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SAN FRANCISCO – Mike Singletary was so angry, he simply couldn't contain himself. Eyes bugging out the way they did when the Hall of Fame middle linebacker prepared to knock heads back in the day, Singletary began the first postgame speech of his head coaching career before all of his players had reached the locker room.
Some members of the San Francisco 49ers were still trudging down the tunnel underneath the Candlestick Park stands, processing a 34-13 humiliation at the hands of the hapless Seattle Seahawks, when they heard Singletary's loud and charged address to the team emanating from the locker room walls.
Once they entered, the latecomers froze and tried to blend into the background.
"There are some people in this room that don't need to be here," Singletary said pointedly. "We've got guys in here that are cancers. The thing about cancer cells is, they multiply. We've got to cut them out."
If there was any doubt as to whether Singletary's style would differ sharply from that of his mentor, friend and predecessor, Mike Nolan, it was dispelled on an emotional afternoon in which the Niners dressed in their resplendent throwback uniforms and were dressed down by their irate interim coach.
Most of San Francisco's players had long ago tuned out Nolan, one of the reasons the fourth-year coach was dumped last Monday. Singletary didn't give them an option.
"It was pretty heated in here," one veteran said. "What he said was true, and it wasn't subtle. He was very clear: We'll do it his way, or else."
Singletary had a long head-coaching debut.
(Getty Images/Jeff Gross)
Singletary had every right to be mad about the way the 49ers played, an embarrassing effort that included a crippling interception for a touchdown late in the first half that led to quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan's benching. Defensively, the 49ers managed to turn 242-pound Seahawks fullback Leonard Weaver, at least for a day, into a bigger fantasy football star than LaDainian Tomlinson. Twice L-Dub took a short pass from backup quarterback Seneca Wallace and ran like the Candlestick Point wind, producing second-half touchdowns of 43 and 62 yards and a laugher of a victory for a struggling Seattle team (2-5) that lost to the Niners (2-6) six weeks earlier.
What set him Singletary off even more – and this was something he made clear in a rather extraordinary press conference following his locker-room talk – was the blatant disrespect he encountered from third-year tight end Vernon Davis, the sixth overall pick of the 2006 NFL draft.
Late in the third quarter, with the Niners trailing 27-6, Davis caught a sideline pass from quarterback Shaun Hill at the Seahawks' 42-yard line and was driven out of bounds by safety Brian Russell, who talked a little trash in the process.
Davis stuck his right hand under Russell's chin and gave it a push upward, drawing a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. He came off the field acting like nothing had happened, and Singletary began to deliver a stern lecture.
"You don't need to be sayin' nothin' to me right now," Davis barked at the coach, according to witnesses. Singletary ordered Davis to take a seat on the bench, and shortly thereafter the coach approached and stressed the importance of avoiding stupid penalties.
"I said I don't need to hear it," Davis snapped, cutting him off.
Singletary told Davis to go take a shower, and as the Niners were driving for their first and only touchdown of the game, the tight end was waving his helmet at what was left of the announced crowd of 67,504 and heading through the tunnel.
Upon reaching the locker room, Davis took his helmet and threw it violently against a wall, according to one eyewitness.
Meanwhile, on the 49ers' sidelines, most of Davis' teammates were quietly singing the praises of 'Coach Sing.' "
Explained one veteran defender: "Vernon does this crap all the time, and Nolan would always let it go. He created this monster. The good news is that Coach Sing wasn't having that."
Added another veteran defender: "No one's bigger than the team, right? We were all happy to see that this (expletive) won't be tolerated."
Other than perhaps the candor with which Singletary laid out his displeasure upon meeting the media, none of this was surprising. Because of Singletary's Hall of Fame credentials and the way he carries himself, he is taken seriously by members of the organization. That credibility, and the potential for motivation that comes with it, is the primary reason general manager Scot McCloughan decided to elevate Singletary, rather than offensive coordinator Mike Martz (who coached the Rams to the Super Bowl seven years ago), as Nolan's interim replacement.
Conversely, Nolan's lack of locker-room cred had a lot to do with his awkwardly timed departure last Monday evening. To his credit, McCloughan had heavily foreshadowed the move in a long conversation between him and Nolan on the Niners' flight home from Newark, N.J., following a defeat to the Giants.
Nolan, several Niners players say, lost the team last season, which began with high expectations following a 7-9 campaign in '06. Midway through a year in which San Francisco would lose eight consecutive games and finish 5-11, Nolan gave a speech to the team on the Monday after a defeat in which he announced an end to his lenient ways. It soon became known derisively in the locker room as the "Warm and Fuzzy" speech.
"He got up there and said, 'I'm done with the warm and fuzzies,' " recalled one player who witnessed the talk. "He said, 'I've made it too warm and fuzzy around here for too long. No more (expletive) warm and fuzzy.' It was comical. He was up there ranting and raving and clearly trying to be something he wasn't."
Added another Niners player: "It was a total front. I had a comeback waiting for him if he ever said it again: 'It's real warm and fuzzy on the sidelines, (expletive).' "
After last season, owners John and Denise DeBartolo York promoted McCloughan from vice president of player personnel to general manager with the intention of firing Nolan, sources close to the situation said. McCloughan's first act as GM was to talk his bosses out of making a coaching change, persuading them that the team had enough talent to make a playoff run in '08 and that Nolan gave them the best chance to pull it off.
Though he was now Nolan's superior, McCloughan went out of his way not to appear overbearing, even removing his tie for the press conference announcing the revised power structure when he saw that the coach wasn't wearing one. But Nolan, whose penchant for reminding players of his authority had become a running joke in the locker room, insisted at the press conference that "I will remain the one voice in this organization, and the face. I don't believe it will change at all." McCloughan chafed privately; the new GM also refrained from overruling Nolan when the coach hired Martz to run the team's offense, which soon created additional internal tension.
With Martz orchestrating what amounted to a fixed quarterback competition that predictably swung in favor of O'Sullivan, a journeyman whose stint as a backup with the Detroit Lions made him the only candidate familiar with Martz's system, Nolan appeared indecisive and disingenuous in his public comments. Hill, another career backup who signed a two-year contract with the team after performing well in the final two games of last season, was held out of training camp practices with what Nolan and Martz claimed was a tired arm; sources close to Hill say the assertion was totally fictional.
Not known for his people skills, Martz baffled his players after their 33-30 comeback victory over the Seahawks last month when, at a team meeting the following day, he told them, "You shouldn't be satisfied, because it's not just about winning. It's about trying to be the best offense in the league … the best offense in history."
O'Sullivan (center) and Davis (left) had their days come to an early end.
(Getty Images/Jeff Gross)
Greatly hampering Martz's grand plans were O'Sullivan's penchant for taking sacks and coughing up the football. His 11 fumbles this season are more than any NFL player, and he began Sunday's game as though he were literally trying to hand it to the Seahawks: On the second play from scrimmage, O'Sullivan tried to scramble and had the ball knocked out from behind him by defensive end Patrick Kerney. Defensive end Darryl Tapp had a line on the ball and could have fallen on it, but he tried to pick it up in stride and kicked it all the way to the 49ers' 5-yard line, where San Francisco center Eric Heitman recovered it.
After the Seahawks went up 3-0 on an Olindo Mare field goal, O'Sullivan drove the Niners to the Seattle 6. But on second-and-5 the quarterback rolled out after a play-fake and fumbled after being hit by former 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson. Kerney picked up the ball and returned it 50 yards, setting up another Mare field goal.
It was 13-3 Seattle with 44 seconds left in the first half when, facing a fourth-and-4 from the Seattle 29, Singletary blew off a field-goal attempt and entrusted O'Sullivan to make a throw. Looking for wideout Arnaz Battle in the flat, O'Sullivan served up a tasty offering that cornerback Josh Wilson intercepted in stride, racing 75 yards for a door-slamming touchdown.
At that point, Singletary told Martz he was benching O'Sullivan, a move likely to carry over to the 49ers' next game (they play the Cardinals in Arizona following a bye week) given Hill's reasonably proficient effort in the second half.
Despite Sunday's brutality, the 49ers players believe there is cause for optimism. With Nolan's departure, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will have greater freedom to run a scheme similar to the one he coached under then-Chargers coordinator Wade Phillips in 2006; on Sunday the 49ers confused the Seahawks at times by employing defensive end Justin Smith as a de facto outside linebacker in a hybrid scheme with 3-4 sensibilities. They also believe Singletary may implore the pass-happy Martz to make halfback Frank Gore and a physical running attack the focal point of the offense, though many are skeptical that it will actually happen.
If nothing else, after Sunday, the 49ers know they have a coach who's willing to wield his authority – interim or otherwise – in a very forceful, sincere and conspicuous manner. Whereas Nolan annoyed them by talking about how powerful he was, Singletary seems intent on prodding them into doing things his way.
If not, as the Niners now know, there's a warm shower and a harsh locker-room speech waiting for them.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Last year in London, as I watched an insufferably monotonous game in a steady rainstorm between the Giants and Dolphins, I felt almost embarrassed to be an NFL columnist on hallowed turf. How could I somehow convince the fans at Wembley Stadium that American football had the potential to thrill? When I heard the Saints and Chargers would be the teams competing at Wembley in '08, I figured there was hope – and though I didn't attend Sunday's game, it certainly justified that assumption. With 69 total points and Drew Brees and Philip Rivers combining for 680 passing yards, this was a quality export (though I wonder how many English observers were confounded by that intentional safety Brees took in the final seconds, throwing the ball out of the back of the end zone after Chargers defenders closed in). Though Rivers continues to validate the faith Chargers general manager A.J. Smith displayed when he chose the '04 first-round pick over Brees as San Diego's long-term starter after the '05 season, Sunday's triumph was Brees' way of saying to his former boss, “How you like me now?” Afterward, Brees told reporters, “This game was not about me proving a point or proving anybody wrong or saying they shouldn't have let me go.” Sure, dude. I totally believe you. It's true that the Saints (4-4) needed this game more than the Chargers (3-5); whereas New Orleans remains two games behind Carolina and also trails Tampa Bay and Atlanta in the NFC South, second-place San Diego is just a game-and-a-half behind AFC West-leading Denver, and the Broncos are banged up and struggling. So, was I bummed that I missed the party? Not really, for a number of reasons, some of them having to do with youth soccer (surprise, surprise) and one that has to do with grownup footie: Whereas last year I saw a quality match that led me to adopt Reading as my favorite side, I'd surely have gone back to Madejski Stadium Saturday to watch the Royals (now in the Football League Championship division) battle Queens Park Rangers to a 0-0 tie. Yecch.
• It's worth noting that last year at this time, as they slogged through the Wembley slop, the Giants weren't seriously considered to be a championship contender. So much has changed in a year, and this was evident in the way the organization approached Sunday's showdown with the Steelers at Heinz Field. Having already suspended wideout Plaxico Burress for a game earlier this season because he failed to show up for a team meeting, part of what reportedly was a protracted pattern of unreliability, team big-wigs were upset that Burress skipped several days of treatment for a neck injury last week. So they decided to bench him for more than a quarter of Sunday's battle between 5-1 teams. That must have stung Burress, a former Pittsburgh standout, and it certainly decreased the Giants' prospects of winning. But general manager Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin were secure enough to act on principle; having a championship ring on your finger will empower you that way. They got away with it, too, as the Giants pulled out a 21-14 victory and Burress made a key catch on the winning touchdown drive. At 6-1, New York has the NFL's second-best record, behind Tennessee, and has a scarily potent pass rush despite the absence of Michael Strahan (retired) and Osi Umenyiora (out for the season). They'll contend again come January, with or without Burress, and the Steelers are likely to be in a similar position.
• The next time I essentially write off the Patriots – even with Tom Brady out for the year and an embarrassing performance fresh on our minds – could someone please remind me not to act so hastily? Two weeks ago, after watching the Chargers take New England apart on Sunday Night Football, I concluded that San Diego had rejoined the ranks of the NFL's elite teams and the Pats were downward spiraling. Oops. Since then the Chargers have bombed in Buffalo and London while the Pats have taken apart the Broncos and, on Sunday, pulled out a tough 23-16 victory over the revived Rams. I know Bill Belichick is hard to please, but I'm guessing he'll be reasonably happy about this stat: zero penalties. And I don't care how many New England running backs get hurt as long as sneaky-good veteran Kevin Faulk stays upright. On Sunday Faulk had 107 combined rushing/receiving yards, scoring the winning touchdown on a terrific 15-yard reception in the fourth quarter. I still like the Bills to win the AFC East, as I did before the season, but it's good to see that the Pats will battle. Now, will those of you who contend that Belichick's success is solely the product of a) illicit videotaping or b) Brady please concede that the man can coach a little?
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Arizona still leads everyone in the NFC West by at least two games, but if the Cardinals are ever going to be regarded as a legitimate contender, they'll need to show they can beat a good team on the road. For awhile it looked like Sunday would be that day: Visiting Arizona took a 17-3 lead over the Panthers in the third quarter and later went up 23-17 on Kurt Warner's second touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin. Then it got ugly: The Cards missed an extra point on Dirk Johnson's botched hold and gave up a 65-yard touchdown pass from Jake Delhomme to Steve Smith that included a pair of missed tackles. Then Warner threw an interception that set up John Kasay's 50-yard field goal to put Carolina up 27-23. Arizona still had a chance to pull off a comeback late, but the Panthers ran out the final 5:57, getting one first down on a pretty 17-yard Delhomme pass to formerly flailing wideout Dwayne Jarrett and clinching the game when DeAngelo Williams ran 15 yards on a third-and-13 draw with 1:51 remaining. Good teams don't let that happen. The Cardinals are almost there, but not yet. This was a squandered opportunity, and like one Arizonan I can think of, they should be very angry.
• The good news in Buffalo: The Bills reportedly rewarded underrated coach Dick Jauron with a three-year extension. The bad news: The economy sucks, it's getting cold… and, oh yeah, the Bills (5-2) followed last Sunday's statement victory over San Diego with a disheartening, 25-16 defeat to the Dolphins in Miami. The strange thing was the way Buffalo lost: Four fourth-quarter mistakes (three turnovers and a safety) for a team whose season has been marked by clutch, unflinching play when it counts most. I have a feeling this was nothing more than an aberration, just as the skeptic in me believes the emergence of Ted Ginn Jr. as a big-time receiver may also be short-lived. To a certain former Dolphins coach, however, the highlight package must have made it seem as though Ginn's entire family "was out there shredding the Bills' secondary.
• Until Sunday, those of us who believed in our hearts that the Jaguars are among the NFL's elite could rationalize their 3-3 start accordingly: They lost to the Titans, Bills and Steelers, good teams all, and had shown their heart in pulling out narrow victories over the Colts, Texans and Broncos. But losing at home to Cleveland, coming off a bye? A really good team wouldn't do that, not when it's three games behind in its division coming in and already in danger of slipping out of the AFC playoff picture. Jacksonville is a well-coached team with a lot of good players, including a quality quarterback and two special running backs, but I can't pretend any longer that the Jags don't have issues, including the substandard play of the offensive and defensive lines. If they can get it together over the next two weeks and win road games against the league's remaining winless teams, the Bengals and Lions, the Jags will be 5-4 when the Titans come to town for a rematch of the season opener. If Jacksonville wins that game, I'll once again believe.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How, back in the ‘70s, my pre-adolescent friends and I could roll into a Safeway at 4 p.m. on Halloween and buy several cartons of eggs and shaving-cream dispensers apiece without getting the cops called on us (or at least getting hassled by store employees).
2. That Mike Nolan – or whoever wrote his farewell statement after he was fired as 49ers coach – managed to include a grammatical atrocity in the brief text. Nolan's statement included these two sentences: "It is the responsibility of the head coach to build a foundation and an environment for success. In many areas we were, although it is winning that ultimately determines success." In many ways we were success? That's what Nolan indicated, though he obviously meant "were a success" or "were successful." All of this makes me wonder: Is Nolan secretly one of my Trippin' On E(Mail) regulars? One person who probably isn't: Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who last week said of Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, "I'm pretty sure there's not a better corner in the NFL than he." That sound you hear in the background is my grammar-cop father applauding.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
In March 2007, shortly after Joey Porter signed a five-year, $32-million contract with the Miami Dolphins, I wrote a column insisting the Steelers would deeply regret having let him go by the end of that season. In response I got scores of emails from Pittsburgh fans telling me that I was a) crazy; b) high; c) idiotic; or d) all of the above. When Porter struggled with injuries and tried to adjust to a new scheme as the Dolphins wheezed to a 1-15 season, I received my share of follow-up emails which said, in essence, I told you so. It turns out I was merely a year off – or half a season, to be exact. Seven games into his second season in Miami, J-Peezy is pretty damned far from MIA. With two sacks in Sunday's upset of the Bills (including a forced fumble that produced a pivotal fourth-quarter safety), he now leads the league with 10½ tying the career high he set in 2000 and 2005. Scarily Porter, 31, is on pace to finish with 24, which would break Michael Strahan's single-season record. I'm not saying that will happen, and I know sacks aren't everything, but at this point I'd like to say something to all of you Steelers fans who told me he was washed up: I was right and you were wrong. Having spent a lot of time with Porter over the years, I've come to understand how ridiculously prideful this man is, and it's heartening to know that my faith was justified. Granted, the Steelers have done a great job of replacing him, as James Harrison is a stud outside linebacker in his own right. Something tells me, though, that Porter would have been a more reliable emergency long snapper than his successor was Sunday at Heinz Field.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"That was a big one. Their defense is tough as nails"
Text Sunday night from Giants center Shaun O'Hara after several hours of trench warfare in Pittsburgh
Text from Brenda Warner after watching her husband, Kurt, and the Cardinals fall to the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte
"Mike, Losing to the Giants isn't an impossible notion, but it seems you are ALWAYS picking against them! In big games, the Steelers are tough. I say Steelers 27-20 over the Giants. My question is this: How do you pick Big Ben as your league MVP and then pick against him vs the Giants weak secondary? I know the Giants have a great rush, but Pitt's o-line has improved dramatically over the last two weeks with Ben also getting rid of the ball more quickly on a consistent basis. It is Friday … still time to modify your pick!"
Email from Mark Certo of Stanhope, N.J.
"Mike, Thank you from the bottom of my heart for picking the Saints over my Chargers. The Bolts do their best when you are hatin'. All last year when you were doubting, they kept winning. They didn't lose until you got on board. Same this year. You've been picking them, and they keep losing. Please keep hatin' all through the season and into the post season."
Email from Ed of La Jolla, Calif.
"I hope to see you heading for the exits early tomorrow afternoon as your Cal Bears underestimate my UCLA Bruins. Oh yeah, way to go out on a limb and pick the Cal Bears. They were only favored by 17."
Email from Daniel of Sacramento