After the first loss of his coaching career, Mike Singletary was adamant that he knew what it would take to fix the 49ers.
"I want winners!" he bellowed, the first of many oft-quoted declarations he would make during his trial run as San Francisco's interim coach.
A week later, after a close-but-no-cigar loss at Arizona on Monday Night Football, Singletary delivered another memorable quip—and presto!—"I'm not a moral victory kind of guy," appears next to his picture on billboards and on the sides of buses across the Bay Area.
Now, after the toughest loss of his young coaching career—a 27-24 heartbreaker at Minnesota—what frothy bit of inspiration would Singletary unleash upon the unsuspecting media?
"You look at a game like today and it was a tough loss," he said.
Well, yeah, that's one way to sum up a back-and-forth affair that saw the ageless Brett Favre complete a 32-yard desperation heave to Greg Lewis at the back of the end zone with two seconds left, releasing the ball a moment before Manny Lawson leveled him and with Mark Roman covering Lewis as well as he possibly could be covered.
A bit underwhelming of a reaction, you might say.
Still, for a coach who told anyone who would listen that winning and only winning would satisfy him, losing in such a fashion would mean a fire and brimstone postgame speech to the players right?
Surely they would have to understand that this performance was not acceptable, right?
"It's already a positive," he said. "It's one of those things where you go through a season and you hope that it doesn't happen.
Already a positive? You hope that it doesn't happen?
Who is this impostor and what has he done with Mike Singletary?
He sounded an awful lot like a coach who was happy with a moral victory to me.
Maybe "Coach Sing" didn't rant and rave and give the media any juicy quotes because in losing a game he should've won on the road to Favre, Adrian Peterson, and the rest of the formidable Purple People Eaters, he realized that the team he's got is plenty good enough and talented enough that they no longer need to be berated or called out on the carpet.
Maybe he realized that his team has developed and matured to the point where all they need is to be coached on Sundays.
And maybe, just maybe, Singletary looked in the mirror and realized he let his guys down.
That he, above all, was the biggest reason they lost.
The players played their guts out, down to the last man. They came to a hostile environment against a great Minnesota team and they played to win.
Their coach played not to lose.
Again, as was the case with the season opener at Arizona, Singletary didn't put the game in the hands of Shaun Hill until the fourth quarter when the 49ers were trailing.
Hill went 4-of-4 on a fourth quarter drive, with two completions apiece to Isaac Bruce and Vernon Davis totaling 89 yards, with Davis catching a beautifully lobbed 20-yarder for the go-ahead touchdown, making the score 24-20 Niners, with 8:12 to go.
Yet even though Frank Gore left the game after his first carry with an ankle strain, Singletary trusted his backup, rookie Glen Coffee, a tough north-south runner but hardly the game-breaking elusive type, more than he trusted Hill with the game on the line.
Twenty-five times he slammed Coffee into the Vikings impregnable line, for a hard-earned 54 yards. Peterson, Minnesota's all-world runner, got 19 carries by comparison.
Critics of Hill can point out that he was hardly magnificent. He did have a first half interception and the 49ers didn't convert a single third down in 11 attempts.
But even that statistic is misleading. Only five of the 11 third down tries were "manageable," meaning 3rd-and-6 or shorter. Hill got to throw on one of those, and he missed. The other four tries went to Coffee, and he was thoroughly stuffed each and every time, with no need for a measurement.
On one 3rd-and-12, Hill completed a pass to Davis for 11 yards and subsequently, when the 49ers decided to go for it, he connected with Josh Morgan for 25 more on the way to San Francisco's first touchdown, also a pass from Hill to Davis.
The ex-Viking benchwarmer finished 15-of-25 for 195 yards, the two scores, the pick, and a tidy 94.6 rating. His counterpart, Favre, the future Hall of Famer when—and if—he ever decides to retire for real, was 24-of-46 for 301 yards, and also had touchdowns and one interception.
Even with the game-winning fling to Lewis, Favre's rating for the afternoon was a pedestrian 78.3. Makes you wonder what Hill could do with 46 attempts.
Twice the 49ers had a chance to put the nail in Minnesota's coffin, with the ball and the lead late in the fourth, and twice Singletary went ultra-conservative.
The first time two runs to Coffee lost seven yards and they let Hill throw when it was 3rd-and-forever. The defense bailed them out though, and again the 49ers got the ball.
Three more give up carries to the rookie runner, even though Hill only needed six yards on third down this time to put the game on ice. A play-action rollout to Davis or Morgan wouldn't have been a very risky call, not the way they were getting open all day.
Instead, San Francisco punted the ball—and as it turned out, the game—to Favre and the Vikings.
In Week One, the scenario was eerily similar. After Hill put the team ahead by four with a toss to Gore early in the fourth quarter, Singletary never let him throw another pass. The Niners went three-and-out on six running plays in their final two possessions that game, but it didn't matter because the defense stymied Kurt Warner and the Cardinals time after time.
The percentages caught up to them this time. You simply don't let Canton-bound quarterbacks beat you if you can help it. The best defense is to keep them on the sidelines.
For all his bravado and tough talk and macho posturing, Singletary, the ex-Bear, coaches like a kitty cat. He doesn't like to pass, even though the NFL in the 21st century is clearly a passing league. He doesn't like to blitz, even though elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Favre can shred umbrella zones in their sleep.
Rush Limbaugh would call Singletary's game plans conservative, and probably suggest that the media wants him to do well as a coach because he's African-American.
I certainly won't go that far.
Singletary has proven that in certain big picture aspects, he's a far superior coach to his predecessor Mike Nolan. On the tangible level, he had the wisdom to choose Hill over J.T. O'Sullivan as his starter last year when he took over the job. He also smartly scrapped Nolan's overly-complicated hybrid defense and streamlined it into a base 3-4.
Subjectively, Singletary is infinitely more charismatic than Nolan, the players seem to listen to him and respect him more, and he's gotten through to Davis in a way that Nolan never could. With seven catches for 96 yards and the two touchdowns, Sunday was Davis' breakout game, the kind of performance he was drafted sixth overall out of Maryland in 2006 to deliver every week.
Obviously, Singletary deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting a game like this out of the enigmatic Davis, and really out of everyone. He's gotten the team to play better than anyone dreamed possible.
His game plans though, like Nolan's, are still too conservative. Nolan coached one hopeless bum after another at quarterback. Hill is different, and Singletary has to see that.
The 49ers of Montana-to-Rice were derided by much of the league for being a "finesse" team, while Singletary's black-and-blue lunch pail Bears were deified.
Montana, however, won four Super Bowls in the '80s passing the ball, and when they had teams down they stepped on their necks. For all their hype, Singletary's Super Bowl shuffling Chicago teams just won once.
It's a passing league and Singletary has to wrap his brutish ex-middle linebacker brain around that. A team is simply not going to get anywhere in the NFL in 2009 without their quarterback being one of their best players.
Singletary can make all the tough speeches he wants, it's not going to change the fact that if teams put eight or nine men in the box, the Niners won't be able to move the chains on the ground. He has to let Hill make opponents pay for their over-aggressiveness.
Or he can do it his way, with more running backs getting injured and more moral victories that will get awfully old awfully quick.
You wanted winners, Mike, and you've got a locker room filled with 'em.
So play to win already.