The San Francisco 49ers are cruising through the beginning of the 2023 regular season, starting off 4-0 after a victory over the Arizona Cardinals last weekend as they look to avenge a loss in the NFC Championship Game last season.
San Francisco dealt with a number of injuries in 2022, ranging from the quarterback position to a number of key areas, leading to some unexpected changes, such as safety Jimmie Ward’s move to nickel cornerback.
Ward, who initially started his career at corner before seeing success at safety, went on former teammate Richard Sherman’s podcast earlier this week, and had some thoughts on the end of his 49ers tenure, with some bitter comments directed at head coach Kyle Shanahan.
The safety detailed how his entire tenure went, starting with the hamstring injury that forced him to move to Injured Reserve to begin the season, paving the way for the 49ers to sign Tashaun Gipson as a replacement.
“Yeah, I remember I went down. I know I was talking to coach. I was like, ‘hey, coach, man, I’m year nine. Y’all gonna give me some vet days?’ Nah, coach said, coach Kyle [Shanahan] don’t want to give no defense, no vet days. And I’m looking at the offensive players. I’m like, brother, year two, year three,” Ward said, inferring the differences in how rest was divvied up.
“I was like, man, you know what? Control what you can control. So I was like, okay, all right. So it was right before joint practice. Hammy, grade two set me down for a minute. So we ain’t got Gip (Tashaun Gipson). I said, oh, Gip nice and this and that,” Ward shared, advocating for the team to sign his eventual replacement.
Ward was curious to how the 49ers would go about the season, especially after top cornerback Jason Verrett suffered a season-ending injury.
“And I was like, okay, I wonder how this is going to unfold. And then JV (Jason Verrett) went down. That kind of hurt. So that hurt a lot. Okay, all right, what’s going to happen then? I start payin attention. Then I knew Gip was a baller, so Gip balling.”
Looking at the safety position, Ward saw how fellow safety Talanoa Hufanga was more of a blitzer, leading to Gipson playing the back safety role.
“And then how they use Huf (Talanoa Hufanga): Huf was more of like a blitzer. They was blitzing huff and pitting him in the box. So I was like, golly.”
“And they just picked GIP back there at post safety. And I’m like, man, they’re not going to pick GIP. GIP can cover, but I don’t know if they’re going to pick GIP in the slot to cover wide receivers too much.”
However, upon Ward’s return, the safety was surprised to see his role transition to nickel packages.
And they put a package in for me. And I saw the package, I was like, man, it’s nickel. I don’t care what you call it.”
But, that never materialized, as the safety broke his hand on the first play from scrimmage on special teams, sidelining him for two more weeks.
“And then the first play, never forget first play, I came back week five because I got pit on by four week short IR. Week five, I come back and I get my hand. I break my hand wrestling with one of their best special teamers for the Carolina Panthers,” Ward said.
“Broke my hand on the first play kickoff. I was like ran back to the sideline. I was you know, I kind of diagnosed myslef, I broke so many bones know, I know what it feel like. I was like, man, yeah, I think I broke a bone this and that. Like, oh, yeah, let me go check it out. Broke my bone. So I had to have surgery that next week. So, put a cast on it.”
Upon his return, Ward understood the situation, with Gipson having taken control of the safety spot, leaving him to play in the nickel.
“So, coming back [against the] Kansas City Chiefs with a cast on. And I went in there and I talked to DeMeco. I already knew what I was going to do. So I was like, man, let me embrace it. I was like, man, you never know what would happen. So, I was like, ‘Meco man, just put me at nickel.’ You know how Meco is: ‘Oh, you really you want to play nickel?’”
“Whole time like I ain’t have a choice. Y’all gonna do it anyway. So he was like, ‘okay, all right.’ So he put me at nickel.”
That move irked Ward, who envisioned a potential package with nickel plays in the offseason, but his request of earning nickel reps in training camp was initially shut down.
“The thing that kind of made me mad a little bit was I told them, hey, during training camp, I was like, man, ‘you all might need to let me get some nickel wraps in training camp’. If I can practice it in training camp because I see what’s going on.”
“They said ‘like, oh, no, we ain’t going to need no training camp reps and this and that.’ I’m like, all right. Because obviously they had a few nickels there,” Ward said.
The turning point for Ward, however, was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game, where the longtime safety was asked to play outside cornerback in garbage time, despite the safety still healing from a broken hand.
“[Secondary coach Cory Undlin] came to me, he’s like, ‘hey, we need you to move the corner. [Ambry Thomas’s] ankle kind of bummed up. AT was just running down kickoff, like, ‘what do you mean at ankle was bummed up?’, Ward said. “It’s like, Bro, put him at corner. What are you hiding him from? Like, y’all draft him. Third round to play corner.”
“Like, I’m out here with a broke hand, you say him his ankle hurt and he’s still on special teams,” Ward said. “I looked at him, I was like and I told him, this is my first time: ‘No, I’m not going to corner, bro.’ I was like, I had no practice at corner. I said, you already did me like this once.
After Ward protested, the safety revealed that head coach Kyle Shanahan responded back, saying that he’d play linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair at cornerback, worsening tensions.
“Meco came and asked me. I was like, ‘Meco, I can’t do it. I said, no’. And then heard Coach Kyle from the sideline, ‘I guess we’ll just put Azeez [Al-Shaair] at corner.’” That’s when I snapped. I was like, ‘man, I guess you’re going to have to.’
Following the game, Ward decided not to partake in the postgame festivities, looking to leave the stadium, but the safety was called in for a chat with Shanahan.
“The game over. Went in. I was hot. I didn’t come in for the team breakdown. Got jumped in the shower, got my clothes, left. Before I left, [owner] Jed York told me, yeah, ‘coach Kyle want to talk to you.’”
“So I went in there and talked to coach Kyle. And coach Kyle was like, ‘hey, Jimmie, what’s going on, man? It really hurt me. You saying, we always do you like this.’ And I’m like, ‘you have! You do, bro’, Ward said. “You changed my position eight times, bro. You tried to get me out of here multiple times. I can’t forget it. I can forgive. I can’t control that. But you did what you did. And for me to feel like that how I feel, yes, I should. Year nine. Come on, man.”
That conversation was the boiling point for Ward, who said the relationship with Shanahan never healed after that.
“I see what’s going on. So after that, me and Kyle never really never talked the rest of the season, never said anything to each other.”
The safety eventually left for the Houston Texans in free agency, but it’s safe to say that the longest-tenured 49er at the time did not have the best parting with his former team.