We Want Winners, But We Settled For Less: Mike Singletary's Tenure In San Francisco Part I

The first part of a three-part feature on Mike Singletary and his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers. From his interim position, to his first year, and finally to his second, and final season. Part one focuses on the firing of Mike Nolan and Singletary's promotion from assistant head coach/linebackers coach to interim head coach to full-time head coach of the 49ers.

The tenure of Mike Singletary with the San Francisco 49ers organization was the very definition of erratic. So much can be attributed to this man over the years with the organization, but he'd probably like it if a little more than half of that could be heaped on somebody else's resume. One would have to assume he'd be proud of himself for the way that linebacker Patrick Willis has developed in the pros under his tutelage as linebacker coach, but it's also likely that he'd just as well like to go back to every press conference as head coach and remove one or two usages of "I need to look at the film."

Mike Singletary received one of the most meteoric rises in popularity you'll ever see in the National Football League. His job as interim head coach to flat-out savior of one of the proudest franchises in the league were essentially one in the same. The fan base is a spoiled one, used to winning and great coaching - and when faced with the incompetence of one coach, will latch on to the new guy with reckless abandon. It all began with Mike.

Mike Nolan quickly wore thin in San Francisco. By 2008, fans wanted him gone and his supporters were few and far between. The most notable pocket of pro-Nolan supporters existed at the local Men's Wearhouse, where Nolan frequently shopped for his gameday garb. It leaked in October that Nolan's job was not safe, and in the end it eventually leaked that the 49ers planned to fire him - before they actually wanted to fire him. What followed was a serious of denials, misdirections and redirections before a decisive 29-17 loss to the New York Giants on the arm of J.T. O'Sullivan, a quarterback that Nolan never had the guts to bench. Out of 290 votes on Niners Nation, only 15 of them thought Nolan should coach through the end of his contract. 150 people wanted him fired that week.

Those 150 got their wish - and he was fired that week. Mike Singletary promoted in the interim and there was much fanfare. Across the beat writers' blogs, everybody was excited - commentors at the Press Democrat, Mercury News and Sacramento Bee went nuts, and at SB Nation's 49ers blog, Niners Nation, the celebration was a quiet, calculated affair - but a celebration nonetheless. They were the most cautious bunch, taking note that they were now lead by a man with no significant coaching experience, but just glad to be over Mike Nolan and his legendary coach speak.

"We had a great gameplan."

"It was unfortunate that we lost with that gameplan."

"Our guys played hard, we just came up short."

Probably better lines than "I've gotta look at the film."

But his adventure as head coach of the 49ers didn't begin with proclamations of needing to look at the film, Mike Singletary got going by sending problematic tight end Vernon Davis to the locker room mid-game and popping off at the top about cancer cells and cutting out those not focused on winning. He'd go on at length, philosophically declaring this and that - posturing for the cameras and his boss, all the while feeling just as genuine as 49ers fans wanted him to be. This man was hire-able, and if the defensive genius of Mike Nolan wasn't enough to get things done, by God the fire of Mike Singletary would make do!

"It is more about them than it is about the team. Cannot play with them. Cannot win with them. Cannot coach with them. Can't do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win. Go ahead . . . I told him that he would do a better job for us right now taking a shower and coming back and watching the game than going out on the field. Simple as that."

Mike Singletary would rather play with ten players on every play and get penalized every time than play with one player who doesn't want to be there and doesn't share his message. Funny that he referenced being penalized every time, it ended up being one of the more prominent trends for the Samurai. There were people in the room that didn't deserve to be there, and dammit, he was going to find each and every one of them, regardless of how many times he had to drop his pants to sniff out the dead weight.

J.T. O'Sullivan was deposited on the curb where he belonged and Shaun Hill was named the starter for the next game. Singletary lost his coaching debut, but he was going with the right man for the job to win his follow-up. It wasn't to be. The 49ers had their showdown with the Arizona Cardinals and Singletary's team made one of their biggest, most famous blunders. With the game on the line and victory in sight, goal line situation - the 49ers called a run.

A run was the ideal choice, aside from something involving play action and Vernon Davis, but he had yet to become a dependable target. So Frank Gore it is, then! Or, Michael Robinson. That's right, folks. The 49ers lined up with Michael Robinson in the backfield and called a run to the left side. We'd find out later the run was supposed to go to the right side and the entire play was backwards, but it would hardly have made a difference.

It was a poorly officiated game and the 49ers were not all to blame, but it was a poorly officiated game that was marred by a poorly coached game as well. Also a trend for Mike Singletary's 49ers. But redemption be the name for the 49ers the following week - a beat-down of the lowly St. Louis Rams was just what Mike Singletary needed. What followed that game was one of his finest moments as a head coach.

The press conference was one of brilliance: Singletary was happy with the win, but cautioned everyone against becoming too obsessed with it. He was happy with his players, but thought they could do a better job. This man was serious, and that was a good thing for everyone associated with the Red and Gold. His approval rating on Niners Nation was through the roof - he brought a 97% approval rating following his first win as a head coach. Two losses and a win, and this fanbase was sitting at 97% approval rating!

What followed that was a loss to the Dallas Cowboys, a loss that was frustrating for everybody involved. Singletary had one of his longest press conferences of his life following the loss, and found himself rambling on and on with paragraphs upon paragraphs worth of speech as to the identity of the team going forward with subtle deflections of blame thrown in for good measure. It was a loss that 49ers fans could deal with if they had to, and they had to.

Fast forward and you've got two wins. One of them fairly ugly and dependent on the Buffalo Bills being the Buffalo Bills, and the other being an actual impressive performance against the New York Jets. The fan base was ready to anoint him the savior after the Jets victory. There were some red flags following the Bills game, though. Mike Singletary and his "Formula For Success" was much talked about following that game. The formula follows.

1. Total Ball Security
2. Execute
3. Dominate the trenches
4. Create great field position
5. Finish

This roughly translates to "Mike Singletary's Formula For Avoiding Gameplanning And Coaching." No matter what happened all season, it seemed like Singletary always talked about not finishing, not imposing their will and not protecting the ball - never about being out-coached, out game-planned or getting off to a good, orchestrated start. It would end up being a telling staple for his tenure with San Francisco.

The 49ers continued to do alright for themselves in Mike Singletary's interim season. They'd win a couple more games and lose a couple more as well, the game that was lost to the Miami Dolphins was particularly telling, but most moved on immediately. For one day, people asked why Vernon Davis was not on the field for that final drive that saw Joey Porter get his first sack of the day after being utterly abused by the future Pro Bowl tight end. After that, it was smooth sailing as the 49ers beat the Washington Redskins to end their season.

Much was said in that week, including a power struggle between Mike Singletary and Mike Martz, and what would happen was seen as coming for weeks. Mike Singletary earned himself a four-year contract with the 49ers, one that he'd never finish, and $10M for his troubles - plus one of the biggest marketing campaigns you'll ever see for a coach. The hiring was exactly what everyone expected, and it's one of the biggest mistakes the 49ers front office has made in recent years. No coaching search was ever conducted and no extensive review on Mike Singletary ever took place. This man would bring the 49ers to glory, despite the obvious warning signs!

The offseason began, and I'll take a very long look at that and the following season on a game-by-game basis in my next feature, scheduled for tomorrow.

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