Monday, December 27, 2010

End of Singletary Era

The 49ers lost the next to last game of the season yesterday, experiencing the same combination of unforced errors, penalties, shoddy preparation and wasted opportunities the team has experienced the whole season. The best they could finish, if they win next week, would be 6-10, a crushing disappointment for a team many picked to win the West Division.

Following the team's return to San Francisco, young Jed York announced that Singletary had been "relieved of his duties as head coach" (i.e., fired), and that the defensive line coach would take over for the end of the season. Why York chose this particular moment to punish the head coach is unclear; perhaps it was a fit of pique. Singletary is the latest fall guy for a team that hasn't had a decent quarterback since Jeff Garcia left after the 2003 season. Asking Singletary to win with a proven loser was a recipe for disaster.

As I've said here before, the problem with this team wasn't its head coach, its line play, its playmakers, or its game plans. The problem was at quarterback. Alex Smith was a bust the minute he took the field for the Niners, and there's been no evidence at any point since, in the five years he's been here, that we could expect anything better. Why an organization would stubbornly stick with an inferior talent at the most important position, year after year, is a testament to its stupidity and face-saving cowardice.

But Singletary isn't a coward. He's a proud warrior who got saddled with an impossible situation--something he knew from the start. He believed in himself, and his ability to inspire players to reach beyond their given potential, to overcome adversity (and a poor quarterback), and win with sheer guts. But guts alone won't make a winner in the NFL. You need talent at all positions, and the most crucial position player is always the quarterback. Look at the teams in the lower third of the NFL standings; in every case their failure is due to mediocre play at quarterback. It's really a testament to Singletary, that the 49ers were 18-22 under his tutelage. How much worse might the team have played with a man of lesser stature?

Singletary was an easy guy to like, until the mid-point of this season, when his press conferences became pouting sessions. Mike knew that the team wasn't going anywhere, the handwriting was on the wall. Team ownership had hinted that this was his "last chance" to reach the playoffs. But everyone--fans, media, players, owners--knew that the real problem was at quarterback. Given management's continued refusal to dump Alex Smith, Singletary knew that he had to play the failed 1st draft pick, because that was the key to his job, even as he knew, in his bones, that he couldn't rely on him. If he played a replacement, the team would say he hadn't "used his best tools."

I think everyone knows now--after two fired coaches--that Alex Smith is the problem. The team has fired an excellent coach, to conceal its own ignorance and failure. Before Eddie DeBartolo took over the team in 1977, the team was beset with clueless management. After he departed, in 2000, over legal troubles involving gambling interests in Louisiana, the team began a downward spiral, which continues to this day. The character of an organization starts at the top, not at the bottom. Under the Yorks, and now son Jed, the team has flailed wildly about, without a plan, without focus. Mike Nolan chose the wrong guy in Smith, passing on Aaron Rodgers (who now leads Green Bay into the playoffs). This decision not only led to Nolan's demise, but has now ruined Singletary's head coaching career as well. The team needs an intelligent general manager, and a new young quarterback. If the team doesn't end up with a high enough draft choice, it should trade up and start over with a new No. 1 pick QB. If they stick with Alex, it won't matter who the new coach is.

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