Too early to tell if Singletary’s approach will succeed

In response to my blog entry on Tuesday, there were a lot of questions in the comments section about Alex Smith and Mike Singletary.


My answers are pretty much the same. I don’t know if Smith is going to establish himself as the 49ers’ quarterback for many years to come. And I don’t know if Singletary will be a successful head coach.


Yesterday, I addressed the Smith situation as best as I could. With Singletary, I’m also taking the approach of waiting for more information. He was not great in his first full season as head coach. And he certainly was not awful. I’ll go along with his self-assessment of his first full season: “It was OK.”


Singletary is very good at managing players. He deserves credit for his handling of tight end Vernon Davis. Singletary was instrumental in Davis‘ increase in production and helping him earn a starting spot on the NFC Pro Bowl team.


Singletary has a rare ability to read people. After the 49ers’ loss to the Packers, the team’s locker room appeared to be on the verge of tipping in a bad way. Small cliques of players formed throughout the room, speaking in hushed tones. It was clear that there were some players discontent with the direction the team was going.


Some head coaches who distance themselves from their players would not have picked up on that vibe. But Singletary sensed what was happening. He got the team to air out its gripes. He listened and made some adjustments, such as curtailing padded practices.


Singletary is an emotional leader. He does a good job of managing the mindset of the team. He is a strong personality who willed himself to become a great player. He willed himself to become a head coach.


I think he believed, through shear sheer force of will, that the 49ers would become NFC West champions in his first season as head coach. He continue to say the 49ers would be “special,” and he bristled when my colleague, Lowell Cohn, challenged Singletary’s assertion. As it turns out, the 49ers were not special they were 8-8, the definition of average, but it was the team’s best record since 2002. (Cohn weighed in today on how Kurt Warner’s expected retirement might turn up the pressure on Singletary.)


When the 49ers fired Mike Nolan in the middle of the 2008 season, the 49ers made the easy decision to keep the offensive and defensive coordinators in their respective jobs and promote Singletary to interim head coach.


I firmly believe when that occurred, the long-term plan was to wait until the end of the regular season and hire an offensive-minded head coach. That way, the offensive system would remain unchanged for as long as the head coach remained.


But Singletary did such a good job – and he was ultra-popular with the players and fan base – that his job performance won him the job.


Where I see a problem is that Singletary was never a coordinator. He is a self-described “big picture” coach. He can tell his assistant coaches and players what he wants, but he does not give them the specifics on how to get there.


All head coaches are reliant on their assistant coaches, to be sure. But because Singletary can’t just take over on one side of the ball – such as Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt when offensive coordinator Todd Haley left to become Chiefs head coach – his success is almost always dependent on his coordinators.


When Alex Smith and Singletary spoke during the season and Smith had complaints about the offense, Singletary told him to go down the hall and express those same thoughts to offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. In this case, the head coach was a middle man.


This is not to say that this arrangement is destined for failure. Because he is not calling plays during the course of the game, Singletary has the ability to use his strongest asset on the sideline: He reads body language and manages the temperaments of his players. He embraces the human element of the game. That is an area at which Singletary excels.


Singletary is a fantastic leader. He is trying to build a mindset with the 49ers. His approach might very well work for him and the 49ers. But I think it’s too early to tell.


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UPDATE (1:15 p.m.)


Alex Smith will service as a studio guest analyst for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) for the Super Bowl. Smith will analyze the Saints-Colts game, as well as discuss the 49ers’ 2010 regular-season game against the Broncos, which is scheduled for Oct. 31 in London‘s Wembley Stadium. Smith will conduct a media tour next week in London, leading up to the Super Bowl.


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