Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
It’s easy for a team to become negative when it has had a terrible season like the 49ers this year after such high expectations. Yet, remarkably, San Francisco is still experiencing positivity all around.
From the locker room to the coaching staff, the Niners have not become a downtrodden gloomy bunch who want to tank and move on to the off-season quickly. They’re still playing hard, trying to improve, and keeping an eye on a better future which they expect will be right around the corner.
But, how is San Francisco staying so positive when they are 3-10 with three more games to go, all against teams likely to make the playoffs?
Balanced Core Group of Players That Inspire
Through the adversity this season, several 49ers have emerged to become great models of consistency, industriousness and poise which has helped keep things together for the young team overall.
Second-year tight end George Kittle comes to mind as one of these standout players. The twenty-five-year old Iowan has been terrific with 69 receptions for 1,103 yards, 84.8 yards per game, and four touchdowns. He has also set several franchise records and is on pace to break Rob Gronkowski’s record for the most single-season receiving yards by a tight end. Pro Football Focus stated this week that Kittle “has provided the 49ers with the same kind of elite-caliber productiveness that lies in some of the greatest players at the position,” adding, “his success in facets of the game that tight ends don’t usually excel at is staggering.” Defensive tackle, DeForest Buckner said this week that Kittle’s tremendous performances help provide energy for the team to feed off of and it “gets the team going, for sure.”
Left tackle Joe Staley is another player whose routinely strong play has been inspiring to the rest of the team. Through Week 14, the thirty-four-year-old has had nine games when he has allowed two or fewer quarterback pressures and he’s twice been PFF’s highest graded left tackle in the league. Staley was also recently ranked as the eighth best offensive lineman in the NFL by PFF and shows no signs of slowing down. And, he’s been a great mentor to Mike McGlinchey, the rookie right tackle on the rise and dark horse candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Third-string quarterback Nick Mullens deserves to be mentioned in this impressive company as well. In just five starts, the twenty-three-year-old has 1,479 passing yards for nine touchdowns, averages 8.5 yards per pass, and his 93.5 passer rating is higher than first round draft pick Baker Mayfield’s. But, perhaps the best assets this Southern Mississippi alum has is his ability to bounce-back after mistakes and show poise under pressure. These kinds of intangibles for an “undersized” and undrafted leader of the offense are crucial for success. And, they show Mullens’ aptitude for never backing down as well as tremendous amount of preparation. General manager John Lynch recently said about him, “his teammates respect him because of the way he goes about his work. So much of this league is being ready when you get your opportunity, and Nick Mullens is a great example."
The presence of veteran cornerback Richard Sherman on the field and in the locker room has been tremendously valuable to the 49ers, too. Finally at full health after his Achilles surgery and always positive, the thirty-year-old never seems to lose faith in his abilities and what it takes to get the job done. For the young 49ers defense which has seen a revolving door at almost every position due mostly to injuries, Sherman has been rock solid and an example of how to harness one’s talent while using one’s head. Coach Shanahan said of Sherman in November, “Richard's game has a lot to do with what's upstairs. He's thinking a lot. He understands route combinations. It's hard to beat him on the same thing twice. You can get him once, but usually the second time it's a pick."
During Shanahan’s two years as head coach of the Niners, he’s consistently put forth an effort into developing players. This patient approach towards growing talent and working with their skill set has paid off this season when rookies have had to step in for injured players. And, several have done well right from the starting gate.
Take twenty-four-year-old rookie safety Marcell Harris and his journey to start in the NFL. He sat out his entire senior year at Florida due to an Achilles tear and then was drafted by the 49ers in the sixth round of the 2018 Draft. An injured hamstring held him back further and landed him on the injured reserve list for the first several games of the season. He was expected to sit out this year and learn from Jaquiski Tartt, but when injuries devastated the Niners defensive backfield, Harris got his chance to step in during Week 13 against Seattle. He struggled that first game against the Seahawks and came back to ace his second start against the Broncos when he had six tackles and two for a loss.
Twenty-two-year-old safety D.J. Reed was also able to show how good he can be last week when he stepped in for nickelback K’Waun Williams, out with a knee injury. Reed finished the contest against the Broncos with twelve tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and a forced fumble. He also became one of five “Pepsi Rookie of the Week” nominees which included Saquon Barkley and Baker Mayfield, among others.
Credit for these rookie successes is due to the coaching staff which helped prepare these young players for tough competition right off the bench. It’s something Shanahan has been forced to deal with these past two seasons. Yet, it’s clear that Coach has a gift for cultivating talent which has been key to giving young players confidence and keeping the morale up. Rather than point fingers and blame each other, the 49ers are striving to be better and want to work well as a unit together.
We’re Getting Close
It’s been frustrating to see the 49ers give up several close games this season against good teams. But, even when crippled by injuries and lacking certain personnel at key positions, the starters have kept on fighting and trying their hardest. It’s an indication that the players still believe that success is right around the corner.
Of course, having Jimmy Garoppolo walking around the facility without the use of a cane helps. All signs point to him being able to start 2019 at this point. With an elite quarterback at the helm, everybody looks forward to a favorable outcome next season. Running back Jerick McKinnon is also on the mend and doing well which boosts confidence.
Then there’s the off-season and 2019 draft. The 49ers have five picks and could have the first overall one. Regardless of that situation, it’s just another opportunity for this team’s roster to get better and hopefully it does. By continuously adding good people and developing young stars, that’s another way for the team to keep a positive mindset, even if (God forbid), we have another losing season next year.
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