Playoff berth may not be enough for Singletary

Give excitable San Francisco 49ers president Jed York credit for being supportive of his team in the face of its 0-5 start.

Niners are starting to lose patience.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

York made news Sunday when he declared that the 49ers will still win the NFC West. Good luck with that.

However, if the 49ers should pull off a miracle comeback this season, it probably won’t save coach Mike Singletary’s job. According to a team source, Singletary will need to do some extraordinary things over the final 11 games to have any hope of coming back as coach. That extraordinary thing would be something like winning all of the remaining games and even a playoff contest or two.

While York also said this weekend that he’s “absolutely” staying with Singletary for the remainder of the year, the decision to stand pat is partly based on the belief that there’s no one on staff that the organization feels it can entrust with the job.

When Singletary took over as head coach of San Francisco in the midst of the 2008 season, much was made of his disciplined, take-no-prisoners attitude. People loved it, but there was one problem behind it all: Singletary doesn’t understand the X’s and O’s that go with the game of football. As several coaches have said over the weeks, when a coach doesn’t know the functional part of the game, he walks a dangerous line with players.

“Players only trust you if they think you can help them get better,” Atlanta head coach Mike Smith(notes) said, speaking generally and not specifically about Singletary. “If you can’t help them, they tune you out and you can’t get them back.”

As for Singletary, it may come as a bit of a shock considering he’s a Hall of Fame player, but it’s true. If you talk to enough people who have worked with Singletary over the years, they consistently say Singletary knows how to handle people with problems. However, he doesn’t know how to fix problems that occur on the field. The example with former offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was typical.

Raye is a brilliant NFL strategist, which is why he was hired to be an offensive coordinator seven times. But in the moment of battle, Raye is often too disorganized and slow to react, causing problems in the rush of an NFL game. That’s why Raye was fired seven times and never became a head coach.

Singletary didn’t conceptualize the problem until it was too late because he didn’t understand the dynamics of how the plays have to get relayed from the coach’s booth to the field.


By the numbers

One of the more intriguing statistics to pay attention to as the season progresses is the differential of how many yards a team gets per play offensively versus how much it allows per play defensively. It’s commonly known as “per play differential” and is often used by handicappers to determine lines for games. Five weeks of the NFL season isn’t the greatest sample to work with, but it’s something to examine.

Any team that averages at least a half yard more than its opponents is generally on the way to a terrific season. Conversely, allowing at least a half yard more per play is a serious sign of trouble. Of course, not everything is assured. For instance, the San Diego Chargers currently have a staggering 2.4 yards-per-play advantage against opponents, the best margin in the league. So how is that San Diego is 2-3? The answer is that the Chargers special teams have been god awful, allowing three touchdown returns and two blocked punts – one for a safety and one for a touchdown. That’s a total of 30 points in those three losses. The Chargers easily could have turned around two of those losses, if not all three.

Here’s a look the six teams averaging at least half a yard more than their opponents through five weeks:

Team Off. ypp Def. ypp Differential
Chargers 6.8 4.4 +2.4
Giants 5.8 4.1 +1.7
Eagles 5.8 4.9 +0.9
Packers 5.9 5.0 +0.9
Steelers 5.1 4.5 +0.6
Cowboys 6.2 5.6 +0.5

Of those teams, all but two have winning records. As mentioned, San Diego could easily have a winning record if not for special teams. As for Dallas, the Cowboys are an extraordinarily talented team that has obviously underperformed. Interestingly, the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets are not in this group. While teams struggle to move the ball against these defenses, both teams have had their own offensive issues at times this season.

By contrast, here’s a look at the nine teams allowing half a yard more per play:

Team Off. ypp Def. ypp Differential
Falcons 5.0 5.5 -0.5
Panthers 4.0 4.6 -0.6
Browns 5.0 5.6 -0.6
Lions 5.0 5.8 -0.8
Raiders 5.0 5.8 -0.8
Rams 4.5 5.4 -0.9
Bills 4.8 5.8 -1.0
Cardinals 4.4 5.4 -1.0
Jaguars 5.0 6.5 -1.5

Of those nine, three have winning records. Atlanta is 4-1 and both Arizona and Jacksonville are 3-2. Atlanta is coming off two unimpressive wins over San Francisco and Cleveland. Both Arizona and Jacksonville have been blown out badly in their losses, which contributes heavily to their negative differential.

Giving Belichick benefit of the doubt

Having heard from a number of fans who hate the New England Patriots’ decision to trade wide receiver Randy Moss(notes), let me just say this: It’s one thing to dislike a trade. It’s another to completely lose perspective. For instance, here’s an email from one reader in response to my column explaining why coach Bill Belichick made this move:

Moss had 4 catches for 81 yards with a TD in his return to the Vikes.
(Alan Maglaque/US Presswire)

“Yeah but what’s [Belichick] done since 2004,” the reader wrote. “He had some great defensive players back then. He does not have them now. His defense is a work in progress. The offense has to take up the slack. No Randy Moss means that DBs are gonna double down on Wes Welker(notes). This move does not make the Pats stronger this year is my point. They will be weaker. Plus they already lost [Kevin] Faulk. They were a solid wild card with a slim chance at going to the SB. Now without Moss they may miss the playoffs. They have to compete with Houston, Miami, Cincinnati and possibly Pittsburgh for these wild cards. The AFC will leave some quality teams sitting at home during the playoffs. If he wants to win in the future then the move may make some sense. But if he has any intentions of winning now it’s a stupid move. Not his first stupid move. Last year he trades [Richard] Seymour … before Week 1 and they never recovered. Then he goes for it on 4th and 2 from his own 28 with a minute and something left [against the Colts]. You punt to win the game ought to be written across his forehead. So yeah he has won three Super Bowls but don’t put him up there with [Chuck] Noll and [Bill] Walsh because they did not do some of these goofball antics.”

OK, let’s look at what Belichick has done since the Patriots won their last Super Bowl in 2004:

In 2005, the Pats went 10-6 and made the second round of the playoffs.

In 2006, New England went 12-4, got to the AFC championship game and within a big comeback by Indy of winning and going to the Super Bowl against Chicago.

In 2007, the Pats went 18-1 and got within a miracle catch of winning a fourth Super Bowl and becoming the second team ever to go undefeated. And the Pats did that in the aftermath of the “Spygate” scandal, for all of you who like to bring that up.

In 2008, he led the team to an 11-5 record with quarterback Matt Cassel(notes), a guy who hadn’t started a game since high school and is not exactly looking like a world beater right now.

In 2009, they made the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

Overall, Belichick and the Patriots have compiled a 59-21 record in the regular season and a 5-4 record in the postseason over the past five years. Of the other 31 teams in the NFL, only Pittsburgh, the Giants, New Orleans and Indianapolis have done better because each won a Super Bowl (or two, in Pittsburgh’s case).

That means there are 27 other teams that would gladly take what Belichick and the Patriots have done over that stretch. In other words, it’s OK to be frustrated by the Moss deal, but keep it in perspective.

Top five
1. Baltimore Ravens (4-1):
They rushed for 233 yards and gave up 39 on the ground against Denver. That’s impressive.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1): If Ben Roethlisberger(notes) is really as good as he said he feels after four weeks of training with George Whitfield Jr., the Steelers will “rake” some wins.
3. New York Jets (4-1): If you took the top three teams in this ranking and locked them in a cage, how many players would survive?
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-1): A win is a win, but the last two over San Francisco and Cleveland have not been exactly artistic.
5. Indianapolis Colts (3-2): There are still some holes in that run defense that need to be fixed, but there’s no denying that the Colts are one of the league’s best.

Bottom five
28. Detroit Lions (1-4):
The thrashing of St. Louis was so thorough that I almost moved the Lions out of the bottom five, but not yet.
29. Cleveland Browns (1-4): Sorry to the one Browns fan who was hoping to stay out of the bottom five, but losing all your QBs hurts.
30. San Francisco 49ers (0-5): Five turnovers and this team still only loses by a field goal? Wow, that’s as brutal as it gets.
31. Carolina Panthers (0-5): The Panthers allowed 51 yards passing and came up with four interceptions … and lost by 17 points.
32. Buffalo Bills (0-5): Things are so bad in northwest New York that the city could be renamed Desolation Row pretty soon.

This and that

Two important things about Arizona’s victory over New Orleans on Sunday: It kept the NFC West from being the only division without a team with a winning record, and it likely means that the Cardinals will be able to win that division with a winning record. Prior to Sunday, there was real concern that the winner of the NFC West might finish at 7-9. With the 49ers imploding, the division is way worse than anyone imagined. The four teams are a combined 1-9 on the road, and that one win was Arizona at St. Louis.

This is where you really have to wonder about Minnesota coach Brad Childress. Down by eight points in the fourth quarter, the Vikings scored to get within 15-13 with 12:47 remaining. Generally, this is an automatic situation where teams are supposed to go for two points, which is what Childress initially tried to do. But then he changed his mind to go for one, spent a timeout to talk about it and then went for two (and failing to get it). The problem here is the indecision. Childress should have known well in advance what he wanted to do and shouldn’t have had to waste a timeout. Then again, the Jets botched the clock management before the two-minute warning, essentially giving back the timeout.

Just a week after San Francisco cornerback Nate Clements(notes) fumbled after an interception and gave Atlanta a chance to come back against the 49ers, Arizona cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) intercepted a pass in the closing seconds against New Orleans and proceeded to run. Rodgers-Cromartie scored a touchdown, but that doesn’t justify his decision.