Singletary still confident winless 49ers can claim NFC West

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Mike Singletary isn't wavering in the slightest from his offensive philosophy for the San Francisco 49ers. He wants a physical, balanced attack. He still expects his 0-3 team to bounce back and win the NFC West, as everybody believed it would.

Two days after the coach fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, Singletary's players expressed their enthusiasm for a fresh start entering Sunday's game at Atlanta (2-1). The Falcons have won the last three meetings between the teams.

"I am convinced that being at the place that we are right now has allowed us to see some things and do some things and make some changes that will take us where we need to go," Singletary said Wednesday. "Thankfully, it's early in the season. And we still have a tremendous opportunity in front of us. And that's the way we see it."

Promoted quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson is expected to bring a more creative offensive approach as coordinator, along with flexibility to consider different personnel groups in various situations while not making major overhauls in the middle of the season. He might opt to open things up and incorporate the spread.

There had been so much made this season of the 49ers' continuity at the coordinator spot, with Raye returning for a second year. It marked the first time in eight seasons the franchise didn't put a new person in the position.

"It really hurts if you change the whole scheme, but really it's the same stuff," running back Frank Gore said of the switch. "I think coach Johnson might do more (with) personnel, to give defenses a different look so that they just can't be able to know what we're doing."

Singletary is standing by quarterback Alex Smith. The coach acknowledges Smith has underachieved, along with everybody else on the roster. Smith agrees, and he made it clear Wednesday he isn't blaming Raye.

"It's easy to point the finger when guys are gone and roll them under the bus a little bit," Smith said. "It's convenient for the guys that are still here, but it's not the right thing. We certainly all had a hand in it, but it's something we've got to get fixed."

Singletary chose Johnson over offensive line coach Mike Solari to assume coordinator duties, largely based on Johnson's existing strong relationship with Smith. Singletary said it hadn't been decided whether Johnson would work from the field -- where there are distractions, emotions and crowd noise -- or in the booth as Raye did to call plays.

Either way, Singletary feels good about his decision.

"I wanted the trust, the communication and everything else to continue moving forward," he said. "I did not want any setbacks whatsoever in Alex's development at this point."

Smith was sacked five times last Sunday during a 31-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick, deemed this season's starter at the end of last season, has completed just 72 of 119 passes for 732 yards and two touchdowns. He has a dismal 66.2 passer rating with seven sacks.

It's hardly the start that people envisioned from Smith, or a San Francisco team considered the division favorite from the beginning.

This unexpected winless start has clearly worn on Singletary, who showed up to his Wednesday media address with a sheet of notes to work from and a more confident look -- almost a swagger -- to him than in recent days when he seemed almost down.

"It's important right now for us as a football team to continue to eliminate the distractions that surround our team in the first three weeks," Singletary said. "When you have a situation like we have right now, when you have a team that's 0-3, particularly when you were expected to do great things by the media at the beginning of the season, it is important for us to maintain the focus of being the best team that we can possibly be. It is our focus to win the division. It is our focus to continue to move forward and get that done."

Singletary doesn't plan to switch his starting lineup against the Falcons.

The 49ers have been outscored 87-38 so far. While their defense had been "lights out" in the first two games, according to Singletary, even that unit had its problems against the Chiefs.

The players say a lack of execution is the main problem. Can they correct things in time to avoid the franchise's first 0-4 start since going winless in their initial five games in 2005 during Mike Nolan's first year as coach? San Francisco finished 4-12 that season. This year's team has been determined to finally get back to the playoffs and end a seven-year postseason drought. San Francisco has an uphill climb ahead.

"It's all about being accountable," wide receiver Josh Morgan said. "We can have a new offensive coordinator, but if we don't come in here and do our jobs as players, then it's probably going to have the same result. It's basically on us as players."

Note: Injured center Eric Heitmann returned to practice, in pads no less, for the first time since breaking his left fibula early in training camp Aug. 9. Heitmann was expected to miss up to two months, and David Baas has been starting in his place. Singletary hasn't been clear about what role Heitmann might have once fully healthy, though the coach insists Baas has taken ownership of the starting job.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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