If the San Francisco 49ers' record was 8-5 instead of 5-8, maybe Mike Singletary would have his old swagger back. If they were winning their division rather than just hanging on, maybe his words might have their usual bravado.
But Singletary has been somber and introspective of late. Occasionally, he appears distracted and lacking focus. The Singletary glare? Gone.
If these are the final days of his tenure as 49ers coach, he's not letting on. He refuses to acknowledge the possibility – even the likelihood – that he could be fired after the season ends, and instead focuses his attention on the next game, which in this case is the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night.
The 49ers' season doesn't necessarily hinge on the outcome of the nationally televised contest, but Singletary probably knows his future with the team could well be judged on what it does from now on, and that will mean running the table, advancing to the postseason and perhaps even winning a playoff game.
Without all that, he will have failed to meet expectations. The 49ers were 8-8 last season, and it was reasonable to assume they would produce a winning record this year, win the NFC West – after all, they were the favorites in a horribly weak division -- and let the rest of the NFL know that they were on their way to becoming an elite team again. Maybe there would be Super Bowl talk in their near future.
It was Singletary who pronounced "I want winners" after his first game as head coach, but so far he hasn't won anything. His record since taking over in mid-season 2008 is 18-20. This season, he started out 0-5, and nothing has gone right. He fired his offensive coordinator one day after giving him a vote of confidence, changed his quarterbacks not once but twice and has failed to give his team an identity or a direction.
Team president Jed York won't say if the coach is in jeopardy, but back in October, after the Niners lost their fifth consecutive game, he sent a text to ESPN predicting that they would win the division. You can call that an owner's faith in his team, but right now it looks like an ultimatum.
If the 49ers don't beat the St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals in their final two games and squeeze into the postseason, York will look like just another president who was let down by his team. And that will fall on Singletary, who still has two years left on his contract.
If Singletary were still a player, maybe he could get this team to play above its level and win by force of will. But no matter how he tries to gather his emotion and funnel it into his team, it doesn't work. He has a few talented players – Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, the now-injured Frank Gore – but there aren't enough of them to beat opponents strictly on talent. Quarterback Alex Smith had his best game as pro last Sunday when he beat the Seattle Seahawks, but after almost six years he's still considered a work in progress.
In some ways, so are the 49ers. But it's doubtful Singletary is the man who can take them to the next level. Even now, with 13 games gone and only three to play, he still talks about growing.
"When you look at what the expectations were and look at where we are now, it's just a matter of working toward that point and getting toward that point," he said this week. "What we saw Sunday was a good indication of the growing pains of this team, and getting to a place where you understand that you go out, you play the game, you do what you're coached to do, you don't press things, and let the game come to you. And just be true and honest to the game."
If the 49ers had done that from the beginning, maybe they wouldn't be where they are now, teetering in a division that should have been locked up by now. But the fact that they're holding on, hopeful that the stars will align and that somehow the NFL's convoluted playoff procedures will work in their favor, says a lot about the team and its coach.
If Thursday night's game is one of the final three Singletary will coach in his 49ers tenure, he won't have to ask why. He'll just have to look at the team's record.
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