SAN FRANCISCO – When it comes to dysfunction, nobody does it better than the San Francisco 49ers.
They squabble – on national television, no less. They stumble, fall, get back up and collapse. They fire coaches; players quit. They lose games and scrounge for answers.
It's the same old song, but what they did Sunday night may have reached new heights in confusion. Coach Mike Singletary decided to pull quarterback Alex Smith from the game in the fourth quarter with his team losing by two touchdowns. He had backup David Carr warming up on the sideline. And then he changed his mind.
"At that time, I was contemplating putting David Carr in the game," Singletary said. "And after talking to Alex, I decided not to."
Did it matter? In a way, yes. Smith led the 49ers on a late touchdown drive and had them moving again in the game's final moments, but they still lost to the Philadelphia Eagles 27-24 to fall to 0-5 – their worst start since they were 0-7 in 1979 under first-year coach Bill Walsh. No team that has ever started 0-5 has gone on to make the NFL playoffs.
Although no one would get into specifics, it was painfully clear that Singletary and Smith disagreed on whether Smith should return to the game. There was an exchange between the two, and it became so heated – and visible to a national TV audience -- that tight end Vernon Davis and offensive lineman Adam Snyder stepped in to intervene.
Singletary had reason to be upset. At the start of the fourth quarter, Smith dropped the ball while trying to avoid a sack, and Eagles safety Quintin Mikell picked up the fumble and ran it back 52 yards for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead. It was the 49ers' fifth turnover of the game.
On the next series, Smith threw incomplete three times in a row, drawing boos from a sellout crowd at Candlestick Park and inciting Singletary. If Carr had come in, he surely would have been given a standing ovation.
"To be totally honest, they're sports fans," said Smith, who spent at least a half hour after the game meeting with Singletary behind closed doors. "We're 0-5. I guess I'd be pissed off, too. I was pissed off at myself. But I guess you can't boo yourself."
Afterward, Singletary said it was "possible" he would consider a quarterback change – despite saying last week that he would stick with Smith and that a change was out of the question.
Asked if he still believes he's the team's quarterback, Smith said, "Yep. Until he tells me I'm not, absolutely."
Smith made a case for himself immediately after the sideline altercation, driving the 49ers 69 yards in six plays and hitting Vernon Davis with a seven-yard scoring pass that made it 24-17.
But given a chance to tie the game or win it, the Niners stalled. Smith took them to the Eagles' 44-yard line, not quite enough for a game-tying field goal, but a third-down pass intended for Michael Crabtree was intercepted by Trevard Lindley. And that was it.
Singletary said the exchange with Smith was a personal issue that he would not discuss. But he also said he wanted to see how the quarterback would handle a decision to replace him – whether he would accept it passively or fight to stay in.
"I really wanted to see what his response would be," Singletary said. "More than anything, in a situation like that, a quarterback that has anything in him is going to have something to say about that."
But while fans clearly are fed up with Smith, his teammates rallied to his support.
Running back Frank Gore, who lost two fumbles, blamed himself and said he wanted Smith to remain the starter.
"I do," he said. "He's got all the tools. We're just killing ourselves. You saw what he did when he came back in the game. That's all you want from a player."
Said Vernon Davis: "I wanted Alex to stay in the game because I believe in Alex. I'm here for him."
The question is: Is Singletary there for him? That's something he'll have to figure out this week.