SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — LeGarrette Blount nearly joined the San Francisco 49ers before changing his mind, calling coach Mike Singletary directly to tell him he was instead headed to Tennessee.
The reason: a crowded depth chart at running back behind Frank Gore.
“Jeff Fisher was a better salesman than I was,” Singletary joked of the Titans coach.
Turns out, Blount is wracking up yards for the Niners’ next opponent as a running rookie for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who come to Candlestick Park on Sunday hoping for just their second win in 13 tries in the stadium and first since 1980.
The undrafted Blount is the Bucs’ leading rusher with 75 carries for 359 yards and four touchdowns – coming up big for surprising Tampa Bay (6-3), which acquired Blount off waivers after the Titans cut him in September.
There are no hard feelings on Singletary’s part. He respects Blount for contacting to him, rather than having his agent make the call to the coach as some players would.
Even if Blount went back on his word.
“Yeah, just like a recruit,” Singletary said of the commitment. “I understand that. The thing I told him at the time was: ‘I appreciate you calling me back. I appreciate you not having your agent call me or me hearing it tomorrow.’ The fact he called me back and said: ‘Coach, you know what? I’ve got reservations and this is why.’ I told him, ‘I’m not going to try and talk you out of it, I appreciate you calling me back and best of luck to you.”’
Now these two will square off in a game that means so much to both sides. At 3-6, the 49ers have some momentum with three wins in four games following an 0-5 start. They are still very much in the chase in the underachieving NFC West despite the lousy beginning.
Blount would like nothing more than to move past that infamous punch from September 2009 while at the University of Oregon in a season-opening game at Boise State. With each positive step he takes in the NFL, perhaps that day will become closer.
Joining Tampa Bay was yet another chance.
Bucs coach Raheem Morris knows Blount is working each day to repair his reputation and find a way to be judged again based on his on-field performance and no longer that night he lost his cool.
Blount was released by the Titans despite rushing for 118 yards and two touchdowns during the preseason – and Tennessee largely wishes it still had him. Blount’s draft prospects plunged after Oregon suspended him for eight games during his senior season for throwing the punch to Byron Hout’s jaw on national television.
“All I can speak about is what he’s done since he’s been here. And he’s trying to get over that,” Morris said. “Every time he puts up a big run or any time he does anything, everyone wants to (talk about) the punch. And that’s not what he’s about. And that’s not who he is. He’s got a fresh start. This is the turning point and he’s got a chance to capitalize on it right now. I think he’s going to take advantage of his opportunities.”
Singletary has no doubt in his mind. He wishes Blount well, just not Sunday on the opposite sideline.
Blount is Singletary’s kind of player – tough, goes hard every snap.
“That’s why I like him. He’s a big physical guy, runs hard, and he’s got a little edge to him,” Singletary said. “So it seems like he’s having a good season, having a nice impact on their team, and that’s good to see. I’m happy for him.”
Singletary is happier still for his new starting quarterback, Troy Smith. He will make his third straight start behind center. This week, he was chosen over a now-healthy Alex Smith, who is ready to return from a separated left, non-throwing shoulder sustained Oct. 24 at Carolina. He sat out San Francisco’s win over the Broncos in London the next week and then last Sunday’s 23-20 overtime victory against St. Louis.
Troy Smith has thrown for 552 yards, completing 29 of 47 passes.
San Francisco will try for its third straight win in the series after the last two meetings were decided by seven combined points. These franchises met in the second round of the NFC divisional playoffs in 2002 – the Niners’ last postseason berth – and Tampa Bay won 31-6.
The Bucs are 2-23 all-time in the regular season in the state of California.
“We just know what’s at stake for our season. We’ve got seven games left and we need all of them, but it starts with this one,” 49ers All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said. “We don’t want to be in this situation right now with the record we have. It’s a problem we made ourselves.”
Tampa Bay second-year quarterback Josh Freeman has rallied the Bucs to fourth-quarter comebacks in four of their six victories this season.
In last week’s 31-16 win over Carolina, he completed 18 of 24 passes for 241 yards and no interceptions. The Bucs started seven rookies, and Blount wasn’t among them.
Still, Freeman realizes things get tougher making the long trip West. The Bucs were leaving a day earlier than usual when hitting the road, on Friday, in order to get acclimated.
“Any time you go to the West Coast, it’s a long trip and you’ve got to get mentally prepared for – one, the trip, the long flight, and two, going out and playing against a really good defense like the Niners,” Freeman said. “Going out on the West Coast and playing a team as dangerous as San Francisco is definitely going to be a challenge.”