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After 'inept' effort, 49ers fire Singletary, need to get things right


Mike Singletary's blustery coaching career is now fodder for the next round of light beer commercials.

And the San Francisco 49ers are looking for their fourth coach in seven seasons.

Yet another team makeover for the franchise that was once an emblem of stability. After years of disconnecting from their own legacy, the 49ers need to get it right this time, if they want to build a new stadium and re-energize their dwindling fan base.

On Sunday night team president Jed York fired Singletary, the Hall of Fame linebacker who failed miserably to meet his standard of play as a head coach. Earlier, after Sunday's 25-17 loss to the Rams, which ended the 49ers slim hopes of winning the feeble NFC West, a displeased York told reporters he is planning to hire a general manager.

That's a good sign, a hint that York understands the problem isn't just with the product on the field but within the structure and philosophy of the organization. For years, the 49ers have been operating without experienced NFL leadership.

But such a general manager could also provide a barrier to hiring a big-name coach who may want his own degree of power and autonomy. The names churning in the 49ers rumor mill are ESPN analyst Jon Gruden -- whose first NFL job was as an assistant with the 49ers -- and Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh could walk the same path that Bill Walsh took more than three decades ago, from Stanford to the 49ers. If Mike Holmgren is interested in returning to coaching, he would be another candidate.

Why any of them would want to work for an organization that has so badly lost its way is another question, entirely.

York hired Singletary two years ago, in a knee-jerk reaction to the end of disastrous Mike Nolan era, to not only be the coach but also the charismatic face of the franchise. Yet he didn't provide Singletary with an experienced mentor to lean on.

York would be wise to try to duplicate the model that most successful teams follow. Placing a strong general manager in charge of football operations would be a marked change for the listing franchise. Terry Donahue, who arrived with no NFL experience and whose reign was a disaster, was the general manager when Steve Mariucci was fired and Dennis Erickson was hired. That was after the 2002 season, the last year the 49ers made the playoffs.

In the years since, the team has floundered, first under Erickson, then Mike Nolan and then Singletary. Both Nolan and Singletary were first-time head coaches with defensive backgrounds. Under them, the 49ers never found any offensive continuity, struggling to develop a quarterback or retain an offensive coordinator.

Despite their NFL inexperience, neither Nolan nor Singletary were subordinate to a general manager: Nolan brought in Scot McCloughan to run player personnel. McCloughan later was given the title of general manager, to strip Nolan of some power, but was fired last spring for unspecified reasons. The team replaced him with Trent Baalke, but without giving him the general manager title.

Meanwhile Singletary -- who has two years remaining on the $10 million, four-year contract he signed late in the 2008 season -- soldiered on, trying to mold the 49ers into a likeness of the 1985 Bears, apparently oblivious to the modern, quarterback-driven NFL. Singletary was wedded to a brand of football that was neither effective nor appealing to a fan base raised on Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice.

If Singletary had been trying to execute his vision in Chicago, he would have at least been afforded the benefit of the doubt. But in the Bay Area, patience wore thin quickly, especially after an 0-5 start this season.

Sunday's game was a microcosm of all that has gone wrong. With 10 days to prepare -- following the 49ers disastrous Thursday night outing in San Diego on Dec. 16 -- the team came out flat and disorganized. Singletary won the coin toss but opted to kick. His defense couldn't stop the Rams. His team committed six penalties in the first quarter. A weeklong cat-and-mouse game over who would be the starting quarterback offered no solutions: Troy Smith was ineffective. After a sideline screaming match with Singletary he was replaced by Alex Smith, who was equally unproductive.

York described the effort as "inept."

The 49ers have been inept for most of the past eight seasons. Their history of offensive greatness, Super Bowl titles and continuity in leadership is a faded, distant memory. The man holding the title of head coach has been just a part of the problem.

Now they are undergoing yet another makeover. This time, the 49ers need to get it right.