NFL: 49ers’ next step must be getting to playoffs
By JANIE McCAULEY
AP Sports Writer
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Mike Singletary’s mood was borderline somber as he reflected on another season gone without a trip to the playoffs for the San Francisco 49ers.
“We’ve got to understand I don’t care how close we were, we weren’t,” Singletary said Monday. “We didn’t make the playoffs, just didn’t make it. 8-8, that’s it.”
The 49ers took a big step this season by ending a streak of six straight losing campaigns, but that’s far from enough for their perfectionist coach, even if he’s pleased with progress.
Singletary’s next move will be getting this team back into the playoffs after a seven-year drought. The Niners haven’t advanced since the 2002 season.
“A lot of the pieces are in place,” he said. “The most important thing in place, I think, is the work ethic and the belief that we are a step away.
“All I know is this group of guys, I am very proud of what they have been able to accomplish. If we want to call ourselves a good team or a decent team or an average team, to me not being able to go to the playoffs — and it is for them because they have worked hard enough — but we just weren’t smart enough, for the most part, to make it.”
A 3-1 start led to talk of playoffs for much of this year. The Niners then lost four straight and five of six to greatly diminish their chances. They also dropped six straight road games, five in a row by a combined 19 points, before winning their season finale at St. Louis.
Singletary switched quarterbacks at halftime in Houston on Oct. 25, turning to Alex Smith and benching Shaun Hill. That day also marked rookie Michael Crabtree’s NFL debut after a 71-day contract impasse by the No. 10 overall draft pick.
“We did some good things this year but we didn’t hit our goal,” Smith said. “Consistency is the thing a lot of teams talk about and the teams that are consistently good are the ones that are in the playoffs.”
Singletary said Smith will be the team’s quarterback going forward but didn’t rule out signing a quarterback this offseason. The coach also said Jimmy Raye would remain the offensive coordinator, though quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson has been gaining responsibility. Raye was the seventh offensive coordinator in as many years for this franchise.
Singletary planned to meet with all his players and coaches in the coming days.
Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis’ breakout season was one of the bright spots for the Niners. He tied Antonio Gates’ NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end with 13, making a career-long 73-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter Sunday.
Yet Davis is so down about not making the playoffs, he said he won’t be watching the other teams that are still in uniform.
“I wish we were there, and it hurts me to know that we’re not,” Davis said.
Singletary challenged his player to tune in, saying they can learn from seeing what other teams do in that pressure-packed scene. Four of the team’s eight defeats came to teams headed to the postseason: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Minnesota and Philadelphia.
“We know we’re better than what’s happened,” running back Frank Gore said.
Singletary began this season with his team in full pads from the physical first day of training camp, declaring from the start that San Francisco would be a power-run offense.
Yet with Smith behind center, the 49ers became a passing offense. The balance Singletary has been seeking showed up later in the year, with Gore running for 100 or more yards in three of the last four games.
Defensively, the Niners finished 15th in the league and fourth in points allowed with 281 total. Seven times San Francisco held an opponent to 10 or fewer points.
San Francisco also wound up with 44 sacks, the most by the franchise since 51 in 1998. The Niners had 33 takeaways, good for fifth in the NFL, with 18 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries — all positives for a defense that wanted to pressure the quarterback.
Finding consistency is what Singletary called the hardest part of his first full season in charge of the Niners.
His players won’t argue that.
“I guess you can say we just haven’t made plays when we need to make them,” linebacker Parys Haralson said. “Sometimes things just don’t go your way. The thing we have to do better is just finishing games and not do a lot of things to hurt ourselves, defensively and offensively. We have to go out and not kill ourselves.”
Still, Singletary knows going out with two straight victories could give this team momentum heading into offseason workouts and preparation for 2010.
“I’m a strong believer that it has everything to do with the way you finish going into the next year,” Singletary said. “It’s a little bit frustrating that you have to look at it that way. No one is responsible for where we are but us.”