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San Francisco Prayed for a QB, Now Mike Singletary Must Put Faith in Shaun Hill

Michael ErlerCorrespondent ISeptember 14, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 13:  Quarterback Shaun Hill #13 of the San Francisco 49ers calls a play at the line of scrimage during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the Universtity of Phoenix Stadium on September 13, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

If you know San Francisco 49ers head coach Mike Singletary at all, you know that he's big on faith and bigger on trust.

When plenty of critics said that he wasn't seasoned enough as an assistant coach to take on a head coaching gig, even in an interim capacity, Singletary had the faith in himself to accept the job and trust in the 49ers organization to believe that they'd give him a fair shot to keep it beyond the 2008 season.

While suffering through a blowout loss at home to Seattle in his coaching debut, Singletary had enough faith in his convictions to banish defiant tight end Vernon Davis to the showers and the trust in his methods to know that he'd win over the locker room quickly, despite the rough start.

Even though most "experts" and pigskin pundits believe that his team doesn't have the talent to contend, especially with first-round pick Michael Crabtree still unsigned, Singletary hasn't once blinked.

He told his guys throughout training camp that he had faith in them. He promised that if they put in the time and effort it takes to be great, learned to trust each other and trust in his methods, that they would get to, in his words, "where we want to go."

Fast forward to second half of the 2009 season opener at Arizona, the defending NFC Champions. The 49ers once led the Cardinals 13-3 late in the second quarter, but now the offense had dried up and the defense was starting to wilt.

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San Francisco had already given up 10 unanswered points and the Cardinals were driving again towards a go-ahead score.

Singletary called time out and gathered his exhausted defense around him. He told them that he had faith that they would keep the dam from bursting and to trust their offensive teammates; eventually they would mount a drive together and score enough points to win the game.

And that's precisely what happened. The 49ers squeezed one 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive between five second half three-and-outs and it was enough to come away with a 20-16 road victory.

So the question of the day is this: Why is it that Singletary, a man who trusts literally hundreds of people around him to do their jobs and to do them well, does not trust the one guy who matters the most: quarterback Shaun Hill?

While it was Singletary who gave Hill the chance to be a starter during the final eight games last season, it was Hill's play in those games, as much as anything else, that enabled the 49ers to go 5-3 in the second half, which in turn helped remove the interim tag from Singletary's title.

Yet Singletary still went shopping for a quarterback in the off-season and tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit Arizona's Kurt Warner.

When that plan failed, Singletary announced that Hill would have to compete for the job with woebegone Alex Smith. The team even drafted a passer in Nate Davis out of Ball State.

Hill won the job, easily, over Smith in training camp, but he still had to deal with being belittled by both Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, who both went out of their way to downplay the quarterback's importance to the offense and insist that running back Frank Gore would be "The Man" the team would rally around.

Raye said the team wanted to run the ball 60 percent of the time and Singletary called Gore the team's primary playmaker. He said he wanted Hill mainly to avoid making mistakes.

Through two-and-a-half quarters Singletary and Raye kept trying, stubbornly and pointlessly, to defy the laws of physics and ram poor Gore into a wall of Cardinals defenders.

To the layman it would seem obvious that all the fire-and-brimstone speeches and dedicated blocking in the world can't overcome simple football math: When a defense has more guys at the line of scrimmage than blockers, you're not going to be able to run the ball.

The Cardinals weren't going to let Gore beat them, pure and simple. Singletary would have to take the shackles off Hill and trust him to do deliver.

Hill did, going 9-of-14 on the fateful fourth quarter drive, including four successful third-down conversions and culminating in a three-yard scoring pass to Gore. 

"To come in their backyard, after everything they've accomplished, we knew it was going to be a tremendous challenge," Singletary said.

Frankly, it didn't have to be.

The Cardinals, despite being a Super Bowl team last season, had the worst defense in the league against opponents using the shotgun formation.

Plenty of teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, and New England Patriots, boat raced them in the regular season using the shotgun.

The Eagles rallied from a 24-6 halftime deficit to take a brief lead against them in the NFC title game using the shotgun.

The Pittsburgh Steelers mounted a two minute drive to steal the Super Bowl from their clutches using the shotgun.

Given all that, one would think that the 49ers would want to let Hill survey the defense and pick them apart, as many others had.

When passing from the shotgun, Hill was nearly perfect: 10-of-13, for 139 yards, and the touchdown to Gore. Passing when under center, he was 8-of-18, for 70 yards, and two near-interceptions.

It's true that Hill took three sacks while in shotgun, but even taking the 22 yards he lost on those plays into account, the 49ers averaged 7.31 yards per play when Hill passed out of shotgun and 1.94 yards per on their other 44 plays from scrimmage.

"We just moved the chains," Hill said. "I don't believe we got any big plays on it, just executing and moving the chains."

His memory was faultier than his passing. A third-and-10 deep post to wideout Issac Bruce out of the shotgun was good for 50 yards and set up the 49ers' first touchdown.

The 49ers are surprisingly 1-0 and Singletary can rightly stick out his tongue and say "I told you so" to his naysayers.

Despite his team's lifeless performance in the pre-season, Singletary had faith that his pass rush would bring the heat once the real games started, and indeed Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson, and Justin Smith harassed Warner into a miserable afternoon.

He trusted that the enigmatic Davis would mature from his hotheaded past and emerge into a player and a leader and even went so far as to name him a team captain.

Davis rewarded that trust by keeping his head even when Arizona's Adrian Wilson tried to detach it with a personal foul in the first quarter, and more importantly in the fourth quarter, when he caught four passes during the game-changing drive.

Singletary never called another pass play after Hill's touchdown toss to Gore, and consequently the defense had to make three more stands against Warner and the Cardinals. They got away with it this time. Next week, they might not be so lucky.

If the coach can just learn to trust Hill (now 8-3 in his career as a starter) the 49ers just might be onto something.

Game Balls

Cornerback Nate Clements: Usually when a corner allows six receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown you think he had a so-so day, but when said receiver is Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald, it means that Clements earned his pay and then some.

Not only did he shut out Fitzgerald in the first half, but he even had an interception when Lawson rushed Warner into a mistake. Twenty-five of Fitzgerald's yards came against a prevent zone defense at the end of the game.

Outside linebacker Parys Haralson: Playing defensive end most of the day against Arizona's spread offense, Haralson was a holy terror and had a sack and four hurries on Warner.

Wide receiver Isaac Bruce: He started slow but caught a Hill bomb late in the second quarter and had several big catches in the fourth.

Hit the Showers

Right tackle Adam Snyder: He was awful, no two ways about it. The Cardinals constantly blitzed to his side, and he was largely responsible for three of the four sacks on Hill.

His run blocking wasn't much to write home about either. Another game or two like that and Tony Pashos will be in the lineup.