Mike Singletary was fired after the 49ers were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to the St. Louis Rams Sunday.
It's the time of year for reflection, and it's a time for new beginnings.
Singletary left the 49ers very gracefully for a man who had just been fired. With dignity, he thanked the Yorks for the opportunity they had given him. With integrity, he thanked the players who had worked hard for him over the last two seasons. With accountability, he admitted to his own shortcomings. And with class, Mike Singletary's ship sailed into a red and gold sunset.
Singletary leapfrogged the traditional ladder of coaching hierarchy, going from the 49ers linebackers coach and assistant head coach under Mike Nolan straight to head coach with no time spent as defensive coordinator.
"Samurai Mike," as Singletary was called as the centerpiece for the Monsters of the Midway, leaves the team with a legacy more of lessons in life than lessons in American football. Samurai was instrumental in the emotional development of many San Francisco standouts, but none show his teachings more than Vernon Davis.
It was during Singletary's head coaching debut—a blowout loss to Seattle—that he banished an out-of-control Vernon Davis to the locker room. He let the tight end know that if his head wasn't in the game, and if he was going to make mistakes that cost the team, he'd be better off just hitting the showers.
The result was beyond most fans' imaginations.
Davis shaped up his attitude almost immediately, played hard for the remainder of the season and came into training camp the next year with an ideal team-first attitude. It was this attitude that earned Davis recognition as an offensive captain.
Davis then exploded for 13 touchdowns in 2009, catching a plethora of passes from Shaun Hill and Alex Smith alike.
Davis' production dropped in 2010. Some attributed this to the healthy contract extension he was given, but the reality is there wasn't a player on the team who managed to live up to expectations. If a player or two regresses in production, that's a player issue. If the team takes steps backward, that's on the coach.
In 2010, Singletary himself became the man who was making mistakes that cost the team. The smash-mouth vision he had for the 49ers simply was not leading in a direction that would give them the result they immediately needed.
Singletary wanted the team to be conservative on each side of the ball. There's nothing wrong with conservative football, but it must go the whole nine yards, so to speak.
The stubborn coach often opted to go for it on 4th-and-goal early in games rather than accept three points. The result was typically disastrous and would hand momentum to the other team in gift wrap.
San Francisco drafted two rookie offensive linemen in the first round of the 2010 draft. This move was largely credited to Singletary, who described the 49ers offense as needing "an offensive line with teeth that bite."
The two rookies were dropped right onto the battlefield, however, and struggled in their adjustment to the NFL. It became immediately evident that their learning curves would be season-long, and many believed they (and the offense) would benefit immensely from a decreased workload as they learned their positions.
Naturally, this did not happen, and the offensive line became porous and a hazard to whichever quarterback was on the field.
Relying too heavily on Frank Gore turned out to be another mistake. The predictability of Gore's runs at the middle of the defense led to a one-dimensional attack. Once the running game was stopped, teams would pin their ears back and attack the quarterback relentlessly.
Given that the quarterback was Alex Smith—not exactly the cream of the crop among NFL passers—he would seldom be able to withstand the merciless onslaught.
Relying too heavily on Gore had other bad implications as well. Frank is great, but the roster had two other running backs who were capable of helping the team.
Rookie Anthony Dixon (drafted in the sixth round) showed an upside, an energy and an attitude that go a long way in the NFL. He seldom got reps, however, and was hardly taken off the chain.
Veteran Brian Westbrook was another addition. Westbrook had been one of the NFL's elite running backs for much of the last decade. Westbrook ran with great finesse and elusiveness, but he also had a savvy pass-catching ability far beyond what Singletary's vision knew how to employ.
Westbrook and Dixon saw very limited playing time until Frank Gore was taken out of a game against the Arizona Cardinals week 12 in a showdown at Arizona on Monday night. Gore was later revealed to have suffered a cracked hip and would be out for the remainder of the season.
Failure to manage quarterbacks would be Singletary's last and lasting impression for San Francisco. Naming Alex Smith as a captain was a controversial start at the beginning of the season. Later, a controversy would ensue as fans chanted, "We want Carr" against the Eagles. Alex would get hurt in a road game at Carolina and would be spelled by David Carr (who proved his ineptitude immediately as well.)
But nothing would prepare him for the Smith vs. Smith controversy that would ensue and ultimately become the primary symbol for his demise.
In Alex Smith's absence, Troy Smith stepped up and went 3-2 as a starter initially. The plug would be pulled after a rough road loss in Green Bay, and Alex Smith was reinstated for the rematch against the Seahawks. Alex and the 49ers destroyed Seattle, but they would struggle against the Chargers on short rest. Then Troy got the nod for the St. Louis game, the fourth quarter of which would be finished by Alex Smith.
There's no doubt the buck stops at the desk of the head coach this year, and Singletary was as much (though probably more) to blame as anybody in the organization. Samurai Mike, however, left the organization with a foundation they can build on.
"A culture of winning" would be a stretch; Singletary was 18-22 as a head coach in SF. But the 49ers should be a team that will not be afraid to hit people in the mouth. They should work hard as a team and respect each other like a family. They should also put the past behind them and move on to what comes next.
It's what Samurai Mike would want them to do.
Jim Tomsula, the 49ers' defensive line coach, will serve as interim head coach for the team's final week. It's largely expected that the 49ers will target a high-profile coach with an offensive mind to fill the void left by Singletary.
Jed York has shown the desire to hire a GM likely to clean house and restructure the front office. Effectiveness and efficiency should be priorities, as the team is faced with issues ranging from the Collective Bargaining Agreement to the new Santa Clara stadium plan.
Player personnel is likely ready (and has arguably been ready for a while) to take the next step towards championship contention, but the instability at the quarterback position is prime for revolution, and they are practically guaranteed to have another top 10 pick come April.
There are going to be free agent departures and arrivals. Trades are never out of the question either. Cornerstones by the names of Justin Smith, Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Frank Gore are in place. Now, the 49ers must put the rest of the pieces together in a new structure—one that will survive the test of time.
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