Dear Coach Singletary:

Hey there, Coach. It's me again. No, don't worry; I'm not writing to criticize you. I'm not even writing to tell you to put your arms down. (Heh heh. That was a GOOD one, though, wasn't it?)

No, Coach, actually I'm just writing to wish you good luck. After all, this is a big year for you. Last year, your boss promised us an end to our playoff drought, and you didn't deliver. THIS year, I'm sure you've noticed, you're the near-unanimous choice to win the NFC West. Indeed, among ESPN's gaggle of boo-yahs, you ARE the unanimous choice. One guy even says you'll take us to the Super Bowl and be Coach of the Year. (No word on whether he's breathing pure oxygen, but hey, sounds good to me.)

The point is, the pressure's on. In TWO ways. First, of course, we've reached the end of our patience. But second, our division rivals are simply atrocious. The Rams are building from zero. The Cards are replacing Kurt Warner with a guy who couldn't play for the Browns. And the Seahawks have little else but Pete Carroll's smile and a bunch of your castoffs.

Really, Coach. If you can't win THIS division, something's seriously wrong with you.

So yeah, there's some pressure there.

But here's the scary part. By and large, what's driving your bandwagon isn't any perceived greatness of YOUR team, but rather the obvious weakness of theirs. In ANY other division, the title wouldn't be yours to lose. Of course, things could be worse than having three dregs between you and the playoffs. (That was the case throughout much of our dynasty.) But you've still got this pressure to win a division with a team that's less than truly great. No matter how weak the division is, that's still no gimme.

What I'm saying is, no matter how bad your opponents are, you're not good enough to just show up. You still need to prepare better. You still need to execute better.

You still need to go out and win.

As you know, we've been 'round the block more than once on the topic of your offensive philosophy. We've already beaten last year's corpse, so I'll spare you another trip through the details. All you need to remember is this. Before last season, you announced your "traditional" approach of running to set up the pass. So you ran early, but also predictably: 71 percent of your running plays went straight up the gut. No team ran up the middle more often, yet only three did worse on those plays. And having failed to make gains on those early downs, you led the league in third-and-longs, which you converted more than just ONE other team. Put it together, and it's easy to see why you led the league in ANOTHER dubious category. Punts.

I know: your offensive line was the league's worst, and your quarterback was feeling his way. And I understand: both those issues should be off the table now. But winning football isn't just about execution; you've also gotta keep the defense off balance. If the D knows what's coming, it's got the edge, no matter how well you execute. You've simply gotta change it up.

Let me put it this way. Everyone on this planet thinks your first play in Seattle is gonna be Frank Gore up the middle. If you're really serious about winning this thing, you've gotta prove 'em wrong.

Run elsewhere.

Or, better yet, pass.

The fact that winning teams are passing teams has been proven a hundred different ways. The easiest, though, is to just count wins. Last year, the five teams with the most passing yards went 59 and 21; four of 'em won their divisions, and two of 'em played in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the five teams with the most RUSHING yards went 41 and 39. Peter King said it best: "The running game is not quite ancient history, but it's yesterday's football." Amen.

But maybe you've learned your lesson, Coach. In that same article, King closed with a vignette about how the Niners, who last year were "a classic two-back, two-receiver team in the image of [their] conservative, Ditka-disciple coach," were now convinced that "the spread was the right scheme." "We've evolved," Alex Smith told King. "We can play three wides, get guys in space, throw it all over the field, and we think we can win playing that way."

Intriguing. We saw the spread last year, of course, and it looked pretty good even then. The problem was, generally speaking, you'd use it only after your "classic" scheme had dug yourself a hole of two or three scores. Does "evolved" mean it's the "right scheme" even on first down, in the first quarter, of the first game?

We'll see, Coach. But I hope so. 'Cause if it does, and if Smith has improved as much as we've heard, then it's really quite simple.

We'll win.

And that's all I want, Coach. Believe it or not, I've got nothing against you. Do I think last year you were stubborn as a mule? Sure. Do I wish you were part of the Walsh tree? Yeah. Do I ask too many rhetorical questions? Maybe. But all I want is for you to do what must be done for us to win. As long as you do, you're fine by me. (Though if Nate Davis never becomes a Pro Bowler somewhere else, that'd be good too.)

See, I'm a Niner fan, straight to the core. Looking back, it's all so clear. Missing The Catch because I was in my room, hopelessly weeping. Getting that issue of Time with Joe on the cover ("Super Dreams," remember?) and putting the pictures all over my walls. Finding the team's address in an almanac and writing a fan-letter in pencil, offering congrats for Supe XVI and begging for a photo of Joe. Being shocked when the team actually SENDS that photo of Joe. Drawing SF logos, badly, on all my school notebooks. Watching the '83 NFC title game in a roller rink and trying to stay upright as the refs steal it away. High-stepping in my family room like Roger in XIX. Watching in horror as Joe gets pummeled by Taylor, Burt, Doleman, Marshall. Remembering how I'd lost hope when Joe got the ball on the 11, and being rewarded for staying when Joe gets the ball on the 8. Joe sending the Broncos into oblivion, and sending ME off to college. Pretending that after the '90 NFC title game I'm not dying inside. Saying goodbye to Joe, and learning to love Steve. Wondering, as I go off to law school, if there's any way we'll ever beat Dallas. Finally, beating Dallas. Absorbing annual poundings from Favre and, strangely, MISSING Dallas. Shrieking about The Catch II like I would've about The Catch I, even though now I'm a grown-up and, worse, a lawyer. And dragging the wife and kid down to Santa Clara, seeing those trophies, and even spending a minute in Walsh's spot.

We're Niner fans, and this team's in the margins of every page of our conscious lives. We've experienced amazing highs and depressing lows. But we like the highs better, and as this year dawns, we're more ready than ever to see 'em again.

Good luck, Coach. The pressure's on.


Sincerely yours,

Jeff Kaplan
Staff Writer