Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer is back again this year with his Points of the Game, a weekly online column that previews the upcoming opponent. Check out some of his views on Monday night's road game against the Arizona Cardinals. **
I think during the bye week, the 49ers needed to really just evaluate themselves. Basically you break your season down into quarters, so four games. Obviously, the first quarter was pretty good, the 49ers were 2-2, but the second quarter was as bad as a gets, winless. So, you just finished halftime of the season and you're 2-6 as a team.
It's like getting a pep talk, coming out of the locker room and attacking the second half of the season.
I think every player has to realize that it's not over until it's over. I was on a team in San Diego that started 0-4. Then we ended up winning 11 out of our next 12 games. We made it to the playoffs and even won a playoff game. But, the message that we got from our coach Bobby Ross was, "Look. I only know one way to do this. And that is to work hard and keep doing what you know how to do. If everyone does that, individually, good things will happen."
I believe it's the same exact message Mike Singletary is sending to this team. And the message is that he only knows one way to coach this game, which is the same way he played. It's pedal to the metal. It's a belief in yourself, and not worrying about anyone other than yourself. If each and every player truly takes care of his responsibility, then there's no reason that the 49ers can't turn this season around.
Being three games back in the division is not insurmountable, especially when you can take back one of those games this Monday Night. What a boost for the 49ers on a national stage to come out and just take it to the Arizona Cardinals. The way you do that, look at somebody like Nate Clements and say, "Get in the face of Anquan Boldin and play as physical game as you can play."
That's the message I see Singletary sending to his players, the question now is, are the players just going to listen to that message or are they going to apply it to their game?
I think Singletary is creating an atmosphere of accountability. The best example of that I can think of is Mark Roman, who came out after the Seattle game and said, "I have to play better. I have to come up with that play," when he missed a sure interception in the end zone.
I hadn't heard a player on this 49ers team saying something like that all season.
Whether that interception was going to make a difference in the game or not, you never know, but you can't make excuses for yourself and say, "Well, that one didn't cost us the game." And Roman didn't. He was accountable for his own actions and his play and said, "I need to make that play. I need to play better." If each and every player out there does that, there's no reason that this 49ers team can't win.
Singletary is also letting his team know that if you're going to make a mistake, make it at 100-miles-per-hour. Be physical. It's got to be the message because the message that's come across so far hasn't worked. It's obvious it hasn't worked. So now, it's more just go out there and play football and be physical.
Singletary can't make wholesale changes at this stage of the season. All he can do is tinker with it. I guess the analogy would be a NASCAR pit crew. You can't change the engine mid-race, but you can tweak the front spoiler. You can adjust your air pressure. There's a lot of little adjustments you can make, and that's what I see Singletary doing. He's not standing pat. A 2-6 record is not going to cut it.
As head coach, he's sent a very crystal-clear message that if guys don't play up to their potential, he's going to give somebody a chance to show that they can.
Whether that's Chilo Rachal or whether that's Ahmad Brooks, or moving other guys around, then that's what's going to happen. I don't think there's a better message to send to this underachieving team right now. In terms of personnel, I believe there's enough talent on this team to win a bunch of the eight remaining games, but it has to start this Monday night on the biggest stage in the NFL – Monday Night Football.
If you look at the Arizona Cardinals, as most people know, Kurt Warner, historically, has had a New York Jets kind of game where he throws three interceptions. The guy is having an MVP-like season, and yet he is still capable of having a game like he did against the Jets. Why not have him have that game against the 49ers? How do you do that? By playing physical football. That's going to be the theme for the second half of the season. You wouldn't think that's something that needs to be emphasized, but sometimes people get away from it. Sometimes people are thinking too much.
So, being physical and just getting after the Cardinals from opening kickoff to the final gun is the key to the game.
In the case of the 49ers quarterback situation with Shaun Hill starting his first game of the season, it certainly meshes well offensively for the 49ers to have a Kerry Collins-type quarterback. That has worked as well as it can possibly work for the Tennessee Titans. You look back at when Singletary was with the '85 Bears, Jim McMahon wasn't a great quarterback. He was a manager of the game. It certainly worked for that team – they won the Super Bowl. And now it's working for the 2008 Titans. It's a formula that Singletary knows, and he's seen it work in today's game. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Hill brings that aspect of game management to the table. It certainly takes pressure off the defense, the fact that you're not expecting turnovers, because when one individual commits 17 turnovers in seven-and-a-half games, you start to expect that that's going to happen. Now, hopefully guys can go out and focus on just being physical as opposed to saying, "I have to be perfect. I have to be perfect because at some point, the offense is going to turn the ball over and put us in a bad situation."
I also think what Singletary is trying to do, will really help Frank Gore. He has been, probably, one of the biggest cheerleaders on the team for Mike Martz, and I think he's going to thrive in any offense you put him in. I also believe that he will have more touches in the run game going forward, with Singletary emphasizing a physical style of play. He was averaging 21 touches a game. You can't really expect your feature back to get many more than 25 touches a game. If you do, then you're in danger of wearing out a player. I think 25 touches a game is right around where Singletary, Martz and Frank Gore would all be happy. To me, the difference is, you're probably going to see a higher of those being runs. You're going to see an increased number of carries in the future for DeShaun Foster. He's going to see some more touches continuing to spell Gore too.
Another part of the equation, which should helps Hill, is the 49ers defense. One of the problems last year was that the 49ers defensive unit was on the field for an inordinate amount of time. It's interesting this year because for as well as the offense has moved the ball they've turned it over. And statistically, in terms of time of possession, it's almost as bad this year as it was last year. So, that's something I guarantee you Singletary is thinking about when it comes to ball security and game management when you're talking about the quarterback.
Switching to Arizona's running attack, I think it was the right move for the Cardinals to go with Tim Hightower as the starter over Edgerrin James. That guy Hightower rushed for more than 100 yards in his first opportunity. Much like the 49ers, that's all the coaches want. Coaches want to see players take advantage of opportunities, and he did that. What he brings to the table is more of an aggressive running style. James was a guy who made a living of sliding along the line and finding a hole. Early in a career, that's great because he was young enough and fast enough that he had a burst that he could turn those kinds of plays into big plays.
But Hightower had a 30-yard run for a touchdown, which was longer than anything James had in his entire time in Arizona. So, in that 13th carry, he had a longer run than James has put up in two years. He brings that aspect to the table for the Cardinals. Coaches accept a guy like James and Shaun Alexander who dance or tip-toe or slip-and-slide trying to find that whole if they end up having big runs in the process. But, much like Alexander, the same thing has happened to James. They lose that burst. They lose that second gear. They lose that ability to hammer out short runs, and then all of a sudden break one for 30 yards. That's what James was in Indianapolis. He never really was that guy in Arizona.
If you look at the Ken Wisenhunt's style of football, he comes from the Pittsburgh organization, where he was the offensive coordinator in a system that had to be physical with the run to set up the play-action pass. Arizona has become a very aerial attack without much run game to it. I think if the Cardinals want to be a playoff team, eventually they'll have to achieve balance with the run. They're going to have to be able to protect a lead, and that's what Hightower can do for them.