AS THIS SEASON has unfolded, by turns cruising and stumbling, the one thing we have discovered with certainty is Mike Singletary is wiser than his words.
That he's not as obstinate as he sounded the day he was officially promoted to head coach of the 49ers.
Oh, he still believes what he believes, down to his dogmatic core. Singletary is man of principle and conviction, guided by faith. He will not be moved.
As a coach, however, his ears are much bigger than they appear.
It was clearer than ever Sunday, during the 49ers' 20-3 dismantling of Jacksonville that for all his stentorian rhetoric, Singletary is man of reason, willing to compromise or even defer when confronted with evidence contrary to his opinion.
In the wake of San Francisco's 30-24 loss last week at Green Bay, several offensive players — particularly tight end Vernon Davis, quarterback Alex Smith and rookie wideout Michael Crabtree — offered suggestions to Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, proposing they become more aggressive throwing the ball.
"The more you play the better grasp you have on what you're doing," Smith said. "As the quarterback, there is a little more insight that you can put into talking with Jimmy on what we're doing and what I like and things like that."
Singletary paused, pondered and eventually approved.
And that led directly to a game in which the 49ers threw on 41 of their 61 offensive plays. Making liberal use of the shotgun formation, mixing in some four-receiver sets and sprinkling in wrinkles of West Coast offense, it was as if Singletary and Raye had dedicated this game to the memory of Bill Walsh.
"The absolute best thing that happened this week," Singletary said, "was I saw leadership on the offensive side of the ball in terms of, 'Coach, this is what I think would work. This is what I think we need. Can we do this? Can we do more spread? Can we put it on us, the receivers?'
"That's leadership. That conversation could go to the parking lot. It could go in the bathroom. It could go to their homes. But it came to (the coaches). It came to me."
Think this brainstorming was easy for the man who in January, upon becoming head coach of the 49ers, immediately talked of using a bullish running game to create an offensive identity?
The desire to run the football is natural for Singletary, who grew up in Texas, where running backs are worshipped, then went on to earn Hall of Fame bona fides as a middle linebacker for the smash-mouth Chicago Bears of a quarter-century ago.
Singletary could have seen this as a blow to his ego, a challenge to his judgment; a more stubborn coach, or perhaps one who never played in the NFL, might have pulled rank. But he presumably perceived the players were trying to invigorate a sluggish offense, seeking solutions for a team that had lost five of its previous six games.
The compromise worked. Smith had one of his best games as a pro: 27-of-41, 232 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, at least five catchable drops, including one by Crabtree in the end zone. Running back Frank Gore (16 carries, 33 yards) caught seven passes, Davis and Josh Morgan caught six each and Crabtree four. Tight end Delanie Walker caught four passes and gained 11 yards on an end-around.
"We got the ball in the hands of our playmakers," Davis said. "And we've got a lot of them."
This, along with video study, dropped a revealing reality at the feet of Singletary.
"We have more playmakers in the passing game," he said. "For the first time in a long time, we have a lot of playmakers that we can throw the ball to, as well as Frank."
This is not to suggest the 49ers (5-6) suddenly resemble the Saints or the Colts or the Patriots. Indeed, there were enough unimpressive moments to remind any observer that Smith still is developing and that no wideout is a threat to outrun coverage. Becoming a legitimate contender will require considerable upgrades to the roster.
Contending, though, is about so much more than talent. And the Niners are following Singletary in devoting themselves to the essential elements within their grasp. Coach-player relationships seem to grow stronger each day. There is a cooperative environment, a spirit of oneness.
And that only happens when the coach is willing to listen — and react to what he hears. Singletary seems to get this, which means even with the old-school mentality he tends to convey, there is plenty of room to embrace new-school ideas.
Contact Monte Poole at email@example.com.