Mike Singletary has already left a lasting legacy on pro football. The cornerstone of arguably the greatest defense in NFL history, Singletary’s infectious passion led to him being named one of the NFL’s all-time greatest characters during the league’s 2019 centennial celebration. If one was to look up “football player” in the dictionary, they’d probably see a photo of Singletary in his Bears jersey, sporting wide eyes and a wry smile while calling out the play.
Singletary’s place in NFL history is secure, but that doesn’t mean he is done putting his imprint on the game. An NFL assistant coach for nine years and a head coach for parts of three, Singletary is hoping to again offer his football expertise to an NFL team.
“I did have interest in getting back in the game,” Singletary said in an interview with CBS Sports. “I love being able to work with players. … I have really done the work in terms of from the first time that I became a head coach to this day. Really began to do the work and really understand what it took to not just be a coach but a great coach. If the opportunity presents itself again, great. If it doesn’t, I just continue to move on. God’s given me other gifts and I can use those in other areas of life.”
Singletary recently interviewed for the Bears’ previously vacant defensive coordinator position, which was ultimately filled by Sean Desai, a longtime staff member.
“It did not work out,” Singletary said of his interview with the Bears. “I’m a firm believer that if it was there for me to do it, if that was what I was supposed to be doing, then I would be there doing it. For whatever reason I’m not at this time. That’s OK, but I’m just continuing to do business and work that way, and very happy doing that as well.”
Among the organizations Singletary is currently involved with is the Pro Football Retired Players Association, a retired NFL player organization exclusively designed to “develop programs and benefits for the betterment of retired NFL players.”
A Hall of Fame linebacker with the Bears, Singletary credits much of his success to Buddy Ryan, a defensive guru who coached three legendary defenses during his time in the NFL. Singletary said that Ryan’s willingness to listen was what led to the Bears’ defensive dominance during the mid-1980s. Ryan’s ability to listen to his players is something Singletary has integrated into his coaching philosophy.
“I think Buddy allowed us to be able to say, ‘Buddy, here’s what we can do. We’ll do whatever we need to do in order to cut [the game plan] down so that we can become more effective instead of being more efficient.’ … Buddy thankfully listened, as I went around and asked the guys, ‘Why are you not playing? What do we need to do so that you are playing and help me understand it so that I can tell Buddy this is what we need?’ Whatever I put on that paper, that’s what it was.
“When guys said, ‘Hey, I just need more time. I need to walk through this stuff. I don’t care if we walk through it with our sandwiches in our hands. We can walk through this stuff out there.’ So Buddy said, ‘OK, you know what? If that’s what you guys are saying that you want, then guess what, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.’ Now, there has to be ownership in place. Are you going to take ownership of it or are you just going to sit over there and say, ‘It would be nice if we could do this.’ A lot of things would be nice, but nothing really happens until those players begin to take ownership of what the coach is giving them, especially if they ask for it. If that’s what they ask for, then they’ve got to be accountable.”
Over the past quarter century, free agency and the salary cap have significantly leveled the playing field. To combat those challenges, Singletary says that a unified organization — from the owner to the general manager to the coaches and players — is essential to having a championship-caliber team. Furthermore, it requires having players who are totally committed to the cause.
“I think a lot of teams do well to get into the playoffs, but when it comes down to those teams that are in the Super Bowl, and particularly the one that wins, it comes down to all the blood, sweat, tears and time that it has taken,” Singletary said. “After practice, a lot of guys are like, ‘Hey, we practiced hard today, I’m going home.’ The good teams stay and watch practice together after practice. The great teams, even after they watch practice, they meet later on sometime that night, maybe one night a week before the game, and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to clean out all of this other stuff. We’ve got to make sure that we really, really understand this stuff. And you’ve got a leader on the defensive side or the offensive side saying, ‘Hey, this is what we have to do guys.’ And making sure that you’ve got to take that thing off of the playbook and you’ve got to put it in your mind, and you’ve got to put it in your heart and your soul.
“When you get out there and you’re playing, now you’re playing at another level. The other team is playing to execute their plays. You’re playing to execute a championship. You’re playing at another level because you’ve put the work in to play at another level.”
The NFL is a different game than it was 30 years ago, and Singletary is well aware of how those changes have impacted the game. Singletary said that he would make sure to study the tendencies of the officials, as late-game calls often sway the outcome of close games, especially in today’s parity-ridden league. He also said that he would take full advantage of the league’s favorable rules toward passing. He may have played in a more running era, but Singletary is more than willing to air the ball out.
“If I’m an offense, I’m going to throw the ball down the field as much as I can,” Singletary said. “And if I’ve got a quarterback that can throw the ball down the field and keep it in bounds, I’ve got a chance to get pass interference a lot. If I’m doing that in a pass-happy league, and calls are so critical downfield, I’m going to throw the ball downfield a lot.”
In Singletary, an NFL team would get a Hall of Fame player who worked hand in hand with one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history. As an assistant coach in Baltimore, he worked closely with linebackers Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. As a head coach, he posted a winning record with a team that fired its head coach midseason. In San Francisco, he helped lay the foundation for a 49ers team that would appear in three consecutive NFC title games.
Singletary has a clear coaching philosophy built on accountability and trust. He also has a simple objective for how to help his players have success.
“I need to be able to figure out how do I have this guy playing fast,” he said. “The whole key of a coach is to make sure that the players are playing fast. If they’re playing fast, the things that it’s telling you is that he’s playing with confidence. He’s playing with a lot of excitement, he’s playing with a lot of anticipation. When they’re doing that, the game’s over. Lights out.”