SANTA CLARA — They’ve been doubted, they’ve been denied, but one thing that’s always remained the same is the chemistry.
After finishing the 2018-19 season 4-12, the San Francisco 49ers got to work during the offseason in hopes of a better year.
Fast-forward to nearly a year later, the Niners are 13-3 and preparing for the NFC Championship.
It’s been fun watching this team have fun. Every game they’re proving somebody wrong, and they’re doing it with a smile on their face.
Former 49ers President and CEO Carmen Policy agrees.
He said this team is a very special group and it could be the start of something much bigger.
“The present day Niners remind me of the team that ultimately was coming together under Bill Walsh,” Policy said. “But I think they’re more talented.”
This group brings newbies and veterans together to create something very different and very dynamic.
Jimmy Garoppolo has been doubted from the beginning. Critics said he could never be the quarterback that takes his team to a Super Bowl, and now he’s just one game shy.
San Francisco’s defense is remarkable and even dangerous now that key players are healthy.
But skill can’t stand alone to make a team “special,” so what is it about this group?
“They got personality, they’re fun to follow, they’re really a very special group that make each other better both on the field and off the field,” Policy said. “I don’t know how you beat something like that.”
That personality and chemistry didn’t just compile overnight.
Head Coach Kyle Shanahan said he and his staff have been trying to really implement it over the years.
“It’s something we’ve been trying to establish here,” Shanahan said. “I felt like we had that here a lot better than I expected the first couple of years and it didn’t result in winning which was always disappointing.”
Although the last couple of seasons didn’t go their way, the Niners didn’t give up.
“That’s something we always talked about. Man we got the right guys, they won’t stop working, they don’t point fingers … so it said a lot about our guys,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes we almost worried that we need some worse guys cause we’re not winning. But we stuck with it, we brought in a few guys who thought the same way as our other guys and some difference makers with the pass rush and some guys on offense too. Our team’s been like this since the beginning.”
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman agreed and said the only thing that’s really changed is the outcome of the season.
But how do you create team chemistry with continuous losing seasons?
“We had it before we were winning … This is a family atmosphere and guys care about one another,” Sherman said. “Guys go out and fight for one another. So that is really cool and it’s really special to be a part of.”
OK, great. A team acting like a … team. Yippee.
Well, the chemistry goes far beyond the guys battling on the field.
It’s definitely good to know that your players like each other, but what separates this organization from others is how coaches and executives respect one another as well.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh talked about his relationship with Shanahan versus other coaches he’s worked with.
“There’s a difference between attacking and challenging. Kyle is phenomenal at challenging his coaches to always achieve more. I’ve been around coaches who attack people and they get nothing,” Saleh said. “The way Kyle coaches is he challenges to do and look beyond beyond the box, look outside the box, look outside what you’re comfortable with so you can continually get better. Much different than the tone that a lot of coaches that I’ve been around where they just attack you and demean you for one reason or another.”
The respect goes even deeper to top executives, like General Manager John Lynch.
And when outsiders can see that respect, it’s there to stay and doesn’t go anywhere.
“Kyle and John are very similar, the working relationship they have is phenomenal. You can tell that they’re locked at the hip. Even in the event they may disagree, it is a very respectful conversation,” Saleh said. “They really do a good job uniting and unifying the entire building. So the scouts, coaches, everybody is all on the same page of what is being asked of them. The message is very clear. I can’t tip my hat off enough to those two and how they lead us and the way they treat one another for the entire building to see that.”
When Lynch is around, he’s called “John” not “Mr. Lynch” or anything like that. Garoppolo also said he refers to Coach Shanahan as “Kyle”.
The QB said that speaks to how the atmosphere is within the organization.
“We’re all in the same playing field, we’re all in this together,” Garoppolo said. “If everyone acts the same or treats everyone the same, I think it’s a good atmosphere.”
While Policy enjoys reminiscing about his Super Bowl years with the 49ers, he described the moment in last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings that he had never seen before.
Nick Bosa was just laying on the field after he sacked Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins. Fans didn’t know if Bosa had the wind knocked out of him or if he was badly injured.
“You heard the fans cheering ‘Bosa! Bosa!’ and you heard what he said. He was adorable,” Policy said. “He said ‘I just laid there and listened to it for a while, I kind of liked it’, never have I seen anything like wishing him to stand up and be totally healed.”
That moment was huge for the 49ers and it’s guys like Bosa who really bring the energy. And that energy is contagious.
49ers’ linebacker Fred Warner said the team treats every week like it’s just another game.
“I think the pressure comes from if you make the situation bigger than it is. It’s funny, we were all talking about it just the other day how last game it kind of just felt like another week even though the stakes were high and there’s a lot on the line. We don’t treat it as such,” Warner said. “We treat it like it’s another week. The routine doesn’t change, our preparation doesn’t change. The same could be said this week. We’re just going about business but we’re having fun doing it.”
Fun, but focused.
The team hosts Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Jan. 19 at Levi’s Stadium. The winner will head to Miami for the Super Bowl to take on the winner of the Titans-Chiefs matchup.