Stretch run filled with uncertainty for 49ers

The 49ers hit the final five weeks of the regular season with a lot of uncertainty looming. The 49ers have an interim head coach (Mike Singletary) and an interim starting quarterback (Shaun Hill). Both men would like to earn the permanent jobs with their performances the remainder of the season, beginning Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, N.Y.

A lot of jobs are at stake in the final five weeks of the season. In addition to Singletary, the remainder of the coaching staff has tenuous futures, including offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

The 49ers have compiled a 1-3 record under Singletary, who took over as interim coach on Oct. 20 when Mike Nolan was fired after 3½ seasons as head coach. Singletary has not approached the job as an interim situation. Instead, he has tried to put his stamp on the team and do the best job he knows how, he said.

Singletary's case for being named as the permanent coach is not expected to be based solely on wins and losses to finish out the season.

In order to remain as the head coach, Singletary will almost surely have to formulate a strategy of handling the major issues that face the club. The big issue with the 49ers is the future of the team's offense. During Nolan's tenure, the 49ers lacked consistency at two important positions: quarterback and offensive coordinator.

Behind closed doors of the 49ers' organization, the feeling is that the 49ers' starting quarterback of 2009 is currently not under contract with the team. That could be a veteran who is playing elsewhere in the league - or perhaps a draft pick.

The 49ers were in this same position in 2005 when they selected Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But Smith never materialized for various reasons. The past two seasons, Smith has played just three healthy games because of shoulder injuries.

Smith is scheduled to earn $9.625 million in base salary next season. Clearly, the 49ers will not pay that amount. If Smith wants to return, he'll have to likely accept an incentive-laden one-year contract for the league minimum. Even then, it's not certain that the 49ers will want to bring him back.

J.T. O'Sullivan, who committed 17 turnovers while starting the 49ers' first eight games, is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season. The only quarterback on the roster virtually guaranteed of returning next season is Hill, who signed a three-year, $6 million contract extension in the offseason.

Singletary said he is not spending any time looking to the future. He has not spoken to Smith about his plans, and his focus is on the remainder of the season.

"I think right now all I know is what I have, and I don't take it any farther than that," Singletary said. "We just have the two guys. J.T. and Shaun, and it's just a matter of knowing what I saw last year and being able to try to make a decision going forward (to determine) which gives us the best chance to win.

"Beyond that, there are so many other things to look at that are immediate, and I guess as you get closer to the future then you can look at it a bit."

Niners general manager Scot McCloughan is not ready to make any commitments for next season, either. Singletary is under contract through the end of the season. All the other coaches on the staff, including Martz, have contracts through 2009.

"It all depends which route we take at the end of the season," McCloughan said. "We want success. We want to finish the season with success and go from there."

Hill finds himself in a similar role as late last season when he was thrust into the starting lineup after injuries to Smith and then-backup Trent Dilfer. But Hill is not only auditioning for a job. He's auditioning for a 49ers starting job.

And the best way for Hill to set himself up for the future is to take care of his business in real time.

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The 49ers have not played many bad-weather games in recent seasons, so interim coach Mike Singletary said he is looking at this game as a chance for the team to demonstrate its character.

"It's a tremendous opportunity," Singletary said. "It's going to be a physical game, a black-and-blue game. It's going to be cold. (The) weather's not going to be great, so it sounds perfect."

Tight end Vernon Davis said the conditions – the forecast is for snow showers at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday – should not affect the San Francisco offense much.

We're going to have to play no matter what – rain, sleet, snow," Davis said. "We're going to have to just tell ourselves that we'll catch every pass and do well despite the rain and snow. We shouldn't let anything interfere with the way we play."

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Quarterback Shaun Hill has done a commendable job in three starts this season. He has completed 60.3 percent of his passes while throwing seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Even though he has a 94.3 passer rating, Hill expects more of himself.

"The longer that I'm in this role, I do raise the bar and expect more out of myself each and every week," Hill said. "I feel like there's a whole lot more upside there than some other people think.

"Every week (I'm) just trying to improve and hold myself to a higher standard each and every week."

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Although the 49ers are all but out of the playoff picture, a lot of people are coaching and playing for their jobs next season. But Singletary said he is not approaching the remainder of the season as an audition.

"The mindset is you don't really audition. You just do your job every day," Singletary said. "I'm not auditioning. I'm just doing my job. Everything else will take care of itself. Either it's good enough or it's not. But I don't put a cloud over anybody's head. I certainly don't put one over my own."

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Cornerback Nate Clements is coming off his worst performance in two seasons with the 49ers. He surrendered a good portion of Terrell Owens' 213 receiving yards on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys in last week's game.

But Clements, exhibiting a trait of top cornerbacks, has apparently put it behind him, as he gets set to face his former team.

"Last week's game?" Clements said. "I'm focused on moving forward. As a corner, you have to look at it as water off a duck's back - let it just roll right off you. You have to get ready for next week."

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Singletary was never a coordinator in his six seasons as an NFL assistant coach, and he is not imposing his will when it comes to developing the team's game plan every week. So what does he do when the plan is being put together to face the upcoming opponent?

"My focus," Singletary said, "is mainly on the players and the staff. Where are they? Because I want to make sure that Greg (Manusky) and Mike (Martz) aren't coming in here thinking, 'Man, we're just not very good. We don't have a chance.' So the game plan is going to reflect that. The way they going about doing the game plan is going to reflect that. The way they respond to their coaches is going to reflect that. I don't want that."

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Linebacker Manny Lawson appears to be all the way back from a torn ACL that cut short his 2007 season after two games. Lawson has slowly worked back into the picture and now is making a case to become more than just a one-down player. In the past four games, Lawson has 20 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Lawson is a versatile player, yet he is the first 49ers' defender to come off the field when the 49ers go with extra defensive backs. Interim coach Mike Singletary said it is a priority to get Lawson increased playing time.

"We're trying to get him on the field more, and we will get him on the field more," Singletary said. "He deserves that. He's been doing that. But he's had to work toward that. It's not like Manny's been doing great all year and then all of a sudden, 'Why isn't he playing?' Obviously, we want to win, too."



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