December 23, 2010 in Sports

Enigmatic Niners

San Francisco manages to stay in hunt despite flaws
Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, left, celebrates a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis in an up-and-down season.
(Full-size photo)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The San Francisco 49ers are an NFL enigma. So bad one week, so good the next – and it’s hard to explain why.

Other than inconsistency, of course.

They have no real identity on offense in large part because of injuries, and the only reason they’re alive in the playoff chase with a lowly 5-9 record: The Niners play in the dreadful NFC West.

“To still be in it, it’s amazing,” tight end Vernon Davis said.

No team has made the playoffs with a losing record in a nonstrike season – so, this could be a history-making first for the West champion. Cleveland and Detroit advanced in the 1982 strike season with 4-5 records when the playoffs were expanded to include eight teams per conference.

“It’s unusual, but let’s not get it twisted. We didn’t make the rules,” San Francisco linebacker Takeo Spikes said. “We live in a society where the rules are made and we’re going to play in them. So we get the opportunity to do that, which we will with these next two games. Hopefully, we’ll take care of business and we’ll set ourselves up with the playoffs.

“I don’t worry about what this person may say, what that person may say. If they had the opportunity to be in our shoes right now they would love to. But they can’t. That’s why they’re sitting behind a desk, holding microphones and making opinions. One day I’ll be that person but until that day I’m going to take advantage of my business here.”

Even coach Mike Singletary has been perplexed by this season, by this team he truly thought would be so much better in his second full year in charge.

Singletary lists certain players who have had productive years, and points to a pair of rookie offensive linemen who have hung tough through their introduction to the rigors of the pro game.

Yet many have greatly underachieved. There have been quarterback switches and the 49ers have made a lot of the same mistakes that hurt them a year ago in an 8-8 season. That after Singletary and his players thought things were fixed and they were destined to end a seven-year postseason drought.

“It’s never over ’til it’s over,” center David Baas said. “We’ve got a chance to do something awesome.”

But it could be over as soon as Sunday, when San Francisco plays at St. Louis. A loss and the 49ers are officially done, leaving the Rams and Seahawks to fight for the top spot in the league’s worst division. San Francisco would have been eliminated last weekend if either Seattle or St. Louis had won, yet neither did.

Having won four of seven, San Francisco has been the division’s hottest team of late.

“I never thought we were totally out of it,” rookie running back Anthony Dixon said. “Because until they told us we were out of it, we were in it.”

The hands-down favorite to win the West, San Francisco went unbeaten in the preseason and then started 0-5. Team president Jed York declared his club would still rebound to win the division and make the playoffs, even though no team in NFL history has bounced back from a 0-5 start to advance to the postseason.

If the 49ers somehow do make the playoffs, they would host the No. 1 wild-card team for a game at Candlestick Park. If the standings play out the way they are now, that would be the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.

These 49ers have faced constant drama along the way, too. Practically every week, in fact.

Three players departed along the way, including second-year running back Glen Coffee, who decided to retire to pursue the ministry only to be arrested on a gun charge in October in Florida.

During training camp, defensive lineman Kentwan Balmer became a no-show before the Niners traded him to Seattle.

Soon after, former Pro Bowl safety Michael Lewis also left – and he wound up in St. Louis with another division rival.

Earlier this month, secondary coach and special assistant to Singletary, Johnnie Lynn, resigned for personal reasons. Singletary wouldn’t elaborate other than to say he had lost a good friend.

Back in September, Singletary fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye after a Week 3 loss at Kansas City and amid problems for Alex Smith getting the play into his headset in time.

“We had a lot of things we had to adjust to this year,” said Davis, whose six touchdown catches are well off the pace of his Pro Bowl total of 13 last season that tied Antonio Gates’ record for TDs by a tight end. “We changed offensive coordinators, we changed quarterbacks. Things like that take some adjustment.”

There have been key injuries, too. From losing veteran center Eric Heitmann for the season to Smith separating his nonthrowing left shoulder on Oct. 24 at Carolina, to star running back Frank Gore going down with a season-ending fractured hip in a Monday night game at Arizona on Nov. 29.

Singletary has shown signs of both being combative and emotional – at one point he claimed there could be a “rat” within the organization giving inaccurate information to the media – and downright subdued.

He is realistic about his future, too, knowing full well that York and his owner father, John York, might fire him after this disappointing season even with two years remaining on his contract.

Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Bears, is the guy who thanked first-year Seattle coach Pete Carroll after a shocking 31-6 whipping by the Seahawks in the season opener. Spikes shook his head when reminded recently about the coach’s gesture.

He would rather look at the opportunity ahead.

“It means everything. It means everything to everybody in this room. To me, this is when football is fun,” Spikes said. “All the attention is right here. Everyone is watching to see what you’re going to do. And that’s all you ever want.”

© Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email