When in doubt, look to the players. The players usually know.
The coach? Well, right now, maybe the coach is on his own.
Alex Smith remains the quarterback of the winless San Francisco 49ers today for two reasons: (1) the 49ers don't have a better option, and (2) some of the team's top offensive stars made it clear the other night they had chosen Smith over Coach Mike Singletary. You doubt that? Look to the players.
It was right there on the sideline. Singletary, incensed by Smith's second-half fumble that was returned for a huge touchdown by Philadelphia in the Eagles' eventual 27-24 victory, ripped into Smith and told him that backup David Carr was replacing him. Carr, in fact, was being informed by his offensive coordinator to go into the game, which would explain why he jogged onto the field on the 49ers' next offensive possession.
Whoops. Hold that thought.
As lousy as the fumble was, as erratically as Smith has played this season, as shaky as the 49ers' once-bright future now appears, his teammates still had his back. As Smith walked away from Singletary after their meeting escalated into a low-melodrama shouting match, tight end Vernon Davis steered the sixth-year quarterback right back toward the embattled head coach.
Davis wanted Smith to go and fight for his job. Davis wanted Smith, not Carr, on the field. He was one of several 49ers offensive players who literally wanted Singletary overruled in real time, during the game.
And whatever Singletary's own motivations -- he said afterward that he was challenging Smith to see how he would respond -- it was pure, enlightened self-interest that prompted his top receiver's actions.
"I wanted Alex to stay in the game because I believe in Alex," Davis said. "He has a lot of pressure riding on his back. And I'm for him."
Added running back Frank Gore: "I didn't want David to come in. I wanted Alex to stick it out. He's got all the tools. You saw what he did when he came back in the game. That's all you want from a player."
It was an arresting scene. Singletary appeared to have made up his mind to go with Carr, but when Smith approached him and made his case, the coach relented -- not a unique move, but unusual. Alas, Singletary neglected to tell his assistants. Carr was embarrassingly called back off the field by his own teammate, Smith, who ran out there to join the huddle, too.
Smith proceeded to direct two late touchdown drives, finishing with 309 yards passing, but no one at this point is going to read much of a future into that. Smith is what he is, an up-and-down pro who has never found a rhythm as a starting quarterback in San Francisco and has dealt with a musical-chairs coaching staff and carousel coordinators.
More interesting is the side play, a situation in which guys like Davis and Gore appear to be lining up behind Smith and not Singletary. Gore later acknowledged that he felt responsible in his own right, having fumbled twice in the game, but he also wanted the best QB on the field, and despite two interceptions and the ghastly fumble, that in the players' minds was clearly Alex Smith.
It may not be saying much. The 49ers are a shock, a disastrous 0-5 in a season in which they were a trendy choice to win the mediocre NFC West. Jed York, son of the franchise-controlling York family and putative head of the operation, texted ESPN's Adam Schefter on Monday morning to say "We're going to win the division." (I believe the statement speaks for itself, your honor.)
The day before, York had said that Singletary's job is not in jeopardy this year, which to some would indicate that that he doesn't realize Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher don't have coaching gigs right now or that he already knows neither one of them is willing to take over midseason. But an in-season change under the Yorks is not out of the question -- Singletary ascended in 2008 when Mike Nolan was fired after a poor start -- and the 49ers host the cross-bay rival Oakland Raiders on Sunday in what could well be a watershed moment.
Singletary said this week that he had decided Smith would remain the starting quarterback for now. (To be fair, Singletary's roster options at the position are dismal.) He reiterated that his Eagles sideline rant was a test of Smith's will and little more. It was vintage Singletary, spinning his emotional venting as part of some larger coordinated plan.
More telling than Smith's response is how Davis and Gore reacted. It is more instructive that with Singletary supposedly already having decided to bring Carr into the game, Smith's teammates wouldn't let him come out.
If it wasn't exactly a repudiation of Singletary, who himself has supported Smith through some terrible performances this season, it was at least a cause for wonder. In a moment of choice, the players went with the teammate over the coach. If they trust Smith's judgment over Singletary's, you've got your San Francisco problem in a nutshell.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.