• Scott Young

Monday Morning Blitz: Dante's Inferno

Image Credit: 49ers

The pandemic sweeping through America was destined to give this year's NFL season a different feel. Safety protocols, testing, different roster constructions, virtual drafts, nearly every facet of the NFL had changed before Training Camp had even started. But while most teams had their own struggles, for the 49ers, the theme of Training Camp was Heart.

Jason Verrett had been considered a wash after his failed attempt at making a name for himself with the 49ers in 2019 after playing only three snaps before suffering a hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve, but watching him in training camp, you wouldn't know it. He continually looked like the shutdown corner we've seen flashes of throughout his career, making play after play that would get him on any highlight reel and get the attention of reporters in attendance and the attention of the coaches. When asked about Verrett's progress thus far and the competition for the starting cornerback position opposite Richard Sherman, Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh was coy when he said, "[CB Jason] Verrett looks good, his foot speed and all that stuff is all there. Now, it's just a matter of getting reps and getting comfortable." It was clear that Verrett wanted to regain something he felt lost after the previous season, but he would need to dig down and find it inside of himself.

After the injury to WR Jalen Hurd the WR corps appeared to step up for their fallen comrade. WR Dante Pettis, After being put "in the doghouse" by Shanahan during the 2019 season, Pettis had his best day of Training Camp in the last two years. Pettis caught multiple passes from all three 49ers quarterbacks during the day, the most impressive coming as a contested catch over the middle between two defenders thrown by QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Another highlight occurred when Pettis flew down the field, forcing CB Ahkello Witherspoon to flip his hips and turn around to keep Pettis from flying past him. Pettis, seeing this, planted his foot and turned back around for a 15-yard catch thrown by Garoppolo.

Matt Barrows characterized this move as having an "urgency" to his route running. Urgency doesn't quite feel correct to me. I would prefer to say Pettis showcased a "command" of his route running. Similar to Oakland Athletic's Pitcher Jesus Luzardo and his command on the pitching mound, Pettis found a way to mix his legato and finessed running style with the kind of crisp route running that quarterbacks thrive on, and that will surely get him more looks as Training Camp progresses.

During a press conference following a training camp practice, Dante Pettis was asked about what being inactive for the 2019 Super Bowl meant to him: "If that doesn't change the way someone approaches the offseason, then they don't want to really be in the NFL. There's not too many things worse than that football-wise that can get you going. Being inactive for the Super Bowl, that was kind of like the final straw."

Being a coach in the NFL is tough. Being one of the youngest coaches in the NFL is even tougher. Kyle Shanahan has had to wade through these immense trials and errors in his own ways, from meeting with Head Coach Bill Belichick at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine to discuss how he was beaten at the Super Bowl or when draft crushes don't pan out the way you hoped. Learning to coach and finding your own style is something that can't really be taught, though. In a perfect world, people would react to your coaching cues exactly as you want them to, whether it be to flip your hips at a different time or use your hands in a different way. Attempting to introduce attitudinal changes is a much different and fickle monster. People as a rule are very set in their ways, and people spend years learning to get outside of their own head to be able to learn not to take criticisms and suggestions as personal attacks. Trying to coach and change one's behavior as you would one's actions will almost always lead to that person shutting down and not hearing the intent behind the words. As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his own journals to himself, "Indeed, no one can thwart the purposes of your mind---for they can't be touched by fire, steel, tyranny, slander, or anything."

When asked about Coach Shanahan's bludgeon-like approach to coaching in 2019, Pettis said, "Last year I wasn't playing the way I could've. I know I was capable of more. There was certain things holding me back football-wise and that's not the case anymore. This offseason I worked with my trainer to connect the physical and emotional and everything like that to reach back and say ok I pushed physically now how does that make me feel emotionally. Last year I took his coaching the wrong way, I guess. I made it more personal and about me. I got caught up in the way he said some things and not the actual message he was trying to get to me. Once I realized that I think our relationship is really good. It's open. We can communicate. When we came back we had a really good talk, and yeah, we have a really good relationship now"

When asked about this meeting, Coach Shanahan said “Dante and I had a pretty good talk when he came back. He wanted to talk and it was pretty cool hearing him tell me some of that stuff that I think he shared with you guys yesterday. Even when he said stuff like, ‘I thought I was accepting coaching,’ and stuff. But then, when I sit back and look at it, sometimes you realize you take things personally and you don't totally hear it all. There's a two-way street on that. Our goal in everything is to get a guy better and there's thousands of ways we can do that. You better not do the same thing with each person. I knew Dante came in a little bit behind last year and I tried everything I could to try to get that fire and I didn't get that done last year with him. I do see that as a two-way street. I love how Dante came back and accepted his part in it, but I also accept mine. I’ve got to find a better way to get it out of him. What's cool is, I think he's found a way to get it out of himself right now. I don't like having to worry about whether I'm going too hard or how I'm saying it. I just want to say it as good as I can. Usually if guys trust you in that way, you can get that across to them. I think both of us are getting better at that right now.”

Learning to open your heart is one of the toughest endeavors one can undertake for themselves, but hearing that Shanahan and Pettis are in sync, and that Pettis opened his heart, it would not be surprising for this to translate to the field and see him open on the field as the 49ers look to open the season on a high note against the Arizona Cardinals.

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