Mike Singletary, Pete Carroll More Alike Than Not

Michael ErlerCorrespondent ISeptember 11, 2010

Three years in and Singletary's still the star of the team.
Three years in and Singletary's still the star of the team.Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Sunday's opener at Seattle may not look like much of a game compared to other tilts on the schedule like Green Bay at Philadelphia, Dallas at Washington, or Cincinnati at New England, especially if your rooting interests are closely aligned with your fantasy team. But for the armchair psychologists among us, it's the most fascinating contest on the opening slate.

After all, on one side you have a coach who's viewed with some skepticism by the local media as something of a snake oil salesman, a guy who talks a mean game but offers little of substance, and who can be described as a shameless self-promoter who's hell-bent on being the face of his organization above all else.

And on the other side you have Seattle's Pete Carroll.

Too harsh on Samurai Mike? Perhaps.

On the surface, the two men couldn't be more different. Singletary, of course, was a Hall-of-Fame linebacker with the Chicago Bears, and is arguably one of the 20 or 30 best players in the history of the game. He's proudly religious, a devoted family man, and the 49ers are the only team he's been the head coach of, at any level.

He got the gig after serving five years and change of apprenticeship as an assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens and with San Francisco. He went directly from coaching the linebackers to the whole team, without ever having to serve time as a defensive coordinator as is usually the case with these things.

Carroll's playing career never advanced beyond earning All-PCAC honors as a free safety for the University of the Pacific and a failed tryout for the Honolulu Hawaiians of the WFL. He spent ten years as first a graduate assistant, then a position coach and finally a coordinator at various institutions of higher learning across the country before taking his talents to the Buffalo Bills to be their secondary coach in 1984. He served five more years doing the same job with the Minnesota Vikings before he got hired to be the New York Jets defensive coordinator in 1990. 

By the time he got his shot at the big-time, as head coach of the Jets, it was 1994 and he'd been paying his dues in the coaching game for over 20 years. He was canned after one year, in which he went 6-10.

From there he fell here to lead the 49ers defense for two seasons, got hired to fill Bill Parcells' size-42 shoes at New England for three uninspiring seasons, got canned again and decided to give the college game another try with USC.

You know how that worked out.

Carroll coached many a first round pick while he led the Trojans and got scores of them drafted into the pros. In a program that featured the likes of Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Mark Sanchez; he was far and away the most prominent face, no matter what kind of gaudy statistics his stars put up on Saturday afternoons.

USC became the de-facto pro team in Los Angeles, and as the joke goes, they paid like it as well. Celebrities like Snoop Dogg stalked the sidelines and outside of decrepit Notre Dame, no team got as much weekly national exposure.

Through every win it was Carroll with his California surfer reputation, his rah-rah attitude and his hang loose philosophy that won the hearts and minds of five star recruits all over the land.  Or maybe it was the Song Girls. Yeah, probably the Song Girls.

Somewhere along the way, Carroll changed. He went from being a hotshot young coach with impressive tactical acumen to the country's foremost recruiter, the kind of guy who could convince the top three running back prospects in the country to come to his program even though it would mean that two of them would never play. On game days he was the most prominent cheerleader on a team with the most scrutinized pep squad on the internet.

When Singletary was pondering whether to take on the head coaching job at his alma mater Baylor, one of the first things he did was call Carroll to spend some time with him in LA.

 "It was the best program in the country," Singletary recalled. "To me leadership is leadership and I wanted to see how he built the program. I didn’t know if I would be going to college as well, because I had had some conversations with Baylor, so I wanted to look at the program that he had built there, and if in fact I did end up going to college, then I needed to make sure that I had some point of reference."

And what did Coach Sing glean from Carroll?

"The ability to recruit at the level that he did; that was the thing that he talked about often. [He was a] tremendous recruiter, and I think that was the difference."

Nothing X's and O's wise, nothing technical or philosophical. No, Carroll taught him it was all about recruiting. In essence, the art of selling yourself and those you represent.

College football fit Carroll perfectly because like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and the rest of the regulars atop the AP Poll, it afforded him the opportunity to be the star for perpetuity. All you have to do is promise the kids the world, charm the sundresses off the mothers, offer an earnest handshake and a wink to the fathers and the games themselves are cake.

The pro game doesn't work that way, but Carroll - whose NFL record is 34-33 counting three postseason games—has been gone long enough, and his ego's grown large enough, to delude himself into thinking it was the general manager's fault during his failed stops in New York and Foxboro. Things will be different in Seattle now that he's got free rein on the roster and Paul Allen's money.

He'll still be the face of the program, the swashbuckling figure bouncing up and down the sidelines, hip-hip-hooraying his team to victory, telling the media whatever the hell he damn well pleases, never worrying for a second about being honest or accountable.

Carroll's got this whole racket figured out by now, and no matter what happens with Seattle, he'll land softly.

Singletary—career record 13-12—approached his first head coaching the job the way he approached games during his playing days, thinking he could intimidate opponents into submission. He has never claimed to be a master schemer or a tactical genius. In fact, he almost seems to take a perverse pride in being hands off, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Yet, shortly after taking the Niners interim job, after MIke Nolan was fired midway through the 2008 season, Singletary boasted that when all is said and done, he'll be regarded as the greatest coach in NFL history, which is a lofty goal for someone filling a chair that used to be occupied by Bill Walsh.

In the absence of a franchise quarterback or even any semblance of an offensive line, Singletary thought he could deliver victories by the sheer force of his personality. He promised reporters that his team would "physical with an 'F'" and that they would run the ball right down people's throats, no matter if they know it's coming or not.

After a few weeks of middling results, and with Alex Smith under center for the ineffective Shaun Hill, the 49ers resorted to a spread, shotgun-based offense and threw nearly every play.  Singletary claimed he never said they'd be a running team. "I want us to have balance," he said, repeatedly.

During an early season thrashing by the Atlanta Falcons, cornerback Dre' Bly prematurely celebrated his interception, raising the ball in the air thinking he was on his way to an easy touchdown. Not only did Falcons receiver Roddy White chase him down, but he stripped Bly of the ball.

The next day Singletary paraded by in front of reporters to apologize for his actions, taking the focus off a team that got embarrassed 45-10 at home and squarely onto a journeyman defensive back who embarrassed himself but had negligible impact on the outcome.

A curious move for a coach who constantly preaches family and unity.

It wasn't the first time Singletary publicly shamed one of his players (ask Davis, Vernon) or the last (Davis, Nate).  He claims to not play mind games through the media, but it's hardly a coincidence that no one put a waiver claim on Nate Davis after Singletary openly questioned the quarterback's work ethic and commitment during a postgame rant two weeks ago.

He got what he wanted. Troy Smith replaced Davis as the number three quarterback, and Davis is on the practice squad, with no other suitors because everyone heard his coach call him lazy.

Then there's the odd circumstances surrounding backup QB David Carr. Upon signing Carr told reporters one of the main reasons he chose the 49ers was because Singletary assured him that what he did in practice would matter, that the coaches would be paying attention, and that he might get a chance to start here.

Two days ago Singletary insisted that Carr was never competing for the starting job and was never told he would be. He suggested that he was disappointed that Davis never challenged Carr for the backup job and predicted that Troy Smith would.

I wonder what Carr thinks of his decision to become a 49er.

Finally there's the case of the special teams units in particular and Michael Robinson in particular. All summer long Singletary emphasized that special teams would be a priority this season and that new coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer would have input on as many as six roster spots based solely on special teams performance.

He then cut Robinson, fullback Brit Miller, receiver Jason Hill, and corner Karl Paymah, who were probably the four most dogged tacklers on the punt and kickoff teams. The fifth, linebacker Scott McKillop, tore up a knee early in camp and is lost for the year.

Robinson was a team captain last year and a guy who contributed to the return game as well. When rookie corner Phillip Adams returned a punt for a score against the Raiders during a preseason, it was Robinson who made the critical block, sprinting 40 yards to level the first man and clear the path for Adams.

In one breath Singletary said Robinson epitomized many of the traits and characteristics he's looking for in his players. In the next he said he was cut because, "He’s primarily a special teams guy and we wanted more value. For someone to take a spot just on special teams, he has to be a tremendous Pro Bowl-caliber player."

Of course, how could there possibly be room on the roster for a respected locker room veteran and a special teams difference maker when the team has to keep ten linemen and eleven defensive backs?

It remains to be seen whether Singletary can actually coach, but he's already got a politician's touch when it comes to creating an idea and massaging its packaging. When someone asks him something unpleasant he glares menacingly or flatly denies ever having said what he said. He admonishes reporters for suggesting Michael Crabtree is a diva, even though the young receiver spent training camp practically sipping Mai Tais on a lounge chair. Later, when Vernon Davis called Crabtree out, Singletary claimed "that the elephant was exposed."

Singletary has been terribly inconsistent since the day he's taken over the job and it seems apparent that no matter how serious he sounds and how commanding his voice is, that whatever he happens to say on a given day is either something he doesn't truly believe or something he won't believe five minutes later.

The only constant with him from beginning to end is that, despite his protests to the contrary, he's not only the star of the team but clearly wants to be. The quarterback isn't the most important position on the team, he said recently.

So what is, coach?

Carroll picked up Robinson off the waiver wire and maybe the scorned veteran will reveal a secret or two. It won’t matter because the Seahawks are so depleted along the offensive and defensive lines that the Niners should dominate in the trenches.

Singletary figures to win the Ego Bowl, barring another special teams disaster in Seattle. Too bad the winner won’t face the Jets and the NFL’s newest superstar, Rex Ryan.

The Pick: 49ers 23, Seahawks 13


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