Mike Nolan looked the part of an ideal head coach. Generally liked by his players, he spoke articulately, and with a steady, candid demeanor. He paid homage to the organization's history (and his father's) by wearing a suit on the sidelines. All this while amassing talented players that didn't make headlines in the offseason.
Unfortunately for 49er fans, they didn't often make headlines during the season either.
Maybe Nolan thought a couple of rowdy guys would be a distraction in the locker room? Maybe owner John York sent down a mandate that no bad press would be tolerated while the team negotiates a stadium deal? Maybe GM Scot McCloughan doubted Nolan's ability to reign in strong personalities.
Wherever you place credit for the squeaky-clean image of Nolan's squad, this much is clear: Mike Singletary's 49ers have an edge to them.
Of the seven players the 49ers drafted this year, three have blemishes on their records that caused them to slip down NFL draft boards, and another was reportedly labeled a diva by an NFL head coach who had interviewed him. Added to this group were two free agents with first day talent whose off-field behavior caused them to fall out of the draft entirely.
Out of fairness to these young athletes, please note that we're not talking about the second coming of Lawrence Phillips or a recreation of the Cincinati Bengals by the Bay. It's important to recognize that none of these men are violent offenders and none have ongoing legal issues.
They've simply made some questionable decisions—the kind that recent 49er brass has shied away from.
That was all BS (Before Singletary).
Two weeks into his tenure as interim head coach, Singletary had handcuffed stubborn Offensive Coordinator (and coaching legend) Mike Martz, humbled resident ego-tripper Vernon Davis, dropped his pants in the middle of a three-minute locker room tirade, and hosted a post-game Q&A that left Bud Light executives salivating.
Singletary doesn't care if you or I (or even his players) like him. He's got enough friends. He'll answer any question a reporter asks, and somehow reveal nothing while speaking in a very direct manner. He's a champion, a perfectionist, and a tremendous competitor.
Above all else, he's a leader of men. To be a part of his team is to know without question that his direction will lead to success. Judging by the players' response to his jump-on-the-bandwagon-or-get-run-over approach, there's reason to believe things are turning around in San Francisco.
With that leadership in mind, here are some 49ers that would probably be somewhere else if Singletary wasn't in charge:
Though he later denied having said it, Browns Coach Eric Mangini reportedly described Crabtree as a diva following their pre-draft interview. Having presided over the Brett Favre circus in New York and made plenty of attention-grabbing moves in his own right, Mangini should be able to spot a diva when he sees one.
Regardless of what Mangini did or did not say, plenty of other talking heads were quick to agree that Crabtree is a guy who craves the spotlight more than team success, a rotten stigma for a young man who has never played a down in the NFL.
Having (skillfully?) handled Vernon Davis in 2008, Singletary immediately topped the list of NFL coaches who appear capable of handling attention-hungry players. To point, he nearly reduced Crabtree to tears this Spring after scolding him for running without being cleared by the team's medical staff.
In Crabtree's defense, I'd be pretty heartbroken if someone I desperately wanted to impress started shouting at me for trying to improve.
As for his diva label, Crabtree's coach from Texas Tech believes it to be completely unfounded.
The standout tailback from Alabama was suspended for four games in 2007 for his involvement in a campus-wide textbook scandal.
NFL talent scouts may not agree on how significantly Coffee's stock was affected by the suspension, but they do agree that his talent is right for the NFL.
Coffee is the kind of hard-nosed runner that O-linemen love to block for, and he should complement Frank Gore well in the Niner backfield.
Taylor's inclusion in this list involves some speculation on my part. While projected by most draft "gurus" to be selected no later than the fifth round, Taylor was still hanging around in the seventh when the Niners took him with their first selection.
Whether fair or not, Taylor was viewed by some personnel men as a bit of a loose cannon after he garnered a foolish personal foul for a late hit against Virginia Tech in 2007.
Taylor's drop may be also be attributed to some minor injuries that hampered him in his senior season, but given his size, speed, and accomplishments, his ability to contribute exceeds his draft position.
"If we get a good shot on (him), we're going to try our best to take him out of the game."
Makes you think of Buddy Ryan's Eagles talking about Troy Aikman, doesn't it?
Actually, that quote came from Ricky Jean-Francois in the week prior to LSU's visit to Florida in October 2008. Jean-Francois would later retract his statement, assuring all those interested that he bore no ill will to Tebow and that his words were taken out of context.
Jean-Francois has garnered comparisons to Glen Dorsey and is considered by many to be a prototypical 3-4 defensive end. Like Taylor, he also graded out much higher than his seventh-round selection warranted.
The Defensive MVP of the 2008 BCS Championship game, it's possible Jean-Francois was on Singletary's mind when he famously shouted, "I want WINNERS!"
"I can't do it all by myself. I need help."
-Kory Sheets, following his Purdue Boilermakers' loss to Northwestern in 2008.
It wouldn't be fair to say that Sheets' quote led to his team unraveling (along with his Heisman hopes) midway through the season. It certainly didn't help matters, though.
In the end, Sheets lost the most for his comment. Coach Joe Tiller banned him from speaking to the media and he earned the reputation of a guy that can't be coached.
Sheets went undrafted despite having the fastest 40 time for his position at the combine and an impressive collection of game film. To an NFL prospect, there's no greater insult than being the fastest guy at your position and still being passed over by Al Davis seven times.
Like Sheets, Alex Boone was deemed by many to have first-day talent, but questionable character.
Those "questions" surfaced in February when Boone was cited for resisting arrest in Southern California. The 6'8", 320-lb Boone was heavily intoxicated when police had to taze him—repeatedly—to subdue him. The incident might have been more easily overlooked had Boone not been convicted of a DUI in 2006.
Having completed a mandatory alcohol rehabilitation program and volunteered to participate in ongoing counseling, Boone impressed both coaches and teammates in OTA's. Like his fellow rookies listed here, he's eager to put his transgressions behind him and focus on building a future in football.
Some fans may not like the idea that the 49ers are once again in the business of giving second chances to players with past transgressions.
I'd like to encourage those people to remember two things:
1) Some of the greatest moments in 49er history were made possible by guys who occasionally ran afoul of their coaches, teammates, and local law enforcement.
2) Anyone who steps out of line on this team has a formidable authority to answer to.