Mike Singletary has been learning on the job as the 49ers head coach. Now, it’s time for him to apply what he’s learned.
There are many 49ers’ fans who have been skeptical of Singletary because he’s not Bill Walsh. Nobody else is, either. Walsh was an innovator, a strategic genius who put his stamp on the entire league, but it isn’t necessary for a coach to be a replica of Walsh to succeed.
Singletary is more like his former coach in Chicago, Mike Ditka — an emotional, inspirational leader. Ditka was successful, too, and the 1985 Chicago Bears team he coached to a Super Bowl championship is regarded as one of the best teams in NFL history.
Singletary originally thought his Hall of Fame playing career would enable him to skip the assistant coach steps on the way to being a head coach, but it didn’t work that way. He was passed over by his alma mater, Baylor, and had to settle for an assistant’s role with the 49ers before being tapped to replace Mike Nolan during the 2008 season.
He couldn’t be more different from Nolan, who was all artifice, all about looking like a head coach. Nolan wore a suit, emulating his father, Dick, a 49ers coach in an earlier era. He took notes at practice so he would have talking points for reporters afterwards, something I’ve never seen another coach do. He seemed more like an actor in a TV drama than a coach.
With Singletary, what you see is what you get. He’s as emotional as a coach as he was as a player, pulling down his pants in the dressing room at halftime of his first game to make a point, sending Vernon Davis to the locker room because he wasn’t acting like a professional.
Whatever he does, it’s from the heart, and players have responded to that. Davis, in fact, is example No. 1. He had shown only flashes of his great skills before, but he has become a complete player under Singletary.
His message has been understood much better by his players than by the media. When he’s talked of being physically tough — and had practice drills to work on that — the players know that they have to live up to that. Too many writers and broadcasters, though, have translated that into “smash mouth football,” as if Singletary wanted to go back to a Woody Hayes style. In fact, no football team wins without being physically tough. Walsh always talked to his team about out-hitting the other team.
Singletary also knows that players have to play with emotion. In baseball, the emphasis is keeping on an even keel through the 162-game season. In football, with only 16 regular-season games, there can’t be any letdowns.
There is still some fine tuning Singletary has to do. Clock management at the end of a half or game needs work. The 49ers also need to have somebody upstairs who can take a quick look at a replay and let Singletary know whether to issue a challenge.
But overall, I think the 49ers are in good hands with Singletary, and I expect him to lead them back to the playoffs this season.