49ers follow Singletary's gut into oblivion

The 49ers have been known more for Mike Singletary's sideline dramatics this season than their play on the field. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

ST. LOUIS -- Coach Mike Singletary screamed at quarterback Troy Smith on the San Francisco 49ers' sideline Sunday.

Smith screamed back.

They were face to face, the drama palpable.

They could have been taping for "The Jerry Springer Show," but instead they were giving 49ers president Jed York exactly what York said he wanted: MORE INTENSITY!

Of course, the 49ers never needed steady, consistent leadership more than when their season was on the line at the Edward Jones Dome. Their 25-17 defeat to the St. Louis Rams dropped them to 5-10 and out of the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season.

The 49ers had 10 days to prepare for the Rams. Sometimes it appeared as though they had only 10 minutes.

They botched center exchanges. They committed 10 penalties (two were declined). They fouled up coverages, as when cornerback Shawntae Spencer walked away from Rams receiver Danario Alexander even though no one had touched down Alexander following what would become a 46-yard reception. The 49ers failed to get out of bounds to stop the clock in the final seconds. Fittingly, one of their final chances ended with Alex Smith taking a sack on third-and-9, unable to make a play when San Francisco needed one.

The team that hired the right head coach and drafted the right quarterback beat the team that misfired on both. And if there were any lingering questions about whether Singletary's fire and brimstone were what the 49ers needed, a single quote from the head coach should have extinguished them.

"On offense, we were a little bit flat," Singletary said.

The team with the passionate middle linebacker for a head coach came out flat.

Case closed.

"The playoffs were right there in front of us," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We didn't get it."

York told reporters after the game that the team would probably hire a general manager, initiating sweeping changes. It's obvious Singletary will not be back next season. York, who brings a fan's enthusiasm and sometimes one's judgment to the job, wouldn't even commit to Singletary for Week 17 (update: The 49ers announced Singletary's firing upon the team's return to the Bay Area, with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula taking over as interim coach for the final game).

Not that it matters. The 49ers' home game against the Arizona Cardinals affects draft order, but not much else.

"Words cannot express the disappointment that the players feel or myself or the staff," Singletary said. "Very disappointed."

Sideline shouting matches between Singletary and the 49ers' quarterback of the week -- Troy Smith this time, Alex Smith in the past -- have become must-see TV for fans of the NFL and metaphorical train wrecks. They have also come to symbolize the organizational drama and dysfunction that prevented the most talented team in the NFC West from winning what might be the most winnable division in NFL history.

Singletary always had the right intentions. He too often lacked the right answers. And he certainly didn't know how to handle quarterbacks, although at least he was forthright with them, a departure from the backbiting ways of predecessor Mike Nolan.

"I don't really know about coaching etiquette," Singletary said. "I am sure there is a right way and a wrong way and in today's life, there are many different rules of being politically correct. All I know is, I was trying to win the football game. And the bottom line is, you have to do what you think is right. You have to go with your gut. And if you don't do that, then I think you regret a lot of things later on."

I watched Singletary approach both quarterbacks in the locker room after the game. He shook hands with both. There appeared to be no lingering hard feelings. Troy Smith laughed when I told him reporters promised not to yell at him during his postgame interview. To the 49ers, this sort of thing is business as usual.

"Through the course of the game, obviously, you want to win," the quarterback said. "The competitive natures definitely come out and the passion that Coach Singletary has for the game, the passion that I have for the game, combined, I'm not going to say it's going to lead to situations like that on the sideline, but, you know, you want to win. I understand where he is coming from, I do."

What were they shouting about this time?

"Who had more passion," Smith said, laughing. "I was trying to tell him I had more. No, it was definitely about the quarterback switch and I just felt at the time that I wasn't ready to come out."

Troy Smith managed to stay in the game a little longer, but he completed only 7 of 19 passes for 153 yards, one pick and a 62.0 rating before Alex Smith took over in the fourth quarter. Alex Smith led the 49ers to a 47-yard field goal.

Whether or not Singletary should have started Troy Smith or Alex Smith wasn't the overriding issue Sunday or even this season. The 49ers were outcoached, outplayed and outled this season. Drama surrounded them almost constantly. They appeared as unstable as their head coach.

Singletary called an emergency team meeting after the first game, talked smack about the defending Super Bowl champs in Week 2, fired his offensive coordinator after Week 3, feuded spectacularly with Alex Smith on the sideline in Week 5, installed Troy Smith as the starter over backup David Carr in Week 8, watched assistant head coach/secondary Johnnie Lynn resign after Week 13, reinstalled Alex Smith as the starter in Week 14, benched him after Week 15 and then shouted down Troy Smith on Sunday.

Singletary might be the only one emerging from this mess with no regrets. That's what the 49ers get for following his gut instincts.

Not that anyone should blame Singletary for giving the 49ers the intensity they wanted. He's been true to himself and his instincts every step of the way.

The truth, of course, is that following one's gut isn't always the wisest course. Coaches must rise above their base instincts. They must see the bigger picture. Specifically, they cannot engage their players in shouting matches during games. Sometimes they must compromise and adapt.

And it always helps to have the right quarterback.

The Rams' Sam Bradford completed 71 percent of his passes for 292 yards, one touchdown and a 107.0 rating against the 49ers. He completed 16 of 20 attempts in the second half alone. Along the way, Bradford moved past Peyton Manning for the most completed passes by a rookie in NFL history (335). He'll break Manning's rookie record for most attempts with 21 more against Seattle in Week 17.

For the Rams, beating the Seahawks at Qwest Field would deliver the NFC West title and a playoff berth to St. Louis after the franchise posted a 6-42 record over its previous three seasons. That's something to get fired up about, but the Rams played it cool.

The 49ers, up and down under Singletary, could learn something from the more even-keeled approach coach Steve Spagnuolo has taken with the Rams. Players tend to take their cues from their head coaches. Spagnuolo projects passion and intensity in healthier doses. He's in control.

James Laurinaitis, the Rams' second-year middle linebacker, demonstrated how it works when refusing to say the Rams had cleared a hurdle by beating the 49ers.

"I'm kind of standing along where Coach stands with the whole over-the-hump/hurdle kind of thing," he said. "We're going to try to just keep climbing a mountain, because if you get over a hump, you've got to go down the other side. ...

"Obviously, coming down to Week 17, you can't ask for anything more."