When Matt Bryant put the exclamation point on the Niners' latest disaster--the most gut-wrenching yet in this season of torture--Mike Singletary at last was beaten.

Somehow, in the preceding weeks, he'd summoned the will to stay in role, projecting strength as his kingdom was crumbling. Now, though, he just couldn't go on. In what's sure to be the enduring image of this final season, he took a knee, doffed his cap, and bowed his head.

He looked so small, so weak.

He looked, in every way, defeated.

After all, these were desperate times, and he'd already taken his desperate measures. Jimmy Raye out, Mike Johnson in. Michael Lewis out--and soon to be a Seahawk, presumably--Taylor Mays in. But Singletary could only push so many buttons, before Jed would have to start pushing his own. These had to work.

And initially, they did.

First, Johnson orchestrated the Niners' best opening drive in eons. Of course, as required by his contract, he sent Frank Gore up the middle on the opening play. But after that, he constantly shuffled his formations, keeping the defense off balance, and got his top weapons involved in the action. With Alex Smith off to another hot start, we ran 10 plays for 88 yards. And in his very first game, Johnson did what Raye never could: deliver an opening touchdown.

And after the Falcons went three-and-out on their next series, Dominique Zeigler blocked the punt, and Taylor Mays did his best WILLIE Mays, catching the ball with his back to the field and his toes just barely in bounds.

And just like that, it was 14-zip. If you didn't know better--and Singletary certainly didn't--you'd have sworn we were going to win.

But of course, with this team, as with any bad team, it's never that simple.

After the Falcons got within seven, we had chance after chance to put it away. And as against Seattle, and as against New Orleans--and as we do again and again and AGAIN--we stupidly threw those chances away.

At the Atlanta 31: still woefully panicky facing the rush, Smith throws a goofy jump-pass that's too high for Gore, producing his umpteeth tipped interception. 14-10.

At the Atlanta 33: baited by the coverage, Smith takes the bait like a typical rookie, throwing a SECOND pick. 14-13.

And at the Atlanta 34: pressured again, Smith braincramps again, taking a flag for intentional grounding.

We punted the ball back to the Falcons, who took over on the eight with 3:40 to go. You knew, of course. Sure, the D had played exceptionally well. Just as it had against Minnesota last year, and New Orleans this year. But you knew what happened at the end of those games, and you knew this team just doesn't improve.

And so, you knew, we were going to lose.

Of course, the soul-crusher this time wasn't a last-second touchdown pass or a field goal deflected through. Instead it was a Nate Clements interception, caught with just over a minute to go. Take a knee so the O can just run out the clock? "Some players think like that," Singletary said. "Some don't." And some, like Clements, don't think at all. They run toward the end zone, carrying the ball "like a loaf of bread," never suspecting that Roddy White might poke it out from behind, even though he got us with that same trick last year. "And I'm gonna keep getting 'em," White said, joyously mocking our stupidity. "Because they don't know better." The Falcons recover, and so they win in a whole new way.

By completing an 18-play, 106-yard drive for the winning field goal in the waning seconds.

Seriously. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.

After he struggled to get to his feet, Singletary was simply befuddled. Barely able to link subjects and verbs, he acknowledged we did some "dumb stuff." He insisted, though, we didn't make any "mental errors." (Well. THAT'S a relief.) But the truth, as they say, was out there, and Singletary couldn't escape it: his team is stupid, and there isn't a thing he can do to fix it.

A day later, though, Singletary seemed to regain his delusions. He said that Smith was "pretty decent." (Season rating: 66.1.) He said that Clements did "a great job." (Is there ANY accountability here?) He was "very encouraged" by our play (not "very disgusted," as YOU might've been); we merely had to "eliminate the mistakes" (as if we'll just wake up one morning and do it). He said he was "thankful [he's got] problems to deal with." (How's THIS for a billboard: "I Want Problems!") And then he closed with that old stand-by, Empty Promise #73: "We're going to turn that corner at some time real soon and we're going to get where we want to go."

He must think you're stupid too.

And of all the ways that Singletary's destroyed the Niners you grew up with, THIS is the way that hurts the most. When Bill Walsh died, one writer remembered: "Walsh's teams were disarmingly intelligent and curious, from Hall of Famers such as Young and Lott to lesser-knowns such as guard Guy McIntyre and tight end Jamie Williams. The Niners surely had a dope here and knucklehead there, but they were obscured by the scores of players who reflected their coach's intellect and reason. Intelligence characterized every single thing the 49ers did, especially on offense, to the point that it was intimidating."

And that's the true essence of Singletary's failure. We can debate the merits of offensive philosophy. We can talk about drafting and roster decisions. But really, none of that stuff even gets off the ground. 'Cause no matter what you might think of THAT stuff, Singletary's failure is so much more basic, and tragic, and it just can't be brought to an end soon enough.

We're just dumb.