49ers need steady leadership, not panic

Mike Singletary has his work cut out for him if he hopes to turn things around in San Francisco. Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

These need not be the end days for Mike Singletary's tenure as San Francisco 49ers head coach.

Three defeats to open a season should not shatter dreams, particularly when one of those defeats, against New Orleans, featured obvious silver linings.

The 49ers are 0-3 heading into a difficult road game against the Atlanta Falcons. Big deal. It's a long season. The 49ers' division rivals aren't likely to build an insurmountable lead. San Francisco started the NFL's youngest offense in Week 1 and the team has fallen flat at Qwest Field and Arrowhead Stadium, two of the toughest venues for visitors when the home teams are playing well.

Now is the time for steady leadership, not panic.

I know this. Singletary surely knows this. It's fair to wonder whether Singletary can effectively communicate this to his team.

So far this season, Singletary has called an emergency team meeting after the first game, gotten baited into talking smack about New Orleans, claimed his team has turned a corner and fired his offensive coordinator less than 24 hours after saying Jimmy Raye would keep his job all season.

No wonder the 49ers appear so uptight.

It's not all Singletary's fault, of course. Team president Jed York put pressure on Singletary from the beginning by guaranteeing a playoff appearance last season. York didn't need to repeat himself heading into 2010. The team had to produce in an NFC West without Kurt Warner. That was a given.

York hired Singletary under the mistaken belief that the 49ers needed more "passion and intensity" to win games. He thought the 49ers were getting "out-intensitied" by their opponents.

"I'm very excited to see what Mike can do, and bring out the passion and the intensity in our football players," York said at the time.

Artificial intensity is like caffeine. It produces unsustainable highs, followed by inevitable crashes. Singletary's intensity is real. It's just not enough by itself to sustain 53 players.

Besides, a lack of intensity is the least of the 49ers' problems right now. If an intensity shortage ever existed, it was a symptom, not the disease. The team arguably needs less intensity from its head coach right now. It needs Singletary to demonstrate command of himself and the situation. It needs to know everything will be fine if the players do their jobs. Intensity will be there when a team knows its coach has real solutions for real problems. If Raye's leadership of the offense had run its course, perhaps a change to former quarterbacks coach Michael Johnson will make a real difference.

One victory Sunday changes everything, so it's premature to write off Singletary or say his leadership style cannot work. But there's also no way a reasonable person can ignore the cracks as they form in the 49ers' foundation. If the team does implode, forensic analysts will not be short for evidence.

Singletary faced special challenges from the beginning because he lacked administrative experience -- he had never been a coordinator -- and he had been a position coach for only five seasons. He would rely disproportionately on the coordinators he hired because Singletary was in no position to take over play calling, particularly on offense.

Singletary's short apprenticeship meant he had fewer connections to assistants throughout the league. That made it tougher for him to make the most important hire a defensive-minded head coach can make: that of his offensive coordinator.

Raye was well down the list of candidates to interview for the position (Scott Linehan declined the job). The team hired Johnson as quarterbacks coach separately. That meant Raye inherited his offensive staff. This was a forced marriage between Raye, Johnson and the coaches already there. A forced marriage is not necessarily an untenable one, but there could be no built-in loyalty to Raye.

Singletary walked into a similar situation. He inherited the staff from former coach Mike Nolan.

When Singletary lamented the presence of a "rat" following publication of an unflattering story built upon unnamed sources, the forced marriage between Singletary and his assistant coaches came to my mind immediately. That doesn't mean the story came from an assistant coach. But it was a fair assumption to make under the circumstances. It would not have been the first time.

Others on the staff Singletary inherited surely had their own opinions about whether Singletary should have become interim coach following Nolan's firing and coach in full after the 2008 season. Some surely had their own ambitions. When Singletary famously dropped his pants for effect during halftime of his first game as interim coach, the embarrassing story got out quickly. When the 49ers signed receiver Brandon Jones, Singletary had to read about how the move went over poorly with some staffers.

Singletary's run as head coach has also featured Scot McCloughan's abrupt departure as general manager, the sudden retirement of backup running back Glen Coffee and the uncomfortable departure of 2008 first-round choice Kentwan Balmer. I think it's a stretch to weave those items into the meaningful paragraphs of a circumstantial accounting of any current or future 49ers' implosion, but they're convenient.

The 49ers still can salvage this season. Eight victories might win the NFC West.

Eight teams finished last season 8-8 or better after enduring losing streaks of at least three games. Tennessee went from 0-6 to 8-8. Carolina went from 0-3 to 8-8.

The Titans had Jeff Fisher on the sideline. The Panthers had John Fox.

The 49ers have Singletary. They weathered a four-game losing streak last season and still made it to .500.

The current 49ers have played two tougher-than-anticipated road games and a home game against the defending Super Bowl champions. They probably would be 2-1 at this point if they had played the Arizona Cardinals' schedule (at St. Louis, at Atlanta, home for Oakland).

This is the time for patience, perspective and true leadership.

Is Singletary up for the challenge?