Mike Singletary's Squad Ready for Upper Echelon

A shell of my former selfCorrespondent IMay 12, 2009

SANTA CLARA, CA - MAY 01:  Head coach Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the 49ers Minicamp at their training facilities on May 1, 2009 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

49er fans have waited years for a renaissance.

Unfortunately for the San Francisco faithful, impostors such as Dennis Erikson, J.T. O'Sullivan, Mike Nolan, and Mike Martz have clouded the issue and have had to be shuffled through the blender over recent years.

A franchise which was in desperate need for a shake-up found their necessary transformation last October—Mike Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker who notoriously roamed sideline-to-sideline with the menacing Chicago Bears in the 1980s—was chosen to instill the necessities of a winning mentality into a team and franchise that was in shambles.

Most know how opening weekend 2008 went. The Niners played a ghostly uninspired game in which they were trampled at Monster Park, 34-13, by the visiting Seattle Seahawks. 49er tight end and former No. 6 overall draft pick, Vernon Davis, broke a rule—and the former defensive terror Singletary let him know. Davis was sent to the showers by the Niner interim head coach, but what came afterward was what sent a message—to everyone.

As Singletary took the podium after the shellacking, what presumably went from another archetypal addressing of an mundane loss made an unexpected 180-degree spin. Singletary's first legitimate half-hour of coach of the 49ers would become a YouTube sensation, alongside a broadcast implication to all those viewing and listening. Singletary was bringing the old school back, and in style, too.

"I'm from the old school and I believe this," Singletary said. "I would rather play with 10 people, rather than play with 11, when I know that right now, that person is not sold out to be a part of this team. It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them, cannot win them, cannot coach with them, can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win."

He's getting there.

In now his first season as head coach of the 49ers, Singletary addressed his first draft, as well as his first official offseason in hopes of rebuilding on what became a 7-9 campaign—5-4 under Singletary—to end the 2008 season.

This is where every San Francisco fan has grown accustomed to dreaming, but at the same time, not steering too far away from being strictly pragmatic. This upcoming 2009 season has been looked upon as the previous two or three years in which the Niners were a fancy "Cinderella" pick—she never made it to the ball the last two or three and this year, for the sake of many involved in the organization, they're hoping she makes it, and on time.

A clear-sighted view of this team has the makings of both a rebuilding squad and strengthening strengths. Singletary's said since day one that he wants the offense to be a 18-wheeler Mack truck that plows over anyone in its path. He didn't specifically address the defense and we know why:  he knows a little bit about defense, supposedly.

With 2009 comes the same old song, the same old dance. With the defensive-minded Singletary seemingly wandering out of his comfort zone with the No. 10 pick in April's draft, the 49ers have received mixed reviews on their draft. "Stellar" and "questionable" are just two phrases that are rolling off the tongues of many pundits.

As promised, Singletary and Co. followed suit of holding true to their words of drafting the best players available.  Michael Crabtree, the electric wideout from Texas Tech was there for the taking and San Francisco leaped. A much-needed addition to a wide receiving corps that was in dire need of play-making ability and youthfulness.

So, the easy question to ask is, how are these Niners in 2009 different from the last six seasons that have failed to make the playoffs?

To be frank, the easy answer would be Singletary. The no-nonsense, play-your-guts-out-till-whistle-blows attitude is what the entire 49er community are banking on. A realistic outlook on this team may be a bit premature to address at this point of the year, but a rudimentary analysis is in the cards.

What Does This Team Need To Get over the Hump?

  • Some holes were addressed in the draft and will be mainstays for years to come, but the most important position on the football field continues to be and still is the quarterback, and there is one certainty:  Nate Davis won't be taking the snaps. The training camp battle between Shaun Hill and former No. 1 pick Alex Smith seems to be neck-and-neck at this point, and it needs to be to bring the best out of the two blue-collar quarterbacks. If San Francisco is to become a next-level squad, they will need premier numbers and leadership from the man behind center. Hill showed poise down the stretch after Singletary canned O'Sullivan, throwing for 2,046 yards and 13 touchdowns. Smith hasn't taken a snap in almost two years and it's too difficult to predict how the race will play out, but the question remains—will Smith be able to re-channel the Urban Meyer magic he found five years ago, or will this be Mr. Smith's last rodeo?
  • Can Frank Gore shoulder the load of 25 touches per game? My heart tells me yes, but my brain doesn't concur. Gore is the meat-and-potatoes of the offense as Singletary has envisioned, but with his history for tedious injuries, time will have to tell the story of a full season of health for the former Miami Hurricane. Drafting Alabama's Glen Coffee in the third round showed the doubters that the Niners aren't pulling anyone's chain when it comes to smash-mouth, grind-it-out football. I saw Coffee against Utah in the Sugar Bowl and was impressed with what I saw. Although the smaller, quicker Utah defense held Coffee to a season-low in rushing, his size, strength, and speed bursts are what made him a third-round pick. Coffee should be a perfect compliment to Gore and 3rd-down back Michael Robinson. If Gore and this running back crew can stay healthy, they are supremely talented and versatile enough to help the quarterback and relatively inexperienced wide receiver group stay in ball games.
  • While the secondary still remains a large issue, Singletary is molding his beast on the defensive side of the football. He has a self-clone in Patrick Willis, who is purely sideline-to-sideline for four quarters and has a legitimately young and talented crew that includes Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson. The defensive line surprised many a year ago with the emergence of Ray McDonald and former Bengal Justin Smith. While the defensive tackle position still is a cause for concern, the 49ers are being made into a team that wins 13-10 and 10-7 ballgames. Fifth-round pick Scott McKillop will be a formation backer and will emerge as a special teams star. The former Pittsburgh standout has a nose for the ball and more importantly, making plays.

Reasons to Worry?

  • Since the departure of Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Co., the once-heralded offensive wizardry of the 49ers has gone anemic. The offense has been simply one of the worst in the league the last few years. The Mike Martz experiment was a disaster and a pathetic flirtation of re-channeling the "Greatest Show On Turf" by the Bay. New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was brought in to provide stability and clock management into an offense that has seemed awfully JV over recent years. This will be Smith's sixth offensive coordinator in, six seasons? Yes, drafting Crabtree and Coffee helps, but it all starts with the guy calling the plays and the guy with the football in his hands, and those issues are still currently TBD.
  • Perhaps the largest obstacle for San Francisco will be the offensive line—a broken record that hasn't been fixed for the last two seasons. Joe Staley is a stud in the making and signing Marvel Smith helps, but for a team that gave up 55 sacks (3.4 per game), the issue of protection remains. Smith was beaten to a pulp his first few years in San Francisco—hence all the injuries—because a faulty offensive line. Don't forget, if Singletary wants a ground arsenal, it starts with the guys up front blocking. Vernon Davis has become one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, and drafting the anti-Davis in Fresno State's Bear Pascoe will help the 49ers go to double tight end sets with ease.  However, the issue of keeping the quarterback safe and keeping Gore healthy is what Raye and Singletary will need to keep a watchful eye on, because 55 sacks in the 2009 season would spell catastrophe. 
  • Did I already mention the quarterback debacle? Well, aside from that circus, the wide receiving battles will certainly spell how this season will play out, in a sense. Does Crabtree, the collegiate poster boy who was once dubbed the best wideout to ever come out of college, get the starting nod over the likes of Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan, or Brandon Jones? That remains to be seen. With blue-collar vets such as Jason Hill and Arnaz Battle still on the roster, it will be interesting who gets the snaps and who gets their numbers called. Crabtree has received some critical flak on account of being a prima donna in some senses, that certainly won't fly with this Niner team and staff—flashback again, Davis taking an early, cold shower.

A Reasonable Outlook...

It's simple: play hard, play smart and you're in the football game till the last quarter, or so says Singletary. This team is arguably the best in the past five years and has talent and athleticism at every position, it's just a matter of channeling that into a winning mold and mentality. Will it be Hill or Smith launching bombs to Crabtree? Right now, it's Hill—without a doubt.  Can Gore stay healthy?  I think Gore will nod +1200 this season with an exceptional effort put forth by the rookie Coffee.

The defense has shutdown ability, as we saw last year when the 49ers were one of the best teams in the league in shutting offenses down in the redzone. Singletary will look to the likes of Justin Smith, Willis and cornerback Walt Harris to spearhead the leadership qualities. It's a scary thought for opposing offenses with Willis in the middle and Haralson and Lawson on the flanks.

Singletary has brought in coaches and players that notice the intricacies of the little things, because in the NFL, that's what wins football games. San Francisco and its fans are eager to see Crabtree channel the inner-Rice and gallop as the No. 80 once did. Vernon Davis is poised for a breakout year, especially in this system. Play-action calls and post routes will be a difficulty to keep up with when it comes to Davis—he is easily the most talented tight end in the league, it's just a matter of reaching the next level and echelon.

The 49ers decided to don "new" uniforms, the same unis reminiscent of the 80's teams that were feared in every sense of the word. A new year and era is upon the Bay Area and fans have been oozing at the bit to see what a full Mike Singletary year brings—after all, he's a sure-fire renaissance man.