Strange things are afoot in San Francisco, where the 49ers have lost two young players. Second-year RB Glen Coffee has retired, and third-year DT Kentwan Balmer (a former first-round pick) is AWOL and will likely be released. Below are some thoughts on Coffee’s retirement. But first, we want to try to figure out what’s happening in San Francisco.
The 49ers emerged as a chic playoff pick as outsiders looked at head coach Mike Singletary’s old-school approach, a hard-hitting defense, and an offense that features stalwart Frank Gore and up-and-comers Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, plus two new first-round picks on the offensive line. With the Cardinals losing so many prominent players, San Francisco looked just a few days ago to have a chance to win the NFC West for the first time in a long time.
But now, with Coffee choosing to leave and Balmer leaving, we have to ask an unpopular question: Is Singletary too hard on his players? Singletary has famously stuck to using the old-school Oklahoma drill in training camp, and he’s working players hard, as Singletary worked during his Hall of Fame playing career. The approach has apparently turned the light on for Davis, who had a sterling 2009 season after disappointing early in his career. But that same approach may have been too much for Coffee and Balmer. Maybe that’s not the issue, but the question deserves to be asked.
I like Singletary. We went to the same church in Chicago, and I believe he wants the best for his players and for his franchise. He’s done a good job in San Francisco, going 13-12 in a year and a half with a roster that’s only now getting premium players. But if Singletary’s hard-nosed, old-school approach is going to scare off young players – especially premium draft picks like Balmer (a first-rounder) and Coffee (a third-rounder), then in the end it may be counterproductive. Coaching matters in the NFL, but talent is also essential, and a growing team like San Francisco can’t afford a talent leak. (We’ve seen even in the winning tradition in New England in recent years that letting talent leave lessens the margin of error significantly.)
Singletary is at a crossroads, and winning is what will earn him currency. If he wins, he can continue with his hard-nosed ways, and the occasional departure of a talented player won’t be remembered. But if he doesn’t win, these departures will signal a trend. It’s the same issue that Josh McDaniels faces in Denver to a greater degree, only football fans at large have fonder feelings of Singletary.
But given the events of this week, it’s time to ask questions about Singletary’s style – even though we don’t want to. At this point, 49er fans and Singletary admirers can only hope that the answers this autumn fall Singletary’s way.
Coffee, a third-round pick in 2009’s draft, had a nice career at Alabama and appeared to be a nice backup option to Frank Gore last season. That’s an important role, because Gore has missed a handful of games in his career. Glen got a cup of coffee as a starter early last season when Gore missed Weeks 4 and 5, but he ran for just 128 yards on 49 carries. On the season, he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, and he faced a challenge from rookie Anthony Dixon and holdover Michael Robinson for the backup RB role this year. But during training camp, Coffee decided that he wanted to move on from football. It’s a blow to the 49ers to have a young contributor hang up his cleats, and it raises questions about whether something in San Francisco drove the 22-year-old away.