True grit: 49ers molded in Singletary's tough-guy image

Some 2-0 records are prettier than others. You look at teams such as the New Orleans Saints, and you see a lot of points, a lot of yards, and a lot of big plays. You see the clean, unwrinkled uniforms found on a club that wins mainly with finesse.

Then you look at the San Francisco 49ers. What you see is a lot of toughness and a lot of grit. You see a defense that punishes and an offense that pounds. There is nothing pretty about the way this bunch plays.

And that's because the 49ers are an exact replica of their coach, Mike Singletary, who was the very definition of toughness and grit during his Pro Football Hall of Fame career at middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

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"That's the mindset that he always wanted from us, and that's what's been exemplified on the field," 49ers veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes said.

Singletary set out to create that sort of mentality among his players seven games into the 2008 season, when he was named the 49ers' interim coach after Mike Nolan was fired. However, Singletary didn't get to fully implement his plan to bring it about until this past offseason, when he was given the job on a full-time basis.

It all began last March, during what the Niners officially called a minicamp but what, to Spikes, felt more like a boot camp. The fact he and his teammates were gathered so early in the offseason for anything even remotely resembling football activity was the first clue that Singletary had something unusual in store for his team -- something other than standard non-contact workouts. The next clue came when the so-called "drills" began.

"When we first stepped out on the field, we didn't even touch a ball," Spikes recalled.

What the players touched were sand bags, which they carried from one yard marker to another. Singletary pushed them hard through the exercises, with each session growing more intense than the one before it.

In 11 seasons in the NFL, Spikes could not recall another offseason workout quite like this.

"It was more so catered toward (Singletary saying), 'I want to see if you really want to be here. And I know you're not going to (say so), but your actions will speak louder than your words ever will,'" Spikes said. "You knew a foundation was going to be laid, but you (wondered) whether or not you really wanted to see it happen. You thought, 'Man, if this was this tough, imagine how training camp is going to be.'"

Training camp was, in fact, much harder. Some would call it brutal. Singletary revived the age-old "Oklahoma Drill," with a ball-carrier and defender going one-on-one in a confined space surrounded by the rest of the team and coaching staff. It's collision after collision to see who can emerge victorious in the ultimate game of football survival.

The rest of Singletary's camp was every bit as challenging. He held a total of 45 practices, 38 of which were part of two-a-days in full pads.

"His mentality toward this game has always been us playing physical and tough and relentless," 49ers veteran center Eric Heitmann said. "We haven't had that identity before, and that's what he wants to strive for first. Everything will kind of take care of itself after that."

So far it has. The 49ers opened the season by traveling to Arizona, where they knocked off the defending NFC West and NFC champion Cardinals. On Sunday, they beat the Seattle Seahawks, considered by many pundits to be a division favorite.

The Niners' defense held Kurt Warner and the rest of the Cardinals' high-flying offense in check. It then pummeled Matt Hasselbeck, who was hospitalized after suffering a cracked rib on a hit by linebacker Patrick Willis. San Francisco's running game, which was persistent but unproductive in the first game, trampled the Seahawks for 256 yards. Frank Gore had 207 on 16 carries, including touchdown runs of 79 and 80 yards.

"(A successful) running game always has been a huge goal for us, and I think that coach Singletary firmly believes and our offensive coordinator (Jimmy Raye) firmly believes that when the running game is working at its best, everything on our offense can go," Heitmann said.

Everything, as in the effectiveness of Shaun Hill, who beat out 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick Alex Smith in training camp for the starting quarterback job. One topic the 49ers' fast start has overshadowed is the fact they have the least accomplished starter in the division.

"Shaun has more confidence and composure, I think, than just about any other quarterback I've ever played with," Heitmann said. "He does not get rattled. You're not going to see turnovers from Shaun. He's a guy who makes great, confident decisions. He doesn't ever really put us in a bad place on offense. He's done a great job for us."

Another subject the Niners' 2-0 record also has made at least a little less distressing is the fact wide receiver Michael Crabtree, their first-round draft pick, remains unsigned.

"As a team, how can you miss what you've never had?" Spikes said. "We understand that it's a business. (But) what person doesn't want to be a part of something special?"

And what does the 49ers' sitting among the NFL's unbeatens say about all that has transpired since March?

"I think it says that the proof is in the pudding," Spikes said. "It says that hard work does pay off."

Observation points

» It began early in the New England Patriots' Monday Night Football scare against the Buffalo Bills. Everyone watching, in the stadium or at home, said the same thing regarding Tom Brady: "He doesn't look right." The sentence continued to be uttered throughout the NFL before, during and after the Patriots' Week 2 loss to the New York Jets. To even the most casual observers, Brady clearly seems less comfortable in the pocket than at any other time in his brilliant career. At least two hours before Sunday's kickoff, a not-so-casual observer told me, "The Patriots are going to have problems until that knee gets better."

Sure, the Jets did an excellent job of disrupting Brady with their frequent and creative blitzing. But there's no question that Brady continues to be bothered by the aftereffects of the major surgery he underwent on his left knee last year. He often is tentative with his movement and when he sets his feet. He doesn't consistently step into his throws with the authority he once showed.

Brady came as close as he's going to come to admitting that he is having some issues physically when he said the following after the Jets game: "There were times when I had plenty of time and just missed (throws). There were times when they came with just their pressure package, and I held onto it a little too long. You have to recognize the blitz and get the ball out quickly. We got it out quickly; we just didn't complete them."

» So how did they do it? How did the Indianapolis Colts beat the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football after losing the time-of-possession battle by such an overwhelming margin: 45:07 to 14:53? Peyton Manning is the most obvious reason. His ability to produce points practically at will, with a flick of the wrist, makes the game clock less of an enemy for the Colts than it can be for most other teams. The Indianapolis receiving corps is another reason. You can take away Marvin Harrison, and they've still got Anthony Gonzalez. You can take away Gonzalez, and they've still got Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark ... and now Pierre Garcon, who caught the winning touchdown against the Dolphins. And here's yet another reason: The Dolphins can make a lot of plays, but they don't make enough big ones. Their quarterback, Chad Pennington, doesn't have the ability to make a lot of those game-changing throws, and his coaches don't ask him to, as was the case Monday night.

» Clearly, the Dolphins spent a great deal of time preparing all of the gadgetry they unleashed on the Colts with the frequent use of their "Wildcat" offense. But one has to wonder whether they needed to spend more time working on more basic stuff, such as clock management. The Dolphins simply allowed too much time to evaporate in what should have been a more urgent attempt to get a touchdown after Garcon's score put the Colts in front, 27-23, with 3:18 remaining. Their shockingly casual approach would have been less of an issue, of course, had Ted Ginn not dropped a touchdown pass with 22 seconds left. That was his second drop of the night; the first, in the second quarter, was a case of his not extending his arms and/or body to get to the ball, which was thrown to a spot where only he would have been able to catch it.

» What impressed Mark Sanchez's Jets teammates the most about his performance against New England was how the rookie quarterback came on strong in the second half after being mostly invisible through the first two quarters. "It just shows a lot about his maturity level," fullback Tony Richardson said. "Because most quarterbacks, I don't care who you are, if you don't have early success, sometimes guys go in the tank. But he came out in the second half and just lit it up and played well, (showed) a lot of poise against a very good defense. They were in some different looks, things that we really didn't prepare for, but the guy's growing. That's the thing about it -- every week, he's going to get better at something."

They've got answers ...

» The New York Giants, because even without Plaxico Burress, they still have wide receivers capable of giving them a highly effective passing game. Mario Manningham and Steve Smith each caught 10 passes for a combined 284 yards and two touchdowns. These guys are legitimate playmakers, and Eli Manning can have every bit as much success connecting with them as he did with Burress. Smith showed just how much of a clutch performer he can be on the game's final drive by catching passes that helped set up the Lawrence Tynes' field goal that gave the Giants a 33-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night.

» The Patriots, because when Wes Welker wound up being a late scratch for the Jets game with a knee injury, they turned to rookie Julian Edelman, a converted quarterback. Edelman promptly assumed the go-to slot role that Welker performs better than pretty much everyone else in the league, and did an excellent job by catching a game-high eight passes for 98 yards. "He's Wes Welker's 'Mini-Me,'" Patriots tight end Chris Baker said. "That's what we call him."

» The Bills, because despite the fact Marshawn Lynch has served the first two games of a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy, their rushing attack hasn't missed a beat. That's because they have Fred Jackson, whose combination of speed, explosiveness and extra effort make him a top-flight talent that any team would love to have as a starter. Lynch's return will be welcome, but the Bills can't forget about Jackson, who ran for 163 yards against Tampa Bay. New offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt must figure out a way to make use of him, and not merely catching passes out of the backfield, even though he does that exceptionally well (six catches for 25 yards against the Buccaneers).

They've got questions ...

» The Dolphins, because at 0-2, they face a difficult challenge trying to right their season. True, this is the fourth consecutive season they've started in such a hole, and last year they went on to finish 11-5 and win the AFC East. But their schedule is rough, with a Week 3 trip to San Diego, followed by home games against the Bills and Jets, again on Monday Night Football. It would not be ridiculous to think the Dolphins could be 0-5 by their Week 6 bye.

» The San Diego Chargers, because they've lost standout nose tackle Jamal Williams to a season-ending triceps injury, and don't appear to have any real answers for replacing him among the players they are rotating at the position. They certainly have no one who consistently ties up multiple blockers the way Williams does.

» The Cleveland Browns, because they're sticking with Brady Quinn as their starting quarterback despite two poor games. If the battle between Quinn and Derek Anderson was as close as it appeared through the offseason and preseason, why not see what Anderson can do? What is there to lose in a season that figures to only get much worse with the Week 3 trip to Baltimore?

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Top five teams

1. N.Y. Giants: Beating the Cowboys in prime time during the grand opening of Jerry Jones' palace was an enormous accomplishment. Things should get easier at Tampa Bay.
2. Baltimore: Although they allowed Philip Rivers to throw for a career-high 436 yards, the Ravens stopped the Chargers repeatedly in the red zone. And Joe Flacco and the rest of the offense are productive enough to give this team a pretty complete look.
3. Pittsburgh: Another trip to Chicago, another loss. But the Steelers must get their act together because things don't look as if they'll get a whole lot easier at Cincinnati.
4. New Orleans:Drew Brees is playing at a level all his own, and the Saints' offense looks unstoppable. But how vulnerable is that defense?
5. N.Y. Jets:Rex Ryan's brash personality and aggressive, playmaking defense has given a distinctive edge to this team. So far, Sanchez doesn't look like a rookie.

Top five offensive players

1. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans: Nine touchdown passes in two games pretty much says it all. This guy has put himself helmet and shoulder pads above everyone else in the NFL, including Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota: His 92 rushing yards against Detroit were surprisingly low, but did you happen to notice this 6.1-yards-per-carry average?
3. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego: It didn't take him long to find the groove that should allow his numbers to consistently rank among the NFL's best.
4. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis: As long as he's under center, the Colts will continue to find a way to win the tough ones, as they've done the past two weeks.
5. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee: This guy can do more with a crack of daylight than some backs do with a canyon-like hole.

Top five defensive players

1. Mike Peterson, LB, Atlanta: He caused his third turnover of the season vs. the Panthers.
2. Antwan Odom, DE, Cincinnati: He added 30 pounds in the offseason, and with a 280-pound frame, he's a more powerful force. The proof is in his seven sacks in two games (five vs. Green Bay).
3. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco: He continues to be a punishing presence on a highly physical defense.
4. Darrelle Revis, CB, N.Y. Jets: After shutting down Andre Johnson in Week 1, he did the same against Randy Moss, who had 12 catches in the season opener.
5. Elvis Dumervil, LB, Denver: The Broncos' switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 clearly agrees with him, as evidenced by his four sacks vs. Cleveland.

Top five coaches

1. Tom Coughlin, Giants: He led his team into an incredibly hostile environment and came out with a win.
2. Mike Singletary, 49ers: He has built an extremely tough team and has done a good job of instilling a winning mentality.
3. Rex Ryan, Jets: Besides coaching up the Jets' defense into a unit that can get the best of the likes of Tom Brady, he also coaches up the fans. When Ryan urged the team's season-ticket holders to be extra noisy when the Pats had the ball, they listened.
4. Mike Smith, Falcons: It's hard not to be impressed with his ability to keep the roll that began in his rookie year in 2008 going.
5. John Harbaugh, Ravens: See the comment next to Smith.

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