Back in August of last year, I was on hand for a 49ers training camp practice and wrote an article about it here on Niners Nation. One of the major things I noticed (besides some decent Brian Hoyer accuracy that would never come to fruition in the regular season), was a significant lack of energy and leadership. Afterward, I overheard one reporter describe it: “as boring a practice as I’ve ever seen.”
It was. It was lethargic; it lacked enthusiasm, direction, and any semblance of a true team. To be fair, it was practically a group of strangers coming together on both the coaching staff and the roster. When asked during the media session afterward, even Kyle Shanahan admitted he wasn’t sure who the vocal leaders were on the team.
Fast forward to 2018 and the exact opposite is starting to take form heading into training camp next month. This 49ers squad has energy, enthusiasm, camaraderie, and a clear vision.
Why? There are a few reasons. The biggest, in my mind, is the leadership of Jimmy Garoppolo and Richard Sherman.
Leadership gives a team direction—a spark. In this case, the hope is that it can help compensate for the talent deficit of the roster. Don’t get me wrong, the roster is better than it’s been the past two or three seasons, but it still has a long way to go. There isn’t a legitimate pass rusher; the wide receiver corps lacks a true number one; the jury is out on who will start at both guard positions; secondary depth is a bit thin; and—despite the potential of the group—the running back stable doesn’t have a single player who’s been a full-time starter.
Those are some sizable question marks for a team that’s coming into the 2018 season with the kind of hype the 49ers have right now.
Part of the boost in expectations can be attributed to the 6-1 finish to the 2017 season, highlighted by an impressive win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The bigger part, of course, is Jimmy Garoppolo.
Garoppolo’s skillset, coupled with a better understanding of Kyle Shanahan’s in year 2, is reason enough; however, Garoppolo’s presence means far more than just that. The ex-Patriot galvanized the team on both sides of the ball. He inspired his teammate’s to elevate their game—through his own play and, even more so, by intrinsically becoming the face of the franchise.
This team had no real identity before Jimmy Garoppolo arrived.
Shanahan is an X’s and O’s coach; a student of the game. He looks to be a promising head coach, but he’s definitely more of a teacher than a leader. Robert Saleh was a first time defensive coordinator last season, and while he exceeded expectations and quickly established a reputation as a players’ coach, he’s also not exactly in that leadership mold. Then, you take a look at the roster. NaVorro Bowman was never really comfortable in that role. As a soft-spoken player, he preferred to mentor and lead by example. Brian Hoyer? Nope. Pierre Garcon? A veteran leader of the WR group; not the entire team. You get the idea.
This is the biggest difference with San Francisco in 2018—the one that should give fans the most hope.
Not only does the team potentially have its first franchise quarterback since Steve Young, but it has a leader on and off the field. The impact of that—especially for such a young team with holes on the roster—can’t be overstated.
On the opposite ball, you have Richard Sherman: public enemy number one in San Francisco, until this offseason.
Say what you will about Sherman (I’ve said a lot), but it’s always been abundantly clear that he’s an intelligent individual who knows the game very, very well. That’s why his name is continually in the conversation for best cornerback in the league. Coming off an Achilles injury and turning 30 in March, the former Legion Of Boom executive just didn’t figure into Seattle’s revamping plans. Even if his best days are behind him, Sherman at 80% is better than 80% of the NFL.
Much like Garoppolo though, Sherman’s biggest impact promises to be as the face of the defense. What attracted the 49ers—in addition to a team-friendly deal that has the cornerback betting on himself—is his experience in the defensive scheme, his ability to teach the younger players as an on-field general, and to infuse the unit with confidence and charisma. You can see the embryonic stages of this coming together at OTA’s, with fellow defensive backs Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, and Ahkello Witherspoon jokingly referring to the outspoken, perennial Pro-Bowler as “Uncle Sherm” during a press conference. You see it on the practice field, with several video clips showing the former Seahawk engaging in one-on-one coaching with players before and after plays; barking from the sidelines.
Again, the 49ers expect (and need) his contributions to extend beyond the field.
John Lynch knows the value of true leadership. He played under Jon Gruden, on a defense that featured Warren Sapp during his days in Tampa. The word “leader” gets thrown around a lot—this is the ninth time I’ve mentioned it in this article alone. It’s a cliché but it’s far from hollow—it’s absolutely essential to success in the NFL. It’s not about having guys that are bigger than the team, it’s about having guys that are the core of the team. There’s a very distinct difference. In other plenty of other situations, the kind of attention and hoopla that Jimmy Garoppolo garnered would have rubbed teammates the wrong way; it would alienate them. It hasn’t. Largely because of the way he carries himself and defers praise to his teammates.
Richard Sherman definitely rubs opponents the wrong way. Sometimes, he can even get underneath his own teammates’ skin due to his competitive, antagonizing nature. Maybe he’s mellowed though. So far, he appears to be an exemplary teammate; a cornerstone this young defense can rally behind and learn from.
Most of all, Sherman brings a crucial element to this team that neither Garoppolo nor any other player on the team can provide: championship experience. Sure, Garoppolo came from the Patriot dynasty and he knows what a champion looks like but, sitting behind Brady, he wasn’t as much of an integral part of it. Sherman knows what it takes to win a Super Bowl and be competitive, year in and year out because he’s done it. For a team like San Francisco—a team that’s still finding out who they are, who they want to be, and how to win—this is invaluable.
Yes, right now, pundits and fans do look a bit overzealous about the 49ers’ chances in 2018. San Francisco only looks like a 7 or 8 win team on paper. Once you consider these kinds of intangibles though, it’s easy to see why there’s potential for more.