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Tough call in San Francisco

Singletary's approach gets a mixed reaction

By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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With Mike Singletary verbally undressing one of his players in a press conference, and his behind-the-scenes undressing of himself to motivate his team, things in San Francisco just became a whole lot more interesting.

Can such a hold-nothing-back approach work in today's NFL?

The 49ers are off this weekend, so there will be no immediate on-field answers. But in the opinion of one observer close to the scene, initial reactions among players, coaches, and team employees to Singletary's rants have been mixed - some feel it was necessary, others feel he's bordering on out of control.

It started when Singletary, in his first game as interim coach, told tight end Vernon Davis to hit the showers during last Sunday's embarrassing 34-13 loss to the Seahawks. Davis had been flagged for unnecessary roughness, and Singletary didn't like his reaction as he arrived to the sideline. So he told him to get lost, then gave him a public lashing when answering questions from reporters after the game.

Later in the week, it was learned that Singletary also used a unique motivational technique to get his team's attention at halftime, pulling down his pants. His point was that the 49ers were getting their butt kicked and they should be embarrassed.

To some older-generation fans, Singletary is surely a breath of fresh air, a blast from the past when no-nonsense coaches ruled with an iron fist. But can that work today?

"This isn't like some Disney movie where you can keep screaming at a team for days and they'll come back and run through a brick wall for you," said former linebacker Chad Brown, who played in the NFL from 1993-2007. "I think it can work once or twice, not over the long term, but a lot depends on the makeup of the team. I'd imagine that would get old pretty quick with an older, veteran type of team."

Brown pointed to Giants coach Tom Coughlin as an example of an ultra-intense, discipline-minded coach who nearly lost his grip on players before loosening a bit, an old-school guy keeping an open mind to new-school methods.

Singletary acknowledged last week that he's from the old school, having played under fire-breathing Mike Ditka and aggressive-minded Buddy Ryan, who once punched a fellow assistant coach on the sideline.

Longtime NFL coach Dan Reeves believes there's still a place in the game for that type of approach, as long as it's genuine.

"I don't think being extremely demonstrative is a bad thing, as long as you're being yourself, because players, fans, and everyone else will pick up a phony quicker than anything," said Reeves. "I believe players want to do the right things, they want to be disciplined, they want to know how to win, and I think Mike Singletary can relate to players that way."

Still, Reeves believes that type of approach was easier to adopt in the 1980s, when Singletary was in the midst of his Hall of Fame playing career.

"The greatest motivator in that period of time was fear - the fear that you'd lose your job - and that fear pushed you and made you the best you can possibly be," he said. "A lot of that has been taken away by guaranteed salaries and signing bonuses. It is human nature that if you guarantee something, that person isn't going to be as fearful. It takes an unusual person to not be affected by that."

Former Ravens offensive lineman Mike Flynn, who grew up in Agawam and played from 1997-2007, doubts that players will respond if Singletary continues with this approach.

"The biggest thing is that these guys are professionals," he said, "and it sounds good in theory, and it might work in high school and college, but these guys are men. It's hard to disrespect them and treat them a certain way, and then not have some kind of consequences.

"I know Mike from Baltimore and he definitely was an old-school guy. He's going to be like that in San Francisco. If it doesn't work out there, he's going to be that way somewhere else.

"The key is, what kind of respect does he have from the guys? If the guys respect him, and listen to him, and believe what he has to say, that will be fine and they'll let it go. But if he's a guy that's yelling and screaming and nobody respects what he's saying, it's only going to make a bad situation worse."

On the flip side, Flynn took note that he hadn't heard another 49ers player defend Davis, which might be an indication that it's been well-received . . . for now.

"You may be able to turn around a few guys, get them going in the right direction, but eventually you have to change your tone and - not give in to the player, so to speak - but be more player-friendly and realize you're dealing with men," Flynn said.

"Screaming and hollering only motivates you so much."

Others, such as former Patriots Corey Dillon and Artrell Hawkins, are buying in.

"I agree with Mike 100 percent, and I think that approach can work today," Dillon said. "When I came to New England, I had to put a lot of my own personal stuff on hold and check my ego at the door to get on the same page with the head coach and organization. He's no-b.s., and that reminds me a lot of Bill [Belichick]."

Added Hawkins, "I think his style can be successful, because he's not just a coach, he was a player on the highest level. So you consider the source. Every coach can't do it. Mike Singletary can."

Midterm grades are out
Today marks the official halfway point of the NFL season, and with that in mind, here is one man's ballot for midseason awards:

MVP: Clinton Portis. The Redskins running back leads the NFL with 944 rushing yards, 260 more than No. 2 rusher Adrian Peterson.

Top coach: Jim Zorn. Considered a reach when he was hired, Zorn has the Redskins (6-2) in second place in the competitive NFC East.

Top rookie: Matt Ryan. The former Boston College quarterback has led the surprising Falcons to a 4-3 record and looks like a star in the making.

Best free agent signing: Michael Turner. The backup to running back LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego for four seasons, he has shined in a starring role with the Falcons (665 yards, 6 TDs).

Worst free agent signing: Jerry Porter. What has a three-year contract with $10 million in bonuses/guarantees produced for the Jaguars? One catch for 6 yards.

Best unsung performance: Titans offensive line. Left tackle Michael Roos, left guard Eugene Amano, center Kevin Mawae, right guard Jake Scott, and right tackle David Stewart have surrendered just two sacks all season to lead the NFL's only undefeated team.

Worst performance: J.T. O'Sullivan. Hyped after winning the quarterback job over former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith in San Francisco, he tossed 11 interceptions, was sacked 32 times, and fumbled 11 times (six lost) before being benched last week.

Best innovation: Dolphins offense. Their use of the "Wildcat" formation, with running back Ronnie Brown at quarterback, sent ripples through the NFL.

Most surprising team: Giants. They've sent a decisive message to those who thought their Super Bowl win was a fluke.

Most disappointing team: Chargers. At 3-5, they are fortunate to be playing in the weak AFC West, so they still have time to turn things around.

Israel ready to tackle the next step
Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft and his family completed an agreement last week to become the title sponsors of the Israeli Football League, which Steve Leibowitz - president of "American Football in Israel" - called a significant development to assist in the "long-term plan to build tackle football in Israel from the ground up."

"Having the Kraft family as the title sponsor gives the league the credibility it needs to immediately be branded a serious endeavor, and also provides the financing needed to ensure a smooth development," he wrote in an e-mail.

The league, now in its second season, will have five teams (two in Jerusalem, one each in Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Modiin). Expansion is already scheduled for 2009 with an agreement in place for Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson to sponsor the new team in Beersheva.

Prior to 2007, the only organized football played in Israel was flag football, with about 90 teams and more than 1,000 players.

"Now we feel that we are ready to develop tackle football," Leibowitz said. "Mr. Kraft is now fully behind the idea because Israelis are playing the game around the country, and this is the best way to spread the game to the general public."

Etc.
Paying scant attention?
Home-field advantage comes in different forms, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joked that he was preparing for an unusual road challenge in tomorrow night's game at Washington: the Redskins' cheerleaders. Roethlisberger relayed that in past preseason games, the cheerleaders strategically seemed to be warming up outside the visitors' locker room. His point: While quarterbacks might be happy to see shoddy coverage on the field, the lack of coverage from the cheerleaders proved to be quite the distraction.

The biggest loser
Last year, the Dolphins lost their first 13 games before posting a win, thus they avoided becoming the first winless team since the expansion 1976 Buccaneers. The Bengals (0-8) and Lions (0-7) are this year's candidates, and based on their schedules, it's not out of the question that they join the '76 Bucs. A look at each team's road ahead:

Bengals

vs. Jaguars
bye
vs. Eagles
at Steelers
vs. Ravens
at Colts
vs. Redskins
at Browns
vs. Chiefs

Lions
at Bears
vs. Jaguars
at Panthers
vs. Buccaneers
vs. Titans
vs. Vikings
at Colts
vs. Saints
at Packers

Follow the trail
Not only have the Bengals not won this season, they've barely experienced a lead. Consider this statistic: Including one overtime game, the Bengals have played a total of 486 minutes 21 seconds in eight games. They have led for just 43 minutes 20 seconds.

Records are within his reach
The Texans have won three in a row, but receiver Andre Johnson was sizzling even before the winning streak. Johnson can set two NFL records today in Minnesota, as he looks to become the first player to record five consecutive games of 130 or more receiving yards and the first player with four consecutive games of at least 10 receptions. Having played in seven games, Johnson leads the NFL in receptions (56) and receiving yards (772).

NFL sees red over eye black
Sometimes even the best of intentions can hit players where it hurts, and such is the case for Steelers safety Ryan Clark. After etching the number 21 into his eye black to honor the late Sean Taylor, a former teammate in Washington, Clark was fined $5,000 by the NFL. But the fine apparently isn't going to stop Clark from doing it again. He is out with a shoulder injury this week but said he planned to honor Taylor again.

The 40-40-40 club
Largely because of an explosive passing attack, the Cardinals lead the NFL in points (28.5 per game), and the team's top receivers are in position to reach a milestone. Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Anquan Boldin are vying to become the first trio in history to reach 40 receptions each through eight games. Fitzgerald (43) is already there, with Breaston (37) and Boldin (36) looking to join him today in St. Louis.

Plenty to go around in Chicago Bears quarterback Kyle Orton has done a solid job spreading the ball through seven games, as Greg Olsen (296), Rashied Davis (254), Brandon Lloyd (249), Matt Forte (223), Devin Hester (215), and Desmond Clark (205) are all over the 200-yard mark in receiving, while Marty Booker (183) is soon to join them. The Bears haven't had seven players with at least 200 receiving yards in a season since 1989, yet they've almost accomplished the feat in seven games.

Ring master
The Rams will honor former coach Dick Vermeil today, inducting him into the Ring of Honor. When former Rams coach Scott Linehan contacted Vermeil about the ceremony, Vermeil picked today as his date of choice so his former quarterback, Kurt Warner, could be present. The Rams host the Warner-led Cardinals.

Double runners
The Titans' 1-2 rushing attack of rookie Chris Johnson and LenDale White might represent a contrast in style, but they have one obvious thing in common: production. Johnson leads the AFC in rushing (626 yards) and no one in the NFL has scored more touchdowns than White (10). If they keep up the pace, they'd become the first pair of running backs from the same team to lead their conference in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns since 1974. The Broncos' combination of Otis Armstrong (1,407 yards) and Jon Keyworth (10 TDs) was the last to accomplish the feat.

Did you know?
The Buccaneers have not allowed a running back to gain more than 100 yards in a game this season, and have not surrendered a rushing touchdown all year. They're the only team not to allow a rushing score.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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