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 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 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.”
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.
- Michael Silver, Yahoo Sports