Practice was over, and now the 49ers gathered in a tight circle on the far field of their facility in Santa Clara, Calif., last Thursday, each raising one arm to form a human umbrella. After a brief silence, a voice rose from within the group and asked, "Am I my brother's keeper?" ¬∂ In unison the players answered, Yes ... I ... am! ¬∂ That the team-binding phrase has its roots in the Bible is appropriate. Some would consider the task facing Mike Singletary, in his first full season as coach, tantamount to turning water into wine. The Niners, one of the league's showcase franchises in the 1980s and '90s, haven't had a winning season since 2002. In three of the past six seasons they lost 11 or more games. Coaches have come and gone, draft picks have been squandered, and through it all the legacy of Walsh and Montana, of Rice and Young and Lott, of five Super Bowl championships in 14 seasons, has been tarnished.
By opening 2009 with consecutive defeats of NFC West favorites Arizona and Seattle, however, the 49ers are leading the division and walking with their heads high again.
"Are we a championship team right now? No, we're not," says middle linebacker Patrick Willis. "But can we be a championship team? I think so. I know so."
The man leading the charge is Singletary—or, as his players respectfully call him, Joe Clark, after the no-nonsense, baseball-bat-wielding inner-city high school principal on whom the 1989 movie Lean on Me was based. Just as Clark sought to change the culture of failure at Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., by getting rid of troublemakers and students who didn't want to learn, Singletary, after being named interim coach midway through the 2008 season, set out to change the tone of the 49ers.
His methods are often unconventional and always attention-grabbing. In his first game after replacing Mike Nolan, a 34--13 home loss to the Seahawks last Oct. 26, Singletary benched starting quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan, dropped his pants at halftime as a motivational ploy, sent starting tight end Vernon Davis to the showers in the fourth quarter after he was flagged for unnecessary roughness, and launched a legendary postgame rant about not tolerating selfish players. "I want winners!" Singletary bellowed, planting the seeds for a marketing campaign that bears his likeness on Bay Area billboards.
Whatever his style, Singletary has gotten results. The 49ers won five of their final seven games last season to finish 7--9, and this season they've exhibited discipline and toughness in their 20--16 defeat of the defending NFC champion Cardinals in Arizona and their 23--10 win over the Seahawks on Sunday at Candlestick Park. "This can be a special team, and I want them to realize how good they can be," Singletary says. "The most important thing was for us to come together and believe in one another and have that as our foundation going forward."
The former Bears middle linebacker known as Samurai Mike has the Hall of Fame credentials and the Super Bowl ring; what's more, he doesn't care at all about big names or individual accolades. His constant message is team and togetherness, and his strategy is about as nuanced as Clark's baseball bat: run the ball on offense, attack on defense and remain alert, disciplined and aggressive until the final whistle.
In his first practice as interim coach, Singletary didn't just tell defenders to sprint to the football—he demanded that they do it. The pace was so fast and furious that some players vomited. But even the sick ones got up and moved on to the next play.
"Greatness is not about someone who has the ability to be great," the 50-year-old Singletary says, fixing the listener with the same piercing stare that once made quarterbacks weak in the knees and now makes the 49ers stiff in the spine. "Greatness shows up when someone might not have that ability but finds a way to succeed. They outwork their opponents, they outhit their opponents, they outfight their opponents. They want it more. Don't give me the guy who's supposed to be all-world and you've got to try to talk him into something. Give me the guy who has maybe just enough talent to be on the field but thinks he's great, and who's willing to do whatever he can do to contribute, to make his team better. That's what I want. Give me all the misfits, the guys no one else wants. Now trust me, I want some talent too. But give me the right type of talent."
Some of it is in place already. Willis, a 2007 first-round pick out of Mississippi, was named All-Pro in each of his first two seasons and looks set to spearhead the defense for years to come. Fifth-year back Frank Gore has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the last three seasons, and against Seattle on Sunday he had 207 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries, his best rushing day since his Pro Bowl season of 2006. Third-year left tackle Joe Staley is one of the game's promising young linemen. And cornerback Nate Clements is a skilled and savvy veteran. But the pool quickly gets shallower. One preseason fantasy football ranking, for instance, did not even have quarterback Shaun Hill among the top 32 in the league, despite the fact that he's 9--3 as a starter in San Francisco.
The Niners' 2--0 record won't convince everyone that the team has turned around. Skeptics will point out that the Cardinals, who had three receivers surpass 1,000 yards last season, were down to only one healthy wideout (Larry Fitzgerald) when the teams met in the opener. And Seattle, which kicked off on Sunday without six projected starters, lost four more to injury during the game: quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (ribs), linebacker Lofa Tatupu (hamstring), cornerback Josh Wilson (ankle) and right tackle Sean Locklear (ankle).
San Francisco also began the 2007 season 2--0 before losing eight straight games. While the Niners' upcoming schedule is not a murderers' row, it does begin with a trip to Minnesota this weekend to play the undefeated Vikings, who have led the league in run defense in each of the past three seasons and are certain to target Gore.
None of this matters to Singletary. When he put his team through a strenuous minicamp in March, his objective was to persuade the players that even when they feel they have nothing left to give, there's more in reserve. And that as they push themselves, they should bring along a teammate, because on Sundays the only support they have on the field is one another.
"If they're not taking us seriously, that's O.K.," Singletary says of other NFL teams. "They can keep doing that. We're going to continue to take ourselves seriously. We're going to continue to make steps each day. The most important thing for us is to go out each day and get better. If we can get a little bit better each day, we're going to get done what we need to."
Singletary's mission undoubtedly would be aided by the presence of Michael Crabtree, the record-setting Texas Tech wide receiver whom the Niners selected 10th in the draft last April. But the two sides have been unable to come to terms on a contract, and Crabtree is said to be prepared to sit out the season and reenter the draft next year.
"I think this young man is really misconstrued," Singletary says of Crabtree, who is seeking a contract comparable to the five-year, $23.5 million deal Oakland gave to the seventh pick, wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey from Maryland. "I had a chance to see his heart when we met before the draft and in the first minicamp, when he was trying to run routes and he shouldn't have been because of his [surgically repaired left] foot. He was standing over there about to cry because I wouldn't let him run routes. The guy is a competitor. I would love to have Michael Crabtree, but I want him the right way. If he's meant to be here, he'll be here."
People within the 49ers' organization say that one of Singletary's strengths is his commitment to helping his players succeed beyond the football field. He preaches the importance of character and judges people based on what he sees, not what he has heard.
Davis is a case in point. The No. 6 pick, out of Maryland, in 2006, he quickly developed a reputation as a hothead and me-first player whose performance didn't match his self-image. But Davis has matured so much in the 11 months since Singletary sent him to the showers—no more fights in practice, no more look-at-me first-down signals, no more costly penalties—that earlier this month Singletary named him a team captain.
"Mike Singletary is a very emotional guy," says Davis. "He cares. I had to learn about him, and he had to learn about me. We had to get on the same page. I wanted to win and I wanted to be good, and he wanted to win and he wanted us to be a team. He didn't want any individuals. He made me realize and accept the simple fact that there are no individuals on a team."
Says Singletary, "In my life, I've always wanted to get a group of men together who have a common thought, common goal. I don't care who they are. But if those men can come together, check their egos at the door and honestly care about each other for more than what they do on the field, I think something very special can be created."
Is he his brother's keeper? Yes, he is.
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Singletary's message is togetherness, and his strategy is as subtle as Joe Clark's baseball bat.
"Don't give me the guy who's supposed to be all-world," says Singletary. "Give me all the misfits."
Photographs by PETER READ MILLER
GOLD RUSH As Singletary (right) led from the sideline, Gore had the second biggest rushing day of his career on Sunday against Seattle.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
CANDLESTUFFED San Francisco relies on the sort of rugged hits that special-teamer Scott McKillop (56) laid on the Seahawks.
Photograph by PETER READ MILLER
FANTASY VERSUS REALITY Hill is 9--3 as the Niners' starter but, like his team, has yet to make believers out of much of the league.