Liotta: Niners, Singletary making strides despite latest lull

Wow, has it been a year already?

The 49ers under head coach Mike Singletary technically enter their second year together with this afternoon’s game against the Tennessee Titans. In their first 16 games under Singletary, the 49ers have earned the right to claim they are a legitimate NFL team, compiling an 8-8 record since the head coach took over.

Don’t scoff. Legitimacy is quite a compliment for the lot Singletary inherited, as the 49ers were just as likely headed toward becoming the Cleveland Browns of the West — or the Raiders of the West — as they were toward being a team opponents’ coordinators worry about.

A year ago, the 49ers were still clawing their way up the lowest rungs of the NFL ladder, and vulnerable. Though technically proficient, coach Mike Nolan had become a complete wild card. Singletary changed that almost immediately.

From his first halftime speech or the much-ballyhooed dismissal of Vernon Davis to the locker room, Singletary instilled a clarity of purpose and a definite measure for success. Ask any team in any sport — or corporation — out there how important an achievement installing those pillars can be.

Which brings us to where the 49ers are right now, coming out of the tunnel this afternoon to face the Titans. No matter how much optimism these Niners have stirred, they are a football team still trying to find itself with a quarterback trying to regain his playing skills.

To me, Alex Smith looked an awful lot like Shawn Hill for large portions of last week’s game against the Colts.

That’s because of the one trait that has come up time and time again when it comes to Singletary: This head coach is careful.

You’re not going to see anything reckless in his approach to the progress of his football team or his starting quarterback. And that means criticizing his offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, is falling on deaf ears.

“It is too easy to sit back and say, ‘Well man, the answer was: just go ahead and put him in the spread and let him go,’” Singletary said earlier this week. “It’s not as simple as that. I’m sure people are talking and I’m sure everybody has a bit of advice here and there. But at the end of the day, I think the most important thing is we know where we want to go, we know what we have to do in order to get there.”

I don’t care what anybody says — this team is still digging itself out from under Terry Donahue, who may go down as the NFL’s all-time worst general manager.

And while the progress of this team may seem less tangible than it did when the Niners were winners of three of their first four games, they are closer to being a good team than they were a year ago.

Like Singletary implied earlier this week, there’s still more work to be done.

Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at tliotta@sfexaminer.com.

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