hit its early bumps.) So why did Singletary stick with what so clearly wasn't working? To me, his stubbornness is the only answer, and that's what I think he was admitting at his presser.

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