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.