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What a difference a new regime makes

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While the 2017 49ers had the worst start in franchise history, the locker room hasn’t wavered

NFL: San Francisco 49ers-Jimmy Garoppolo Press Conference Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

There is a very different feel between the attitude in the San Francisco 49ers locker room this season than the previous three. While this isn’t too shocking of a statement, it’s important to note that just three short seasons ago in 2014, Jim Harbaugh was the head coach and Frank Gore and Patrick Willis were still on the roster. (Who am kidding it’s been three long seasons.) One of the most commonly heard statements this season is how different the roster looks now from week 1. What’s even more dramatic is how few players remain from the 2014 roster that went 8-8 under Harbaugh. There are nine.

  • Joe Staley
  • Daniel Kilgore
  • Eric Reid
  • Carlos Hyde
  • Dontae Johnson
  • Garrett Celek
  • Aaron Lynch
  • Kyle Nelson
  • Jimmie Ward

While there has been much debate on how the 49ers would have fared if Harbaugh had not “mutually parted ways” with the organization, it is doubtful it could have been a marriage destined for the long term. The mood after losses in the locker room was palpably more defeated than it is this year with only one win.

Maybe it was because the expectations were so much higher after three straight trips to the NFC championship game and a Super Bowl. Maybe because of the excitement of opening Levi’s Stadium. Maybe because for all of the effort that Harbaugh required of his players, there was an expected payout in the win/loss columns.

In 2015 there was Jim Tomsula. Several players retired during the offseason and the roster was suddenly lacking a veteran presence.

Notable departures were:

  • Patrick Willis
  • Frank Gore
  • Michael Crabtree
  • Mike Iupati
  • Justin Smith
  • Anthony Davis
  • Vernon Davis
  • Chris Culliver
  • Perrish Cox

The locker room after the week three loss to the Cardinals in Arizona was the most dismal I have ever experienced. Colin Kaepernick had been picked four times, twice for pick sixes. He ended the day 9/19 for 53 yards, four interceptions, no touchdowns and a rating of 16.7. Kaepernick blamed himself and likely some of his teammates did as well. It could be seen as a turning point in his NFL career.

Two weeks and two losses later, the offensive players attempted a “let us help you make plays” support conversation with Kaepernick which worked for one game, in a win over the Ravens. After two more losses that were blow outs to the Seahawks and Rams, the 49ers decided to start Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. Unfortunately, Jim Tomsula, who was loved by everyone at the beginning of the season, had already lost the locker room.

Anquan Boldin who was the leading wide receiver that season, actually left the locker room after a loss stating to the media, “I’m sorry, I have nothing to say to you guys.” Carlos Hyde attempted the same thing after a subsequent loss but was ushered back to his locker by the team PR staff.

In 2016, the 49ers hired Chip Kelly as their head coach and a for a moment, it seemed a new style and breath of fresh air had entered the building. The team started out with a bang in week one with a 28-0 victory over the Rams. Kelly brought in new methods and techniques but unfortunately the offense couldn’t stay on the field long enough. The defense understandably became worn out, allowing a record setting seven straight 100 yard rushers.

The headlines that dominated the season revolved around Kaepernick and his cause more than the offense’s performance, or lack thereof, on the field. Gabbert started six games at quarterback yet his disdain for the media surrounding the other quarterback’s locker was far from subtle. The team that was galvanized through Kaepernick’s team discussion about his motives quickly became demoralized after so many consecutive losses.

2017 is different. Yes, obviously there’s a new regime in the building. Kyle Shanahan is the head coach and John Lynch is the general manager but while the team has had it’s worst start in franchise history, the locker room has never been lost like it has been in the three previous seasons. A record setting five consecutive losses by three points or less shows the will that this team has to go against the odds.

One of the best barometers of the locker room mood is Joe Staley. This season he is back to doing funny things on camera after a few seasons of silence. It’s not the Joe Show yet, but it’s several steps in the right direction, which is remarkable considering the team just got it’s first win in week 10. What turned around his attitude? Being challenged in class room and on the field. Yes, of course Staley wants to win, but he and the rest of the locker room at the least, can feel the franchise going in the right direction.

While the previous three seasons had significant player turnover, 2017 has been by far the most drastic. Dozens of players have been released and dozens more signed during free agency while significant wheeling and dealing was done during the draft. If you’re not bought in, they aren’t afraid to respectfully show you the door which is what seems was the case with NaVorro Bowman. This regime wants players who believe in the process which is easier with players they are familiar with like Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson or brand new to the league, wanting to make a good first impression. The 49ers having a league high rookie snap count is no coincidence.

There have been several roster moves as a result of injury, with a league high of 18 players going injured reserve since the beginning of the season. What is different with this regime in place is how desirable the 49ers locker room has become. Lynch explained in his mid season meeting:

We have a lot of resources in terms of cap space and all that but part of it is selling people because there’s a choice when your a free agent. It was a big shot in the arm when we got Earl Mitchell because of who we were going up against. It was Denver, it was Seattle, Atlanta that were thought to be in the mix. We won out because we have a lot of resources but also because we were able to communicate what our vision was.

This not only happened in free agency but more recently with the acquisition of defensive lineman Sheldon Day who was pursued by the Texans, Lions and Cardinals after being released by the Jaguars. This does not go unnoticed in the locker room. Players know that their spot is more coveted now. They have bought in and even though the team is 1-9, they want to be in Santa Clara.