Each morning, Mike Singletary sits alone in his office at the San Francisco 49ers' training facility and prays to start the day.
"I'm excited about the time that I have to meditate on that day," the first-year coach explains. "These guys are special to me, and I want to make sure the things I say to them are important, that I'm not just talking to them. I pray for direction every day."
On Thursday, with the Niners preparing for a road game against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday that will feature the NFL's only clash of 2-0 teams, Singletary prayed for focus and perspective. Specifically, he wants his players to avoid getting caught up in their early success – victories over a pair of NFC West foes, including the defending conference champion Arizona Cardinals – and to understand how much harder they'll have to work to earn the franchise's first playoff trip since 2002.
"Absolutely, we have to stay focused on the goal and continue to work to get better," Singletary says. "I think about this every minute of the day."
Now here's the interesting thing: More than many of his peers, Singletary has a chance to lead by example, because he's the guy generating much of the hype. On a team short on big names – stud halfback Frank Gore(notes) is decidedly low-key; Pro Bowl middle linebacker Patrick Willis(notes) is still young and overshadowed by Ray Lewis(notes) and Brian Urlacher(notes); top draft pick Michael Crabtree(notes) is … well, never mind – it's the head coach who's attracting much of the national attention.
This is for three reasons: First, Singletary was a Hall of Fame middle linebacker for one of the greatest defenses of all time. Secondly, he's one of the hottest coaches in the NFL, having won six of his last seven games, often with his team as the underdog. Lastly, in his first game as the 49ers' interim coach last October, he dropped trou at halftime, and gave a memorable postgame news conference, making him an instant Internet sensation.
Naturally, there's a perception that Singletary's a little crazy, one that gibes with his signature wild-eyed pre-snap pose from his playing days. Yet Singletary is grounded by faith and conviction, and is well aware of the warning signs that can erode team chemistry, focus and unquestioned commitment.
Singletary, who starred for the Chicago Bears from 1981-92, was part of the 1985 team that went 18-1 and held the New England Patriots to negative yardage throughout the first half of an emphatic Super Bowl XX blowout. Yet for all the great players who suited up for coach Mike Ditka during that era, the Bears couldn't even manage another conference title.
Looking back, Singletary believes his teams underachieved – and that they did so because they fell prey to the same forces he's guarding against in his current role.
"There were a lot of missed opportunities," he says. "When I talk to [former Bears defensive coordinator] Buddy Ryan and Coach Ditka, I've told them the same thing. There were so many things that were handled the wrong way.
"We were a young football team – very vulnerable, very naïve. The coaches did what they could, but I'm just talking about players understanding that if we stay together, things are going to work out. People aren't going to forget that you're a great football player. Maybe this week somebody else gets the credit, and that next week another guys does. But none of that matters – as long as the team succeeds, we all win.
"When you get guys fighting, backbiting, envious of each other and worrying about who gets what accolade, once that happens, as a team, you're in trouble. That is a cancer to the team, and I realize now that somebody has to step in and stop it."
Two things: 1) Uh, whoa – I think Singletary just called out some of the greatest players of their era. And 2) Any guesses as to who in the Niners' universe is likely to be that person who'll step in and regulate if necessary?
Let's ask Niners tight end Vernon Davis(notes), who notoriously was sent off the field by Singletary during the coach's volatile debut game last Oct. 26. Singletary had just been named interim coach to replace the fired Mike Nolan, a week before the Niners' bye, and Davis did not handle the team's 34-13 home defeat to the Seattle Seahawks well.
At one point in the third quarter Davis incurred a personal foul penalty, then talked back as the new coach tried to admonish him. Singletary ordered Davis, the sixth overall pick of the '06 draft, to the locker room for the rest of the game.
The perception since then has been that Davis represents everything that is wrong with the modern athlete, and that his old-school coach is suitably appalled. But either the two men are very good liars – in this case, given Singletary's integrity and penchant for blunt honesty, not a good bet – or they're the NFL's most surprising set of BFFs in some time.
"Singletary's like my best buddy," Davis said when I interviewed him during the preseason. "He's on my side, man. He's really raising my game to the next level. He's just being a coach, man … just talking to us like men. Sometimes it's hard to hear, but he can't help it if this is how he feels."
As Davis spoke on a bench outside the locker room, Singletary walked by, put his hand on the player's shoulder and looked me in the eye. "One day soon," he said emphatically. "The best."
The coach walked away, and Davis smiled. "I told you – I like him," he continued. "He'll critique you on every play; he watches everything. He'll definitely call you out, no matter who you are, and that's what you need in order for your team to be great. Because of him, I'm catching passes I was never able to catch."
On Thursday, Singletary said of Davis: "I enjoy his heart. He is a tremendous individual with a great work ethic. He's willing to do anything you ask him to do. When you see a guy with the heart that he has, and you think about his reputation, it's one of the most unbelievable things in the NFL."
In fairness, Singletary's public tirade is one of the main reasons Davis has that reputation. Then again, the man was just a wee bit amped up for his first game as a head coach. Remember, in an effort to underscore his belief that his players were getting their butts kicked, he pulled down his pants at halftime. "I learned a lot after the first game – a lot," Singletary says. "Looking back now, it's kind of like a player's first game. When he first goes in, it's really fast, man. For me, that day, it was on. After that, it slowed down quite a bit for me, and it slowed down quite quickly. And I just sit back and take it all in stride."
As for the unconventional visual aid, Singletary laughs and says, "I didn't think anything of it. I'm sure a lot of people said, 'He took his pants down? He's losing his mind.' I'm sure people had different visuals in their mind about what that really meant.
"My wife knew I had long underwear on. So, it's like, what is everybody making a big deal for? She said, 'You didn't take those down, did you, Mike? I know this – I wouldn't do it again."
In his second game, Singletary's team went on the road to face the Cardinals in a Monday night clash and was in position to pull off the upset until a case of time-mismanagement derailed a potential game-winning drive. That was San Francisco's sixth consecutive defeat, but the Niners settled down and won five of their last seven, and San Francisco's owners removed Singletary's interim tag.
This year, with a pair of coordinators (Jimmy Raye on offense and Greg Manusky on defense) in place who share his emphasis on simplicity and mental toughness and a holdover quarterback, Shaun Hill(notes), who sacrifices flash for a sound, low-risk approach, Singletary is far more comfortable, and closer to fulfilling his vision.
Not surprisingly, most of his players – and especially the veteran leaders – are down with the program.
"Coach Sing has done a tremendous job of getting this team rallied behind him," eighth-year center Eric Heitmann(notes) says. "I think he understands what we go through as players. He's by far one of the most inspirational coaches I've ever heard speak. When you get to the NFL, you feel like you've heard it all. But when Coach Sing speaks, it's almost like you can hear a pin drop. It's always very meaningful and very applicable."
Right now, Singletary's message is an obvious one: Block out the noise, concentrate only on the Vikings and don't get full of yourselves.
"Some of the guys have been asking me when I'm going to lose my voice," the coach said Thursday. "It hasn't happened – yet."
Somehow, as Singletary flashes back to his missed opportunities from the '80s, I get the feeling it's only a matter of time.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you've all been waiting for: The Detroit Lions will win their first game in 21 months by upsetting the Washington Redskins at Ford Field Sunday (and let's hope this goes better than the last time I predicted a Lions victory. … With the Jets having won their self-proclaimed "Super Bowl" last Sunday – and the visiting Titans desperate to avoid an 0-2 start – you can see a Tennessee upset coming from across the Hudson. – I called the Pittsburgh Steelers' surprising defeat last week and I'm back for another round: The Bengals, with a big day from Carson Palmer(notes), will beat the defending champs in Cincinnati.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Foxborough, so that, like Matt Ryan(notes) and Thomas Dimitroff, I can make my triumphant return to New England on Sunday as the Patriots and Atlanta Falcons battle it out. (I'll be a late arrival, however, because on Saturday I plan to watch my daughter's soccer team tear it up on the fabulous turf field at Aptos High paid for by alum Trent Dilfer(notes) – and named after his late son, Trevin, for whom we'll be saying a pregame prayer.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Baseball players are every bit as tough as football players.
2. In fairness to Seattle Mariners closer David Aardsma, who hurt his back while reading on a five-hour flight to Florida, he was engrossed in Mackenzie Phillips' new memoir (and too horrified to move).
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
After flirting with disaster for a second consecutive week – I had the Redskins over the St. Louis Rams, and they prevailed by two points while failing to score a touchdown – I'm looking for a less stressful weekend this time. So I'm picking on the Browns, who play the Ravens in Baltimore and may not cross the 50-yard-line in what's sure to be a lopsided defeat. (And now that I've said so, look for this game to come down to the final possession.)
MY BUDDIES' ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
When UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb took my advice and made Titans halfback Chris Johnson the No. 2 overall pick in her fantasy draft, she was instantly ridiculed, absorbing a slew of cyber-taunts from her aghast competitors. Then, after Harsh Reality suffered a narrow Week 1 defeat, Gottlieb took even more abuse, this time from foes charging that her access to my immense wealth of knowledge (stop coughing, Brad Evans had tainted the process.
It all came to a head last Sunday morning, as Gottlieb sat in the living room of her townhouse across from East Beach and began composing an email to the rest of the paranoid participants in the Gauchos, Tigers & Bears oh my! league (which, by the way, has zero dollars on the line) telling them to take a chill pill. "I had one computer displaying fantasy stats, the other breaking down our new offensive sets for the upcoming (hoops) season, and the flat-screen had NFL Sunday Ticket," Gottlieb says. "As I'm writing the email, I look up and Chris Johnson is racing past everyone and going into the end zone – again. It was basically the best Sunday of my life."
Even better, Gottlieb's opponent, I'm On A Boat!!!, was the one who'd done the most draft-day taunting of the Johnson pick. His sinking was complete by late Sunday as Johnson, with 45 points, had nearly outscored his entire team. (I don't know that we can count on that kind of an explosion from Johnson every week, but I will say this to Evans: Start wrapping your head around that Oski the Bear sweatshirt you'll be wearing on the air after CJ scores his 13th TD.)
For this week's matchup with The Boss (Drew Brees(notes), Clinton Portis(notes), Joseph Addai(notes), Cadillac Williams, Brandon Marshall(notes), Anquan Boldin(notes), Chris Cooley(notes)), we're having some fun, beginning with the signing of Saints running back Lynell Hamilton(notes). Yeah, I know, who?; you'll find out on Sunday. We're toying with the idea of inserting Hamilton into the lineup for the banged-up Marion Barber(notes), and instead of Julius Jones(notes) (vs. Bears) or James Davis (at Ravens). And – taint alert – my conviction that the Bengals will come up big against the Steelers inspired two additional moves: Carson Palmer's return to the starting lineup (ahead of Trent Edwards(notes)) and a hunch play on Chris Henry over Braylon Edwards(notes) (and Louis Murphy(notes), who we waived after one unremarkable week). Given that we also have Chad Ochocinco(notes), Gottlieb correctly surmised that, "One bad game [from the Bengals] could kill us." My reply: Not if Chris Johnson has anything to say about it.
Meanwhile, my buddy Malibu's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath also improved to 1-1, despite the fact that he mistakenly forgot to enter a defense. Smooth move – but he got away with it and scored a nine-point victory over Gravity Rebels thanks to big weeks from Darren Sproles(notes) and Barber. This week Sabbath faces Cleveland Steamers (the owner is an apparent fan of Ohio's great railroad tradition) and will have to contend with a roster that includes Matt Schaub(notes), Steven Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald(notes), Marques Colston(notes) and Dallas Clark(notes). Malibu, ignoring my Lynell Hamilton tip, is starting Reggie Bush(notes) opposite Sproles and going with newly acquired Johnny Knox(notes) opposite Hines Ward(notes). The third receiver? He took my advice and benched Bernard Berrian(notes) in favor of Pierre Garcon(notes) (but only because he's a Quentin Tarantino fan, cutting Michael Crabtree and Michael Vick(notes) in the process. "Maybe I should have cut LT," Malibu said of his No. 2 overall pick. Was he joking? Tough to say.
Here's Evans' weekly analysis:
Silver deserves credit for squelching the urge to belly-up to the bar in favor of doing homework. Three weeks ago if someone approached Yahoo!'s Spicoli and inquired about Lynell Hamilton, the intrepid reporter would've likely responded, "Wasn't she the shredded chick from the Terminator movies?" Apparently, however, his inner fantasy nerd has officially been unleashed.
My esteemed colleague is correct in his assertion Hamilton could be waiver wire gold this week for the virtual masses. But, unfortunately, Pierre Thomas(notes) is hungry, mostly healthy and determined to rightfully regain his position as the Saints' true fantasy force. If the PT Cruiser is unable to suit up, Silver's stab-in-the-dark could scare the bejesus out of the Bills. No pack of odiferous bison can stop aerial god Drew Brees. Any back who totes the rock for the Saints will be productive – period.
However, Silver's optimism for the pair of Bengals is misguided. Maybe it's the Skyline Chili talking. Maybe it's lunacy. Maybe he's completely clueless. Whatever the reason, Trent Edwards, who could flirt with his first 300-yard game of his career playing from behind against New Orleans, and Banana Hands Braylon, who faces a Ravens defense that has surrendered the most 20-yard pass plays this season, are wiser options over Palmer and Henry. Remember, Cincy's clubhouse leader in arrests is one pregame Tase away from an uneventful fantasy day.
As for Malibu, his matchup against the very classy Cleveland Steamers is a daunting task. Schaub, Colston and Clark will likely pummel his team of UFL-bound misfits. Though, credit again to the Silver Surfer, demoting Berrian (vs. SF) for Garcon (at Ari) is a sage move. No WR has surpassed 75 yards against the Niners this year. And they've faced Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes) and Nate Burleson(notes).
Finally, in regards to the Paddington Oski the Bear smack-talk: Silver, Rex Ryan called and although the heavy breathing was unsettling, he informed the Noise your mantasy, Chris Johnson, will be served to Bart Scott(notes) backside up. Bon appetite!
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
After absorbing another zesty zinger from my latest stalker, "Bachelor" creator/San Diego Union Tribune blogger/Charger groupie Mike Fleiss, I saw the man in the flesh at Qualcomm Stadium last Sunday, looking dapper in his team-issued white polo with the Bolt logo on the breast. (Apparently, Fleiss saw me, too, and thought I looked kinda "Fly". A few seconds later I did a double-take: Last Sunday was the night of the Emmys, and surely a man of Fleiss' stature would be a couple of hours up I-5 at the Nokia Theater, right? Wait, what's that I'm hearing in my earpiece. … He wasn't nominated? Again? Ah, that explains it…
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Patrick Swayze, who died last week after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Obituaries referred to his work in "Dirty Dancing" and "Ghost," but to me he'll always be the radical ex-President of "Point Break" majesty. Vaya con Dios, Bodhi.
DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR
Good times in the Lair: Jahvid Best scored five touchdowns to lead Cal to a 35-21 victory at Minnesota last Saturday; both soccer teams are in the top 10; and former Golden Bears Natalie Coughlin and Alec Mazo did the Salsa on Dancing With the Stars Tuesday night and made it through to the next round (don't forget to vote). All of Berkeley will be dancing if and when Cal ever ends its Rose Bowl drought, and after a 3-0 preseason, it's time for the sixth-ranked Bears to get serious about winning their first Pac-10 title in 51 years. On Saturday Jeff Tedford takes his team into Autzen Stadium for a showdown with the Oregon Ducks, and sophomore kicker David Seawright is one of many feeling the heat. But, as the budding scribe insists, it's a good heat …
The pressure is on now.
As we prepare to kick off our conference schedule this week, we find ourselves amidst soaring expectations, expanded media coverage – from people who, by the way, are finally starting to figure out how good Jahvid Best really is – and the truth that wins only last until Saturday night, and rankings survive only a week.
The public scrutiny occurs most prominently upon our time in the spotlight, which largely means Saturday afternoons. The pressures of a college football season, however, extend well beyond scheduled broadcast hours.
To understand the challenge of a college football season, aside from the physical toll taken by the body and the immense time commitment, one must also consider the arduous academic schedule required of athletes.
At this point in the semester, required readings have piled up, papers perpetuate daily stresses (although my latest was a critical analysis on Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," so who am I to complain?), and midterms loom dangerously before us.
To be blunt, a prospect cannot choose Cal just to play football. Athletes commit to Cal because of the opportunity to attend the world's greatest public university while upholding the standing tradition of six straight bowl appearances.
To select the country's greatest combination of academics and football requires a special mindset focused on excelling in all facets of life.
While some may consider my 18-unit course load this fall to be overzealous while writing regularly for the nation's best student newspaper – not to mention my weekly ramblings here – to do any less would require me to neglect the opportunities I have been given.
So, when you see the sixth-ranked Golden Bears take the field in Eugene, Ore. this week, try to appreciate for at least a moment the steps taken just to be there.
Since I have my goals set on a career where all-nighters are as frequent as catfights between SEC coaches, I simply see it as career preparation.
What I mean by the pressure being on, then, is that it is time to have some fun.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Less than two years into this whole Reading Football Club adoptive-team-thing, I'm starting to wonder if I have some masochistic tendencies. With eight games of the Football League Championship season in the books, the Royals, who were a plucky English Premier League side when I first encountered them, are in 21st place, only a point above the relegation line. I don't even understand what getting knocked down to League One would mean, so I'm going to stay positive and wait for the turnaround, hopefully beginning with Saturday's home test against Watford and Tuesday's game at Preston. I certainly hope Reading plays more like it did in the first half of last Saturday's game against Peterborough United at London Road – the Royals took a 2-0 lead on goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson and Simon Church and could have gotten more – than after intermission, when the Posh stormed back to steal a 3-2 victory, the winner coming just after the start of injury time on a deft George Boyd finish.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
It's tough to be a Lions fan these days: Detroit is coming off its 19th consecutive defeat, tied for the second-longest losing streak in NFL history, and its heroic effort to avoid Bummer No. 20 (against the Redskins at Ford Field Sunday) won't be televised locally because – get this – as of Wednesday more than 10,000 seats remained unsold. What can all these non-ticket-buyers possibly be thinking? Probably something along these lines – to the tune of Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen":
Way back when
In late '07
We won a dandy
Got praise from our coach
Now he's in Chi-town
Where the hell are we?
No we can't stop nobody
No we can't score at all
Please cover your eyes
When we take the field
Now we got pimpin' new unis
We still can't score at all
Please pour me a shot
While we slide on down
Skate a little lower now …
The Honolulu blue
Make tonight a bearable thing
Say it again …
The Honolulu blue
Make tonight a bearable thing
The Honolulu blue
Make tonight a bearable thing
No we can't stop nobody
No we can't score at all …
- Mike Singletary
- Michael Silver