NFL: Few jobs are secure as 49ers look to make improvements
By Tim Kawakami
San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE — Mike Singletary, who usually cannot resist the Big Dramatic Over-Statement, got a bit blurry and spoke in careful conditional terms Monday.
“Alex Smith is the starting quarterback right now,” Singletary said.
Yes, right now. But the San Francisco 49ers finished their season Sunday and aren’t actually playing again until next fall.
There’s a free-agent period and a draft coming up before then, I believe.
“If we sign a quarterback this off-season, we’ll see where it goes,” Singletary said in his news conference to wrap up the franchise’s seventh consecutive non-playoff season.
Interesting. Not exactly a guarantee of anything.
And what about the future of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye?
“Right now,” Singletary said, “Jimmy is the coordinator.”
Quite delicately put, you might say. Bland. Almost lawyerly. Different. Very different.
Hey, he’s turning into a real, many-layered NFL head coach right before our eyes and ears!
Singletary’s new tap-dance technique is understandable, however, in this unique convergence of team-wide chemistry and season-long offensive disappointment.
And it might be a large clue about Singletary’s prescription for improving this 8-8 team after his first full season in charge.
Singletary, of course, will be back next season. Mainstays such as Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Joe Staley, Michael Crabtree, Justin Smith and Manny Lawson will certainly be back.
There are some good things happening here, within the big-picture failure. Not enough good things to get them past the Arizona Cardinals, but certainly this was not a debacle season.
“We did not accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, but we didn’t go backwards,” Singletary said.
No parades for that. No head coach or general manager firings, either.
But the 49ers will not turn into a playoff team unless their offense is revamped and renewed.
The 49ers were the 27th-ranked offense overall this regular season, ranked 29th in first downs and 29th in third-down success rate, and, on the flip side, probably had a playoff-level defense.
They got a revival season out of Smith, but certainly nothing close to stardom.
And the offense changed from sputtering as a run-oriented unit to haphazard as a pass-first operation once Smith replaced Shaun Hill in Game 6.
The reality: Given the expected lack of options and Smith’s place in GM Scot McCloughan’s heart, Smith is going to be awfully difficult to replace and even more difficult to improve upon.
But if Singletary is determined to upgrade the offense, he almost certainly will consider promoting quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson.
When I asked Singletary directly about Johnson assuming a larger role, Singletary didn’t deny that the thought could have crossed his mind. Singletary did this carefully, of course.
“We’ve got a lot of conversations that we have to have,” Singletary said.
By the way, Johnson has studied the “spread” pass offense, which is clearly Smith’s preferred and most natural system.
Raye isn’t a “spread” guy, has never been a pass-game innovator, and was hired last winter specifically to carry out Singletary’s smash-mouth running game.
That’s not who the 49ers are any more, and they never really did it successfully this season, anyway.
If the 49ers are going to throw this much, isn’t it OK to conclude that Raye’s not the right guy to run the offense?
“No, because I don’t want to throw that much,” Singletary said. “The thing that I want to do ... it’s the thing that I said when Jimmy was hired. I want a balance.
“To me, to throw the ball as much as we had to throw the ball, it’s just something I think Jimmy had to get his arms around.”
Singletary says there will be days and maybe a week of evaluations — both of players and coaches — before he makes any grand decisions.
He might feel loyalty to Raye, who is a man of integrity and deep experience. Singletary might not be so sure about Johnson, who has never been an NFL coordinator.
Singletary might go half-way: Johnson could assume game-plan responsibilities tacitly while Raye keeps the coordinator title. That’d get Johnson set up as a coordinator-except-in-title and would maintain schematic continuity.
It wouldn’t be a grand theatrical gesture. Singletary might even be slightly embarrassed about it, once he does it, if he does it.
That would take subtlety. Quiet qualified pronouncements. Real NFL complicated coach stuff.
But it’s probably the proper thing to do. For right now, and for many more “right nows” beyond that.