‘Twas the day before Christmas, and all through house, not an ego was stirring, not even a mouse. (OK, perhaps that’s a stretch, but we’re nothing if not festive at Fangirl Sports Network.)
That being said, when one looks around the San Francisco 49ers locker room, one sees a lot star power. From Trent Williams to Nick Bosa to Fred Warner to Deebo Samuel to George Kittle to Christian McCaffrey (and that’s not even close to all of them), the NFC West champs are a star-studded group with a team first mentality.
“I mean, you could have a lot of stars on the team, and that doesn’t mean you necessarily have a chance at the Super Bowl,” said wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. “I think we realize we have an actual chance. So you can take a backseat – personal goals take a backseat – and then focus on the team…Championship first because we have an actual ability to do that.”
The 49ers added CB Charvarius Ward in the offseason and traded for Christian McCaffrey in October, both playmakers with mentalities that fit with the 49ers’ goals.
“It starts with the people that you bring in and it’s also about the guys gelling together with the leaders that we already have here,” said 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. “…[I]t’s just the culture that Kyle [Shanahan] and John [Lynch] have created here in our locker room. Just overall. When you come in, nobody is bigger than the next man and the only way that we thrive as a team…is everybody just doing their job and playing together…
“I always tell the guys, no one needs to play hero ball. You’re not on the field by yourself, so if you take that mindset that all I have to do is my part, do my job, then we’ll play really good football and that’s what guys have been doing and nobody is saying, oh, look at me or what I’ve done or looking at their own personal accomplishments. It’s all about us collectively as a unit.”
— Tracy Sandler (@49ersfangirl) December 22, 2022
After a Week 6 loss to the Atlanta Falcons and an embarrassing Week 7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers sat at 3-4 and a team that was thinking Super Bowl was a team that was a bit of a mess. But they’d been here before, falling to 3-5 in 2021 and ending up in the NFC Championship Game.
“The stars are teachers,” said center Jake Brendel. “So they take the young guys in the room under their wing and show them the ropes, and show things that other people just don’t get the opportunity to see, unless they’re studying the film intensely from other players. It really is a selfless position that some of the playmakers on the team have taken, and I think it does nothing but make us all better.”
— Tracy Sandler (@49ersfangirl) December 16, 2022
Since that Week 7 loss, the 49ers have won seven straight games, lost their starting quarterback, won with a rookie QB who was the last pick in the 2022 draft, lost Deebo Samuel for a few weeks and somehow haven’t missed a beat.
“I don’t think [quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance] get enough credit for what they’ve done,” said now-QB1 Brock Purdy. “I’m just now coming on the scene, where these guys have been here throughout the offseason for Trey, and Jimmy coming in and leading these guys and winning…I’m just trying to do my part in terms of where we’re at now in the season – definitely not all praise to Brock and what Brock’s done. Those guys, they deserve all the credit, so I appreciate those guys.”
McCaffrey arrived in Santa Clara in a trade with the Carolina Panthers on Friday, October 21 and was taking snaps 48 hours later.
“…It’s very obvious, as soon as you get there,” McCaffrey said. “And kind like Brock who is able to step in like that, is a testament to Brock’s character and his resilience and it’s also a testament to guys like Jimmy and Trey, and that whole room, because they feed everyone and that’s just a cool thing to be a part of. Everyone on this team just plays with so much passion and purpose and you can see it in the way they work all week…I think my first emotion is just thankful to be part of this team.”
— Tracy Sandler (@49ersfangirl) December 16, 2022
As Ryans said, this culture comes from the top down and it’s something the 49ers have been building since John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan came in in 2017.
“John and Kyle do an outstanding job of getting the right kind of guys there that just like playing football,” said 49ers’ offensive line/run game coach, Chris Foerster. “It’s not about who gets the credit, they’re just football players that like being part of a team. Obviously, it’s professional football and players want to be paid for what they do and if they do a good job, they want to be paid a lot. I understand that. We all understand that and so do they, but they understand that sometimes being on a good team, being part of something special is something important too…They’re legitimately vested in trying to see the 49ers win. The organization treats people well and if you bring the right kind of people in, which we have, I think that’s reciprocated and so, it’s really a cool group of guys to work with.”
Culture is cultivated, but it can’t necessarily be taught. It has to come from the people in the building, in the locker room, on the field.
“People have to have that,” Shanahan said. “If you want to talk about it, I think you can make it stronger and make people believe in it more, but you have to have the right people to actually be that way for it to be real. I think just the way we practice, the way our guys compete all the time, I think the style we play with helps it, but it starts with the right people.”
Defensive lineman Arik Armstead was the 49ers’ 2016 first-round draft pick, meaning he was here pre-Lynch and Shanahan, and has been here through their tenure thus far.
“We love playing with one another,” Armstead said. “We have a lot of fun. Everybody’s happy for each other’s success. And we really don’t bring in a lot of guys who are the opposite of that, are self-centered, more focused on themselves. And they [Lynch and Shanahan] do a great job of who they bring in and add to our culture each year. And the main guys who’ve been here, kind of continue that culture each year.”
It has been clear since training camp that the 49ers have a goal, and everyone is crystal clear on what that goal is.
“The great thing about this building, everyone’s main goal is win a Super Bowl,” Kittle said. “And guys put aside stats, they don’t complain. If you get three targets in the game as opposed to 15, you’re going to go out there, you’re going to do your best every single Sunday…”
It’s a sentiment echoed by second-year offensive lineman Aaron Banks.
“We all want to win, we all want to win a Super Bowl,” Banks said. “When the cumulative goal is greater than one person’s goals or aspirations, that’s when the ego kind of starts to dwindle away. So I think that’s really what it is. We got guys who want to win. And we got guys who want to make it to the pinnacle of their sport and win a Super Bowl.”
“At the end of the day it’s not all about the stats and the receptions and touchdowns and sacks or whatever,” Purdy said. “Those things come and go…[T]his team, we have the goal of winning the whole thing and so, all those guys are doing what it takes in terms of they may not get a lot of catches this game, but they’re going to block their butt off for the guy running the ball and things like that, so definitely no ego and that’s across the board. It’s rare when you get a team like this with the amount of talent that we have and so you only get so many opportunities to win the whole thing and I think the guys in the locker room understand that.”
The 49ers take on the Washington Commanders at 1:05 pm PT on Christmas Eve. San Francisco has locked up the division, clinched a playoff spot and sit the No. 3 in the playoff standings. The best they can do is get to the second spot and they’ll need a little help. The Commanders are playing for their playoff lives. Chances are, the 49ers will play like they’re the in the same position as Washington.
“We’ve built a reputation this year,” Kittle said. “I think we’ve built it the last couple years. And I think guys are just going to continue to fly around, be violent, be physical, and continue to set the tone every single play.”
As a really good football coach once said, “The team. The team. The team.”