Monday was house-cleaning day at the San Francisco 49ers team headquarters. While 12 teams are moving on to the NFL playoffs, the 49ers were one of 20 that cleared out their lockers and went home.
They gathered at 8 a.m. and spoke individually with Trent Baalke, vice president of player personnel and possible GM-in-waiting, then listened as team president Jed York gave them an update on the general manager search and the collective-bargaining-agreement talks between owners and players.
Memories of the 6-10 season? Tight end Vernon Davis spoke of his admiration for fired coach Mike Singletary but said he created an atmosphere in which some players played tight and scared.
"I think we did play tight," Davis said. "Guys were just a little scared. They were scared – they were more worried about coach Singletary getting on them instead of playing football.
"But you have to understand him. If you don't understand the guy, then you are not going to be able to relate to him. I think that's what the problem was with most guys. They were scared, worried about dropping passes and missing tackles instead of just going out and being themselves. But he left and guys started to be a little easy."
The atmosphere was less stressful under interim coach Jim Tomsula, whose week in charge was markedly different. He ran fast-paced practices and stressed the notion that players should have fun.
"Everybody enjoyed him," said defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois. "Everybody had a smile with him. Sometimes, he'll get in our head with the practice tempo, but it was something he wanted to do. He wanted everything to be fast, he wanted everybody to know their assignment. But at the same time, he has the soft side that every coach has."
The 49ers ended their season with 38-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, but many players ended their days watching the Seattle Seahawks – a team they routed 40-21 on Dec. 12 – beat the St. Louis Rams and win the NFC West with a 7-9 record.
"This has probably been one of the craziest years I've been in," Davis said. "We really deserved that (division title). We had the better team. We were better than anybody – anybody we played. We were just as good, if not better. But we just couldn't pull it off. We struggled early on and it cost us."
WESTBROOK EXIT: Running back Brian Westbrook, who took over as the team's primary running threat after Frank Gore was injured, is a free agent and said he wants to continue playing. He finished the season with 340 yards in 77 carries, 4.4 average.
"I don't, at this point in my career, want to be a starter," he said, "but I want to be able to help a team win. Whether that's 15 plays a game, 10 plays a game, I want to be able to help a team and make plays when I have the opportunity. … I think I made the most of my opportunities."
Westbrook said he spoke with Baalke about the possibility of returning to the Niners, but he said Baalke told him "it just really depends on the new coach and what his idea is and what his formula is. We'll see how it goes."
ALEX'S FUTURE?: No one faces a more uncertain future than quarterback Alex Smith, who spent six unfulfilled seasons with the team and is now a free agent.
"A lot of uncertainty out there, that's for sure, but I don't know enough at all to make any decisions," he said.
While he again didn't rule out the possibility he might be willing to return – highly unlikely with a new coach and new GM – Smith said his preference was to find a city where he could compete for a starting job.
"That's definitely a part (of) it," he said. "(It's) definitely something I want to do, but a lot of different things come into play when you make a decision like this. Wherever you think you're going to be most successful or have the best chance to succeed, a lot of different things, who you're working with, all of those things come into play."
Smith went out on a high note, throwing for 276 yards and touchdown passes measuring 37 yards to Ted Ginn Jr. and 59 yards to Vernon Davis. His 82.1 passer rating for the season was the best of his career.
"I feel like I'm in the best place I've ever been," he said. "This is the best quarterback I've ever been, the best understanding of football, the best I've felt physically. No question, I've continued to grow, I'm still pretty young in the perspective of this game, 26. I've got a lot of football ahead of me."