49ers' Ahkello Witherspoon explains why he asked to play special-teams

49ers' Ahkello Witherspoon explains why he asked to play special-teams

SANTA CLARA -- There was never a question in cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon’s mind what he would do next.

After he was benched in the first quarter of the 49ers’ divisional-round game against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday, Witherspoon sought out 49ers special-teams coordinator on the sideline at Levi’s Stadium.

“That’s the next job,” Witherspoon said on Wednesday. “When I’m not needed at the main job, then the next one is to go contribute on special teams.

“What’s the next job? It’s to go in and try to contribute to the team on special teams. I think all of the guys on this team have that mindset. It’s not about our individual accolades because there was a point when nobody cared about our individual accolades. That’s how I look at it. It’s all about contributing and trying to help this team win football games.”

Coach Kyle Shanahan declined to reveal who would start at right cornerback on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers, but Emmanuel Moseley would appear to be the likely choice after replacing Witherspoon in Week 17 at Seattle and again Saturday against the Minnesota Vikings in the 49ers' first playoff game.

Shanahan revealed this week that Witherspoon’s immediate reaction to his benching was to insist on taking over the thankless duties on special teams on punt and kickoff return. It was widely seen as an example of the selfless culture of the team that Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have built.

“I think we’ve been through it all with one another,” said Witherspoon, a third-round pick in 2017 from Colorado. “That’s the biggest thing. Some of the times I went through as a rookie were way worse than getting replaced in the divisional game by a guy you have a lot of faith in.

“When you’ve gone through those worse things, you know how to respond to things that aren’t really as bad. My teammate behind me is trying to help us go out and win a football game. And, so, you know how to handle that.”

The 49ers have a tight locker room, and Witherspoon said any number of players would have responded the same way.

“We play with love, and I think you see that on tape,” Witherspoon said. “You see that in the way people handle situations. I think it’s a testament to what Kyle and John have built here over the last few years and what we’ve gone together as a team.”

Witherspoon said he and Moseley have made each other better while competing for the same job. Moseley is in his second NFL season after signing with the 49ers last year as an undrafted rookie from Tennessee. Moseley started nine games in the regular season, taking over when Witherspoon missed more than a month early in the season with a foot sprain.

[RELATEDHow Ahkello Witherspoon exemplifies 49ers' tight-knit bond this season]

“We’ve been making each other better since OTA, which is something that people don’t see,” Witherspoon said. “It’s been a mutual, respectful, go-at-it. I love what he does, and he loves what I do. We pick each other’s brains.

“So for something like this to happen to me, isn’t that much of a shock. It’s more of a testament to the challenges I’ve put him through and what he’s put me through. It’s how we’ve made each other better for a long time now. So to see his play match that history, it’s no surprise to me.”

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 5:30 p.m.

NFL rumors: League seeks to add seventh playoff team in each conference

NFL rumors: League seeks to add seventh playoff team in each conference

The NFL’s playoff structure is expected to change to reportedly include seven teams in both conferences to advance to the postseason.

The current proposal, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, would add one playoff team in each conference and only the top seed in the AFC and NFC would be rewarded with byes in the first round of the playoffs.

The changes to the playoff format would take effect this season when the new collective bargaining agreement is ratified. ESPN reports there is “mounting optimism” the new CBA will be agreed upon within the week.

Through last season, the top six teams in both conferences made the playoffs. If the playoff proposal had been in effect last season, the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers would have advanced to the playoffs as the Nos. 7 seeds.

As the No. 1 seed in the NFC, the 49ers would have still earned a first-round bye in the playoffs. But the Green Bay Packers, the No. 2 seed, would have played in the extra game against the Rams. If the Rams were to have upset the Packers in the wild-card round, the 49ers would have played Los Angeles in the NFC Divisional Playoff instead of the Minnesota Vikings.

But the new proposal would have had an even more major impact in the AFC, where the Kansas City Chiefs would have been forced to win three games in the playoffs just to advance to the Super Bowl.

"That's been agreed to for a long time," one source familiar with the CBA talks told ESPN about the NFL's new playoff structure. "There wasn't a lot of disagreement to that issue."

[RELATED49ers roster analysis: More receiver depth needed around Deebo Samuel]

Players on the top team in each conference will receive postseason pay for the bye weekend, unlike years past, according to the report.

Also, ESPN reported that the sides are also trying to work through a proposal for a 17-game regular season, while the exhibition season is shortened to three games. The earliest that change could occur would be the 2021 season, according to the report.

Deebo Samuel pleas for 49ers to re-sign Emmanuel Sanders in free agency

Deebo Samuel pleas for 49ers to re-sign Emmanuel Sanders in free agency

Before the 49ers officially had lost Super Bowl LIV to the Kansas City Chiefs, tight end George Kittle was already preaching they would be back next year.

But it didn't stop with him.

49ers players throughout the roster already are thinking of everything they can do to make another run at it, and that includes bringing back free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

Fellow wideout Deebo Samuel made it clear Wednesday on Twitter that he wants to see the 49ers bring back the 32-year-old veteran.

Sanders showed his appreciation later Wednesday morning.

After coming over from the Denver Broncos via trade in October, Sanders excelled with the 49ers. He caught 36 passes for 502 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season, and added five receptions for 71 yards in the postseason.

But Sanders could have been an even more critical part of 49ers lore, had it not been for Jimmy Garoppolo's overthrown pass with less than two minutes remaining in Super Bowl LIV. But it was not meant to be.

Sanders has been open about his love for the team that had just barely missed the championship and has spoken out about those second-guessing him due to his age. 

The receiver laughed at the fact that he has been "flying past 23-year-olds," and exhorted that he still has plenty of good years left in him.

[RELATED: Sanders offers advice to teammates playing in first Super Bowl]

He also embraced the youth the other wide receivers brought to the team, such as Samuel and Kendrick Bourne. Sanders loved the loose vibes of the 49ers' locker room and assisted the younger players in prepping for the big moments of the Super Bowl. 

Deebo surely noticed that and knows he wants his teammate back for the team's quest to make another Super Bowl run next season.