Walcoff: Long road awaits Singletary, 49ers

As the 49ers embark on the longest road trip in team history — facing the Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., and then continuing on to London for a Halloween game against the Denver Broncos — there will be plenty of time to ponder the fate and faces of the franchise: Mike Singletary and Alex Smith.

While the head coach continues to pump up his struggling quarterback, he is probably hitching his wagon to the wrong horse. It’s curious too that Singletary talks so passionately about competition bringing out the best in his players, yet when it comes to Smith, Iron Mike becomes Meek Mike, apparently afraid of either undermining Smith’s fragile confidence or simply overestimating his abilities.

If being a winning quarterback in the NFL was all about intelligence and character, Smith would be a Super Bowl MVP. Unfortunately, a Mensa IQ and Boy Scout demeanor don’t make up for maddeningly inconsistent play. Despite strong finishes the past two games, Smith remains a marginally effective passer prone to awful mistakes at the worst of times. Even after playing his first turnover-free game of the season against the Raiders, Smith was wildly erratic until late in the third quarter against an Oakland defense that was torched for 431 yards passing the week before by the Chargers’ Philip Rivers.

Smith continues to lead the NFL with nine interceptions, plus three fumbles and countless throws either batted down at the line of scrimmage or sailing over the head of his intended target. Sure, it’s encouraging to hear him say he needs to be less hesitant and more daring and decisive, but these revelations would be much more compelling coming from a rookie rather than a six-year veteran.

No doubt Smith’s difficulties are magnified by an inexperienced offensive line and the absence of a game-changing wide receiver, as well as a head coach better known for hitting quarterbacks than developing them. But how much of an upside does Smith truly have? His decent mobility and game instincts are undermined by questionable toughness, average arm strength and a lack of accuracy. How do you think he would fare on the road in December against the likes of say, the Steelers, Ravens, Bears, Jets or Giants?

Even without having to face any of the league’s elite defenses and with a decidedly soft schedule the rest of the way, the 49ers will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s 8-8 record. Missing the playoffs for an eighth straight season will almost certainly spell the end for both Singletary and Smith.

Of course there is always a great bonus for losing in the NFL. San Francisco could have a shot at one of two potential franchise quarterbacks in the 2011 draft: Washington’s Jake Locker or Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Hey, maybe Luck would bring Jim Harbaugh with him. Hitch your wagon to those guys and the 49ers would be riding high once again.

KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.

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