Spend any amount of time with Mike Singletary and you'll quickly realize that the he is not lacking in confidence.
As the talisman of what was perhaps the greatest defense of all time, the 1985 Chicago Bears, the Hall of Fame linebacker turned San Francisco 49ers Head Coach certainly has the resume to back up his bravado.
He knows a thing or two about the game and isn't at all shy about saying so. The man is a certified football genius, just ask him.
And Singletary is a coaching savant, albeit an accidental one.
Taking over the reins as the 49ers' interim coach halfway through the 2008 season in relief of the hopelessly overmatched Mike Nolan, Singletary, inadvertently and unbeknownst to himself, wound up authoring a how-to book, an "Interim Coaching For Dummies" if you will, for all future interim coaches to use.
Just follow Singletary’s step-by-step guide and you too can get the “interim” removed from your job title and your very own parking space.
Step 1: Completely flip out in your first postgame press conference.
The “I can’t play with them, can’t coach with them, can’t win with them” rant that Singletary delivered in response to a question about enigmatic tight end Vernon Davis’ selfishness, was an instant internet sensation and is a mortal lock to be a part of a beer commercial someday.
But neither that line, nor the truncated Youtube version of the presser, does Singletary’s postgame performance that day justice. I was actually there, two rows away from the man who just minutes ago lost his head coaching debut, at home to the then 1-5 Seattle Seahawks, and the full press conference was an experience to behold.
First of all, it was obvious that Singletary was stunned, absolutely shocked even, to get blown out by Seattle. He literally thought he could get his players to play better than Nolan had by simply staring at them harder or something.
Honestly, at one point I thought he was going to cry right in front of us. I thought he might be debating whether to resign from the job right then and there. Emotionally he was all over the place.
He tore into Vernon Davis more than any coach has torn into any of his players after a game that I can remember, and I could’ve sworn he was going to demand Davis’ release or at least make him inactive the rest of the season.
Singletary ran the gamut of emotions in those fifteen minutes and it wouldn’t have surprised any of the scribes in the room if he got fired the next day, so ill-prepared he looked for the job, especially the media part of it.
Not one person in the room that day expected him to last beyond the season, that’s for sure. Little did we realize Singletary’s brilliance at the time. By setting the bar so low in the beginning, he made every coaching decision, every public comment, and really every subsequent nanosecond of his employment a rousing success.
Step 2: Make sure you walk into a cake schedule.
Mike Nolan’s tenure as coach of the 49ers was an abject disaster, of that there can be no debate. However, no matter how inept Nolan was, the league’s schedule makers did him no favors.
Between weeks four and seven, San Francisco had to visit New Orleans, then play home games against the Patriots and Eagles, and finally travel across the country to get pounded by the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. Winning even one of those four games would’ve been respectable. Nolan won none and he was fired after the Giants game with the team at 2-5.
Singletary meanwhile faced two playoff teams, the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins, in his nine games in charge and lost to both (though both games went down to the wire). He went 5-4 overall and two of the five wins came over the 2-14 Rams, while the others came against the Bills, Redskins, and the free-falling Jets in December.
Did Singletary coax a win or two more out of the squad than they would’ve gotten with Nolan in charge? Perhaps. But all he did was get the team to play to its talent level, not over it. From the outset, the 49ers looked to have the talent level of a 7-9 team. It was just Nolan’s misfortune to have an unbalanced schedule.
Step 3: Play your best players, especially at quarterback.
It took Singletary one half to see what Nolan couldn’t in seven games—that J.T. O’Sullivan was not good enough to be a starting NFL signal caller. O’Sullivan could make the occasional nice throw, but he was mistake prone, made poor reads, and took way more sacks than his beleaguered offensive linemen deserved.
He had no pocket awareness or internal clock at all. In making the switch to Shaun Hill, Singletary gave the rest of the team a fighting chance. If the most important position on the field wasn’t going to be an asset, at least with Hill it wouldn’t be an outright liability.
Singletary’s other big tactical move was having his defense switch back to playing either base 3-4 or 4-3 formations instead of lining up in the nickel nearly the whole game. Nolan was so fearful of teams scorching his secondary for big plays that he preferred having an extra defensive back on the field at all times.
As a consequence, teams had little difficulty gashing the Niners for one six yard run after another. And the defense still gave up plenty of long passes. By playing more conventionally, Singletary at least got his guys to stop the run more consistently over their last nine games.
Both these moves look like common sense things, but when you take over for a coach like Nolan, common sense looks positively Darwinian.
So how will Singletary fare in 2009 without the Nolan safety net? It’s hard to speculate. On the one hand he’ll have Hill from the beginning, and a new toy to play with in receiver Michael Crabtree, but how effective will either be with Jimmy Raye taking over the play-calling duties from fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz?
It also doesn’t help the coach any that this year’s slate has them facing the AFC’s deepest division, the South, an NFC North that looks daunting outside of the Lions, and games with the Falcons and at Philadelphia just for spite.
If Singletary gets seven wins this year, then maybe he really is a coaching genius, though I doubt he’d see it that way.