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Monday, October 20, 2008
Updated: October 21, 12:54 PM ET
Niners willing to play game of risk with Singletary -- in the short term

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

It's hard to call any interim coaching move in the NFL a good one because so few succeed, but let's at least say the 49ers' promotion of assistant head coach Mike Singletary to interim head coach is an interesting move.

Singletary is known for his leadership. As a middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears, he was known for his intensity and anticipation. Television cameras focused on his eyes. NFL Films has hours of great footage of Singletary peering into an opponent's backfield trying to figure out the play. Usually, Singletary was right in his diagnosis of a play.

Mike Singletary
The 49ers are counting on interim head coach Mike Singletary, middle, to provide a spark.

Taking over the 49ers isn't as easy. At 2-5, the franchise is running in place. Nolan hired Mike Martz to improve the offense, which is just what Martz has done. The 49ers have gone from 13.7 points a game last season to 22.6 with J.T. O'Sullivan at quarterback. But the defense has gone from allowing 22.8 points a game last year to 28 this year. Nothing seems to advance with the 49ers.

Maybe, in some ways, the 49ers are trying to capture what is going on in St. Louis. Jim Haslett, a former Pro Bowl linebacker himself, brought a renewed toughness to the Rams after Scott Linehan was fired after an 0-4 start. The Rams responded after a bye week to score upset victories over the Redskins and Cowboys. If Haslett continues to win, he could turn his interim job into the permanent head-coaching position for next year.

Hall of Fame: Mike Singletary

NFL.com Video

A look back at the Hall of Fame career of former Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary.

The difference facing Singletary is the unknown. Haslett was a successful head coach with the New Orleans Saints. He won coach of the year honors. Singletary has no head-coaching experience and hasn't been even a defensive coordinator. As a position coach, Singletary is a great teacher. He brings the intense style he had as a player to his students.

The big jump from position coach to head coach can be risky without the coordinator experience. The 49ers are willing to take that risk for nine games. They bypassed Greg Manusky, a talented defensive coordinator. They also bypassed Martz, who was a successful head coach with the Rams and has one of the best offensive minds in the league.

From Haslett to Dick Jauron to Jack Del Rio and others, former players who serve their time as assistants tend to become good head coaches more quickly than longtime assistants with no playing experience. Former players have a feel for the locker room and tend to know the right times to push or pull back. Singletary would have been better prepared for this chance if he had coordinator experience. Still, it will be interesting to see how he will look as a head coach.

When Singletary was a player, everyone figured he eventually would become a great head coach. Now he has nine games to prove whether those observations were right.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.