After four years of rebuilding through the draft and free agency, the 49ers brass entered the season believing they had enough talent on the roster to win games and compete for the division. Unfortunately the talent hasn't played up to their potential and those wins have failed to come to fruition as the team has fallen into a four-game losing skid and an overall 2-5 record.
"I think we have the talent to turn this around and be competitive," said team owner Jed York during a Tuesday press conference.
Asked then what has been missing, York replied, "I think passion and intensity. There's no doubt that we've got talent. We've got Pro Bowlers on all three phases of the ball. What we are lacking right now is that killer instinct, that finishing ability."
That's exactly why the 49ers made an organizational decision - one that involved Jed and his parents, John and Denise York, and general manager Scot McCloughan - to dismiss Mike Nolan and appoint Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary as the man in charge for the remainder of the 2008 season.
"I'm very excited about the passion and intensity he brings," said McCloughan of Singletary. "I've been very impressed watching him on the field coach the linebacker position. It's been a position, year in and year out, that we've gotten the most out of our talent level. I hope the whole team shows that development."
Singletary has often addressed the team at the request of Nolan, but the former assistant head coach/linebackers coach did so in his new capacity for the first time Tuesday morning.
Singletary said he told the players to be ready for the challenge, because he plans to challenge them to their very core.
"I'm a historian when it comes to this game," said Singletary. "I go back to the very beginning of why football was created. It was created for people to compete and I think if you're not going to compete at the highest level, as fair as you can and as hard as you can, then you shouldn't be playing the game. As far as the culture and the vision and all of those things, it is only one thing. To me it is about the team. Everything is about the team. If you are on defense, it is about the team. If you are on offense, it's about the team. If you are on special teams, it's about the team."
Singletary plans to build on the foundation that Nolan built, pointing out just how difficult the task was for his mentor when he took over a 2-14 team.
"I came here to help Coach Nolan establish a winning organization," said Singletary. "Looking back, I don't think Mike or myself realized the task at hand. The next step is not as hard as the first. What he had to do was very difficult. He set the foundation. All I'm going to do is build upon that foundation.
"There's a lot of talent, a lot of good coaches, and I'm exciting about the opportunity," continued Singletary. "I'm excited about taking it to the next level."
The 49ers have made one significant change, releasing offensive line coach George Warhop, but otherwise, Singletary doesn't plan to make a "whole lot of changes," including no changes at this time to starting personnel.
He does expect however to see change, starting on defense.
"I will just ask you to continue watching. Watch the next few weeks and see if we continue to be passive," said Singletary. "I don't think so. We're going to play. We're not going to play with fear. We're going to play and we're going to be bold. Play within our system. We're not going to become crazy and lose our minds and begin to blitz all the time. We're going to do whatever it takes to win within the system. I think as a team, that's what we'll do on both sides of the ball, as well as on special teams."
On offense, Singletary has also addressed quarterback JT O'Sullivan's recent rash of turnovers with coordinator Mike Martz.
"Mike and I had a conversation this morning and he's aware of that," said Singletary. "The guy is trying to make plays, he's trying to win and things like that happen. I just think going forward we just have to be more careful with the ball. It's as simple as that."
Singletary has made no bones about his desire to be a head coach in the National Football League, but taking it from one of his closest friends and mentor wasn't what he prayed for. In fact, Singletary had reservations about accepting, and first needed to sit down with his predecessor.
"Nolan told me, 'I want you to understand something. I want you to take this job. I don't even want you to blink,'" shared Singletary. "He told me, 'I want you to take this job because I know you have the heart of the players at hand and I know that they are important to you and I know that you will be fair to the coaching staff and I know you can bring it together. What we have built together has come to an end, and I want you to take it to the next level. If you don't take the job I will be very disappointed in you as my friend.'"
Singletary plans to honor his friend by finishing what Nolan got started.
"I know that there is a fire that burns in my heart for this team to be successful," said Singletary. "And that fire is unconquerable, and it will not die until it comes to pass. So, that's where I'm at. That's who I am."
Pressed on why he feels he can succeed when Nolan could not, Singletary replied, "Sometimes timing is everything. I think right now, the guys understand and they realize that we do have something. We do have something here. To what degree, I don't know, but we do have something special here. It's a matter of stepping in and being able to bring it together. That's something I've done all of my life, bringing things together. I will see – before I got back in football, I was a motivational speaker, I was a trainer. I was a teacher. I was a lot of things. I think all of those things have prepared me for right now."
The 49ers decision makers retained Nolan following last year's 5-11 finish, believing that Nolan deserved every chance to be successful. But discussions regarding making a change began a few weeks ago as they closely monitored the team's performance during the four-game losing streak.
"It was very important to follow the team and see if there were any signs of the team giving in," said McCloughan. "I did not see any signs of that. The team was still competing. The team was still competitive. We were in the last four games, we did not find a way to finish the game, but I thought the team competed. It had been in discussions until a couple of days ago."
The decision to make a change during the bye week was reached following the Giants game, but the 49ers were forced to act sooner than anticipated since they felt that surfacing media reports regarding the impending change would become a distraction to the team.
"I don't think there was one right time for a decision like this. If you go off past experiences and talking to people, the bye week is usually the best week because it gives you some extra days to get the transformation rolled over," said McCloughan. "But with the distractions on the outside - the most important thing is us being ready to play this week against the Seahawks. The more distractions we have, it takes away from that. Knowing that it would affect the players and the coaches a lot, that pulls away from our common goal and that's to be ready to play on Sunday."
Nolan wasn't available following his dismissal but he did issue the following statement:
"I want to thank the York Family for the opportunity to coach the San Francisco 49ers. It is the responsibility of the Head Coach to build a foundation and an environment for success. In many areas we were, although it is winning that ultimately determines success.
"I also want to thank our players for their dedication and willingness to work hard. Even during the toughest of times they remained strong and fought through it. It is difficult to put into words my respect for guys who played for the 49ers over the past 3 ½ seasons. They have my complete respect and admiration. I am forever indebted to them."