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Sometimes It’s Better to be Lucky than Smart

Nov 2, 2010 at 8:25 AM

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.
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.


  • Randy
    Hey Jeff. Good article as always. I for one am not going to get excited by Troy Smith, at least not until he wins against a defense that DIDN'T surrender 59 points to the Raiders.
    Nov 2, 2010 at 11:36 PM
  • kendrick
    you are 3 clicks past annoying. i wish there was a better site for news than here. when there is, i will leave here. Sing ain't getting fired. He is the political cannon that is supposed to get us through whatever it is we are going through. however you are correct with the Ironic rhetoric. The fog that hovers around the frail Alex Smith has a funny sort. Isn't it funny how the guy who had Coach Nolan hired was backstabbed by Nolan and shortly thereafter was fired. Then nolan hired mccloughan and he in turn got nolan fired, then mccloughan got mike singletary hired and mike got mccloughan fired, well according to this crazy pattern, mike johnson should be getting sing fired and then hire the person who gets him fired. but i believe the pattern got broken when sing did not fall for the cheese known as "the rat." If you can somehow follow any of this crazy story then you might be able to understand why sing is here to stay. and don't worry about your 3 clicks bcuz i have four. but no hate on mine.
    Nov 2, 2010 at 9:52 PM
  • Surly-Z
    Jeff, I like your work. But I had some issues with this piece. 1. So when the Niners were winning, it was because of Shaun Hill but when they lose it's because of Singletary? Saying Sing's here because Shaun Hill won is like saying he's going to be fired because Alex Smith lost--which some will say, and they'll be wrong too. A more reasonable--but still incomplete--statement would be "he's here because of Frank Gore." For a while Sing's '85 Bears formula worked. Like you said, and the stats say, Hill mostly managed games. 2. When Nate Davis is waived by 31 teams it's not worth mentioning, but when it happens to Troy Smith--whose arm strength and accuracy are not "middling"--it's a bad sign? When T. Smith drops to the fifth round it's a problem, but when Nate does it's not worth mentioning either? I like him but Nate had other issues besides work ethic. Not being able to read the defenses or get the play off in time (this preseason) was part of it. Remember dyslexia is what caused him to drop. 3. We've seen Sing mess up so much this year, is it necessary to amplify every bad decision and call a good decision, like starting Troy, "lucky"?
    Nov 2, 2010 at 6:11 PM
    Response: I appreciate your thoughtful criticisms, Surly. I'll respond as follows. (1) First, note that when I say Hill "won," I'm not trying to suggest that he, rather than Gore or anyone else, was the star; I'm just adopting the (admittedly overly simplistic) convention of treating a winning QB like a winning pitcher, the guy who "got the win." And I maintain that Singletary's here because Hill got wins, not because Singletary's "formula worked." Hill wasn't running Singletary's formula; he was running a Singletarian version of MARTZ'S formula. Indeed, if you were to compare the offense that Hill ran in '08 with what we've run since--the REAL Singletary offense--I submit you'd be shocked at the difference. So yes, as I see it, Singletary's here because Hill won with something OTHER than Singletary's vision, and Singletary will be gone because no one could win WITH Singletary's vision. (2) As you say, Nate, like Troy, was a fifth-rounder who was waived and went unclaimed. The difference is, Nate dropped because he was a project (despite his breathtaking skills), and he went unclaimed for the same reason, plus the fact that he'd been publicly shamed (in my view, excessively) by Singletary. (Indeed, if I thought that Singletary was capable of such strategic thinking, I'd suspect that he bashed Nate precisely so that he'd go unclaimed and we'd be able to keep him.) My point is, I don't think that what happened to Nate had any bearing on whether he was worth starting in place of Alex (which is the issue in this article). He's had plenty of time in the system, and he's got the physical chops; all he needs is game experience. Troy, on the other hand, won the Heisman, yet he dropped to the fifth because of his middling scouting report; you can disagree with it, but you can look it up and confirm that it WAS his scouting report. And the only reason HE went unclaimed was that no one thought he could play. So though Nate and Troy had similar backgrounds, Singletary had plenty of reason to think Nate could step up, but he had no such reason to think so with Troy. (3) I don't assess the quality of a decision by its results. That's just using hindsight. In reality, what makes a decision "good" is that it's soundly reasoned at the time that it's made. Plenty of "good" decisions don't end up working, and plenty of "bad" decisions happen to work. And when a bad decision happens to work, the reason, usually, is luck. Here, Singletary had good reason to start Carr (experience), and he had good reason to start Davis (knowledge of the playbook plus physical chops). He had no good reason to start Troy; indeed, he knew nothing ABOUT Troy, and after asking around, all he could come up with was that mushy stuff about "leadership." He didn't make a soundly reasoned decision; he simply took a leap of faith. Did it work (at least in THIS game)? Yes, and I'm happy it did, and I hope it continues. But he didn't make a "good" decision. Instead, he got lucky.
  • MD
    hey Marco, the 'lucky sperm' comment is old and redundant. give it up. you know what, you just happened to be the lucky sperm as well...
    Nov 2, 2010 at 3:33 PM
  • shane
    Great piece Jeff. Ironic how it all comes full circle. As someone said, it was great to get a win despite Sing's best efforts to lose. But was anyone surprised? The first 50 minutes were exactly what I thought from a team looking to scale back a playbook that was already fat-free vanilla. Then the talk of a "mushy" field perfect for the run game, I didn't know if we wld throw the ball once. Hell we ran up the gut twice on 3rd and 7, wasn't even a draw! What makes me laugh is, ever notice our best football comes when we can eliminate Sing? Two minute drills, down big 4th qtrs. Forced to pass, wow we are good. Troy looked great but let's be honest, Alex has looked great in those situations before (2 mins and down in the 4th). It's kinda like the new gf is always more exciting than the ex, cuz it's new. I'm interested to see another week of Troy but as long as Sing is there how much is going to change? He has proven countless times, he learns nothing from prior experience whether it's wins or losses.
    Nov 2, 2010 at 3:14 PM
    Response: Well said, bro. Sure, we've had issues at quarterback, but our biggest problem's been Singletary--have I said that before?--and he's still here. God willing, only eight games left....
  • Terry B.
    Jeff writes in response to Breckelj: "But can you imagine the Yorks paying a guy $3 million to NOT play?" I can imagine them paying a guy $26.5 million to not play. His name is Anthony Davis.
    Nov 2, 2010 at 1:38 PM
    Response: (snicker)
  • Marco
    Great writing Jeff. A reality check is in order; Troy Smith is 5'10", and the pass that he completed to Walker was more like a punt, and would have been intercepted over 90% of the time. On top of that, our opponent, the Broncos, had given up over 50 points to the Raiders the week before. Let me repeat that, the Broncos gave up over 50 points to the Raiders! Yes, Singletary is an X's and O's mental pygmy, and should be fired, but the real problem has been and always will be ownership, led by Jed "Lucky Sperm" York.
    Nov 2, 2010 at 12:48 PM
  • Breckelj
    I have to admit that it was nice to see him play "well." The most intriguing stat from the game was that his QB rating was 115.2! According to the article that I read, Alex has only been able to accomplish that twice in 50 starts. I am by no means overreacting, but it sure was nice to see something. It still is too late for Sing to resurrect his HC job, but like it was said earlier wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to throw up the white flag and draft a QB in the first round next year and say "we made a mistake with Alex, we will get it right this time." On a seperate issue. A lot has been said about this Randy Moss deal. I just would like to interject one bit of information to this. Everyone is wrapped around the axle about not bringing him in because of his character issue. I agree. But think about this for a minute. How important is winning the West? Is it worth 3 Mil? Here is my proposal. Bring him in, pay him the 3 and make him inactive for the rest of the season. I am reading that he could wind up in Seattle or St. Louis. Is it worth the 3 million to play keep away? I think so. Just sign him and make him inactive and get the pick in next year's draft. ?????
    Nov 2, 2010 at 12:30 PM
    Response: Creative thinking, Breck. But can you imagine the Yorks paying a guy $3 million to NOT play?
  • STL Niner Fan
    One more thing I forgot to mention....we won this game DESPITE Sing's best efforts to f*** it up. How often have we seen this exact scenario play out: We have a one-score lead, we have the ball, there are 2-3 minutes left on the clock, the opposing team has all their timeouts (because they seemingly don't have communication issues)......and we run up the gut 3 straight times. We don't even pretend to do anything else. The personnel grouping Sing sends on the field screams RUN UP THE GUT 40 miles away! Anyone who's watched one Niner game this year knows what's coming. Yet we do it anyway, don't get the first down and punt the ball away, only to see our D melt away in the final minutes and our win with it. This exact scenario has played out so many times I can't believe we don't approach this differently. I just couldn't believe we did that same crap all over again, just maddening. The definition of insanity....
    Nov 2, 2010 at 12:18 PM
    Response: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes....
  • E!!!
    49ers won and a lot of fans seem to think that we just found the future QB. It may well be the case but now do we forgo the process of looking for a QB in the draft next year? I would think that it would be irresponsible not to hedge our bet on our current QB situation, no matter how T. Smith looks for the rest of the season. Also, is it a coincidence that the team as a whole (coaches and players) looked like a playoff contender in the last quarter of the Denver game or was it simply because of the level of the opponent? I think most of us know the reality regarding the team but mostly have been so desperate for anything good that we see something that is hardly there. So I am still hoping that we get a good GM/HC and a QB next season.
    Nov 2, 2010 at 11:49 AM
    Response: I agree, E. Troy will have to show MUCH more before we should even THINK about passing up a top QB in the draft. And even if Troy does well, a new coach next year is still a must, and he might want his OWN QB. So there's still an awful lot of questions, but at least this season might get more interesting. And THAT'S something, right?
  • Edgar Renteria
    I have to hand it to you... another high quality piece of writing. Good job!
    Nov 2, 2010 at 10:56 AM
    Response: Thanks, Edgar. LOVED that called shot last night, by the way.
  • STL Niner Fan
    You know, if we beat the Rams in two weeks and SEA loses to NY this week, we are only one game back in the resist....I can't go there. I will not allow myself to......hope. What I will allow myself is a fresh new perspective on the Niners' 2010 season. That new perspective will revolve around watching this Troy Smith to see if he can take advantage of his opportunity. I'm not really expecting it, but how great of a silver lining this season would end up having if we somehow manage to luck into finding our starting QB of the future. All while not having to waste our 2011 top ten draft pick on another QB. Of course, knowing our luck of late, the new HC would come in and demote or trade away Troy Smith because he doesn't fit whatever style of offense he prefers. You can say whatever you want about that hail-mary pass to DW that was completed but outside of that he was pretty stellar for a kid who took no first-team practice reps all season, had no preseason work at all with this team, and had 3 days to prepare for DEN. At the very least he gives us a QB who doesn't automatically roll right and throw out of bounds when the pocket starts to break down...
    Nov 2, 2010 at 10:44 AM
    Response: I like your perspective, STL. By all means, enjoy whatever jolt Troy provides, but when it comes to the Niners, hoping for the best but expecting the worst is usually the smart way to go.

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