Spander: Singletary still has work to do

His phrase was “the enemy within,” an apt description of the opponent the 49ers, as any team where losing has been the norm, must learn to defeat before consistently defeating other teams.

We had a whiff of the idea from Mike Nolan, who perhaps went about it a little too vociferously. Losers think like losers. Winners, to the contrary, believe they will win.

Now we find Mike Singletary, all motivation and emotion, pounding even harder on the theme established by the man he replaced 13 months ago: The culture must change before the record will change.

He wants players to take control, especially quarterback Alex Smith, who understandably having come off the bench to replace Shaun Hill only five games ago has yet to display the bravado of a leader.

He wants players not to tell themselves when the situation is dire, “Well, here we go again.”

Which, perhaps, they did at Green Bay on Sunday, falling behind, 23-3 before losing 30-24. A rally, but still another defeat. And a 4-6 record.

It’s all interwoven, a quarterback who feels comfortable, a system that works, a confidence that is nearly palpable. It’s the combination of champions, says Singletary, a blend the long downtrodden Niners have yet to achieve, but he insists they will.

“We’re still hurting ourselves,” Singletary said. “We’re our own worst enemy. If we can beat the enemy within, then we have a chance to beat the one we’re playing against. When you talk about championship teams, it’s about taking the next step. … You’ve got to deal with the mental psyche that’s involved.

“When you walk on the field and know, ‘This is my game,’ when things go bad, it’s not like it was. You know you’re going to get over it or around it. That’s when you start winning those kind of games like we played on Sunday.”

Singletary said physically the Niners are strong enough. The problem is in the head. His analogy was a kid whose lunch money is stolen by the school bully who lives on reputation. Finally, the kid tells himself, enough already. But the Niners haven’t yet spoken out in a figurative sense.

Or Smith, in a literal one.

“He’s a humble guy, a meek guy,” Singletary said of Smith, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, but in a short amount of time has been battered in body and mind, stripped of his assurance.

“I don’t know how long he’ll stay that way,” the coach said. “I want him to take the next step, to tell the coaches, ‘Hey, here’s what I like. Here’s what’s good for us.’”

What Singletary said is good for the Niners, despite the appearance that Smith does better in shotgun formation, is to continue having him also play under center, the classic “T.”

“It’s important to keep the mix,” Smith said. “We worked on both in camp. And I’m not going to be afraid to tell the coaches what I think is working or not working. I’ve come a long way in a month.”

He and the Niners still have a long way to go.

“But it will come,” Singletary insisted, “and it will be sooner than later.”

For Niner Nation, it can’t come soon enough.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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